Russia is providing intelligence and logistical support as the US-led military vise closes around the Taliban and its alleged terrorist allies in Afghanistan. But top Kremlin officials have categorically denied any direct involvement of Russian forces.
Still, the Moscow media and some popular international Internet sites have been sizzling with rumors that Russian military specialists disguised as "advisers" are already fighting alongside the Afghan Northern Alliance, and that Russian special forces have teamed up with US counterparts to hunt down Osama bin Laden.
"If there is a gap between official word and deed concerning these matters, the Russian government has good reasons for maintaining secrecy," says Irina Zvegelskaya, deputy director of the independent Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow. "Russian public opinion is in no way ready to hear that our people are fighting in Afghanistan."
Russia lost 14,000 troops in a futile war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Kremlin would have to weigh the domestic outcry against any repeat military involvement there against the threat that Islamic militants could gain a foothold in Russia through the former Soviet Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan.
President Vladimir Putin has committed Russia to share intelligence with the US, open air corridors for "humanitarian relief" to the war zone, provide fresh arms supplies to the Northern Alliance, and allow Russian servicemen to take part in non-combat "search and rescue" missions.
Experts say each of these pledges leaves the Kremlin enormous latitude in implementation. It may not be possible to fulfill some promises without the active penetration of Russian military forces into Afghanistan. For example, Russia began supplying some $45 million worth of Soviet-built T-55 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and munitions to the Northern Alliance last week.
Military expert Pavel Felgenhauer created a stir in Moscow by reporting that the materiel is being delivered by the Tajikistan-based Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which threw pontoon bridges across the Pyandzh River and established positions inside Afghanistan. He added that Russian troops and aviation were already fighting against Taliban forces to defend the bridgeheads.
That drew a sharp rebuke from Russia's Defense Ministry, which took the unusual step of responding directly: "The information about the moving of units of Russian armed forces into Afghanistan does not correspond to reality," said a spokesman.
Defending his story, Mr. Felgenhauer counters: "You can't supply tanks by air. There is a full-scale operation to control the supply lines, and about 2,000 Russian military personnel are involved. They have not penetrated far into Afghanistan, but in some places they are within 5 kilometers of Taliban positions, and there have been clashes."
Most experts agree that Russian military advisers are already inside Afghanistan, but no one can say how many or whether they are assisting the Northern Alliance in combat. Alexei Arbatov, deputy chair of the state Duma's Defense Committee, told the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week that inside Afghanistan "there are Russian weapons, along with instructors, advisers, and technical specialists who must ensure the proper functioning of the hardware and train troops of the Northern Alliance in their use."
If the hundreds of Western journalists in Afghanistan aren't seeing many Russians among the anti-Taliban troops, there may be a simple explanation. "Russia has the option of sending officers from the Tajikistan security forces to do this work," says retired Gen. Eduard Vorobyov, also a member of the Duma's Defense Committee. "They are the same ethnic group as the Northern Alliance troops." Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic, is a close Russian ally, and some 30,000 Russian troops are stationed there.
More doubtful is the claim, widely broadcast on the Internet, that Russian and US special forces may be working together inside Afghanistan. "This sounds like typical disinformation," says Oleg Necheporenko, a former Soviet KGB officer and director of the independent National Anti-Crime and Anti-Terrorism Foundation. "President Putin said this sort of thing is not happening, and so this story is probably aimed at besmirching his reputation."
Most of Russia's best forces are already committed to the ongoing war in Chechnya, says Duma security expert Yury Schekhoschekin. "We have very limited numbers of special troops, and they are already spread too thin," he says. But intelligence-sharing might be extended to training of US Special Forces by ex-Soviet veterans who know their way around Afghanistan. It may be no coincidence that the Russian Army's rapid-reaction force opened war games Saturday in the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan - a terrain similar to Afghanistan - along with other unspecified participants, the official ITAR-Tass agency reports.
Russia's Yeltsin-era Constitution forbids deployment of forces outside the country without parliament's consent.