Russia demonstrated anew its solidarity with the American-led antiterrorism coalition when its government voiced clear support for yesterday’s U.S. and British air strikes against targets in Afghanistan. Russia’s heightened participation in the Western-based terrorist alliance, moreover, was also highlighted by U.S. President George W. Bush’s telephone call to President Vladimir Putin just before the start of the strikes, and by a brief meeting between Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Moscow on the evening of October 4. The British leader, who has been among the most eloquent and forceful supporters of the antiterror drive, traveled to the Russian capital as part of a lightning three-country tour that also saw him hold talks in Pakistan and India. All three countries–and Russia and Pakistan in particular–have been seen as key participants in the U.S. antiterrorism campaign, and Blair’s visits were intended to shore up the support of their governments on the eve of the military strikes.
Russia expressed its official backing for yesterday’s U.S.-British military actions in a two-page statement released to the public by the country’s Foreign Ministry. The statement, which was read out on national television, described Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as an “international center of terrorism and extremism.” It also stated that the “international community is united that the threat to international peace and security created by terrorist actions must be countered by all means–in accordance with the charter of the United Nations.” The statement went on to say that “It is time for decisive action with this evil. Terrorists wherever they are–in Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Middle East or the Balkans–should know that they will be taken to justice.”
The wording used in the Foreign Ministry statement was interesting because it demonstrated how the Russian government continues to shape and qualify its political support for the U.S. antiterror drive. That is, while Moscow is apparently prepared to back U.S. strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan–no surprise given its own sad experiences in that country–its enlistment in the broader U.S. antiterror campaign would appear to be more nuanced and conditional. For example, Russian officials continue to press, as the Foreign Ministry statement suggests, for the UN to play a strong role in any future international effort to root out terrorism, a position that could eventually bring Moscow into conflict with the Bush administration. The Russian attempt to link Afghanistan-based terrorism with hostilities that have taken place over the past decade in the Caucasus and the Balkans (the reference in the Foreign Ministry statement to terrorism in the Middle East is less clear) also suggests how Moscow hopes to bend the gathering antiterrorist drive to its own diplomatic goals in these regions. Moscow has consistently argued that its war in Chechnya is part of a broader battle against international terrorism, and has recently won some backing from the West for that claim. Moscow seems likewise to be seeking to link the activities of Albanian separatist forces in Kosovo and Macedonia to Osama bin Laden and international terrorism, and thereby to curry favor with the governments in Belgrade and Skopje–and increase its own influence in the Balkans.
Meanwhile, the Russian government and some media sources appeared to be gratified yesterday by the fact that Bush had phoned Putin just prior to the start of the air raids on Afghanistan, and to have interpreted the call as another sign of increased Russian-U.S. cooperation. According to the Kremlin-connected Strana.ru website, the phone call prompted Putin to summon Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin and Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev for immediate consultations. Moreover, in the course of those consultations, or just after them, Putin received another phone call, this one from British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The British leader reportedly provided Putin with information about the course of the air operations. It was at roughly the same time that the Foreign Ministry released its statement expressing support for the U.S.-British actions. Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko went on the air to inform Russian television viewers that contacts between Russia and the United States had been especially tight over the preceding hours. All of this left no doubt, the Strana.ru report said, “that America and its closest NATO partners now accept Russia as a full partner.” The close contacts also permitted Russia to take necessary security measures both on its southern border and around the country, the report said (Reuters, AP, Strana.ru, October 7).
The perception that Moscow’s relations with the West have improved radically also dominated coverage of Tony Blair’s brief and hastily arranged October 4-5 visit to Russia. Blair used the visit both to praise Putin for his support of the antiterror coalition and, reportedly, to seek fresh assurances that U.S. and British military forces would have access to the former Soviet republics that border Afghanistan. Putin, for his part, appeared to expand on earlier remarks in support of the coalition by saying that their aim was to neutralize terrorism. He also said that any deaths of innocent Afghanistan citizens in the war against terrorism would be the fault of the Taliban. “It is clear that terrorists have made the Afghan people hostages,” he was quoted as saying. Putin also linked Russia’s war in Chechnya once again to the international antiterrorist campaign and intimated–also not for the first time–that the West has been late in coming to appreciate the nature of Moscow’s problems in Chechnya. He also hinted, as he has done at least once in the recent past, that Moscow might be prepared to expand its practical cooperation with the U.S.-led antiterrorist coalition, but that this “depended on the attitudes of other countries.” He was presumably referring to the possibility that the West might offer Russia additional inducements for wider cooperation from Moscow.
Putin also used Blair’s visit to praise both the British prime minister and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for what he suggested was their role in making European policies toward Moscow more benign. Putin was probably referring most particularly to the West’s new acceptance of Russian actions in Chechnya, but he seems likely also to have been commenting favorably on recent improvements in relations between Russia and Europe more generally. Blair has long pushed for closer British-Russian relations, while Schroeder, who has promoted German-Russian bilateral ties in a similar fashion, appears also to have played an important role in last week’s successful summit between Russia and the European Union (The Guardian, October 4-5; AFP, Izvestia, October 5; see also the Monitor, October 5).
CHECHEN REBELS RAID ACHKOI-MARTAN.