Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 185

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was silent regarding the start of U.S. airstrikes against Afghanistan on Sunday night, offered strong words of support yesterday. In comments carried by Russian television, Putin described the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States as “monstrous,” and said that they had resulted in a “unity of humanity” that had severely cut the terrorists’ ability to maneuver. In a statement undoubtedly appreciated in Washington, Putin also said that he had no doubt that “the U.S. president and leadership are doing everything in their power so that the population of Afghanistan does not suffer” in the current round of air strikes.

Putin’s remarks, which came during a meeting with his cabinet, elicited some supportive words from Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. Vershbow was quoted yesterday as saying that Moscow was “vital for the success of the coalition against international terrorism.” He also thanked the Russians for their “multifaceted support.” Putin’s strong endorsement of the U.S. airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan followed the release on Sunday of a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry that offered the first official indication Moscow was lining up behind the U.S. and British military actions. Among other things, the Foreign Ministry statement described Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as an “international center of terrorism and extremism” and said that the time had come to take “decisive action” against this evil wherever it might be (see the Monitor, October 8).

But just as Sunday’s Foreign Ministry statement appeared to couple an endorsement of the current airstrikes with a more nuanced and conditional subtext that qualified somewhat Moscow’s support for the U.S.-led antiterror coalition, so Putin’s remarks yesterday also suggested that Moscow is continuing to keep its eye first and foremost on what it perceives to be its own national interests. The Russian president, for example, said that the terms of Russia’s participation in the U.S.-led antiterror war “would remain unchanged.” This suggests that, though Moscow is reportedly in the midst of preparing a large shipment of humanitarian aid to dislocated Afghans living near the border of Tajikistan, it is still not prepared to commit itself to military actions that would more directly support U.S. operations against Afghanistan. To date Russian support has included the opening of its territory to international humanitarian (but not military) flights in support of the antiterror drive, a readiness to supply increased weaponry to Northern Alliance groups fighting against Taliban forces and participation in future search and rescue operations that the coalition may need to undertake in Afghanistan (see following story). Russia has also stepped up intelligence sharing with the West and has declined (whether by choice or by necessity) to oppose cooperation between the coalition and the governments of Central Asia (see Central Asian stories in this issue).

Putin also continued yesterday to describe the U.S. antiterror campaign in terms consistent with the Russian argument that the West’s struggle against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden–and against international terrorism more generally–is but an extension of the war that Russia has long been waging in the Caucasus. This sort of formulation was apparent in Putin’s claim that the creation of a new antiterror coalition means that terrorists can no longer “maneuver between various centers of power, leaning first on one, then on another.” He likewise stated that “after the terrible tragedy of September 11 this year, mankind has matured.” That comment dovetailed with earlier Russian claims to the effect that the rest of the world is only now awakening to the terrorist threats of which Russia has long spoken, and to suggestions that the U.S.-constructed international antiterrorist coalition is in some sense an expansion of Russia’s own war against Chechen rebels (Reuters, AP, AFP, Interfax, October 8).

Meanwhile, the potential for a divergence of views between Russia and the United States on the key question of how broad the antiterror drive should be arose yesterday with the appearance of reports indicating that the United States has formally notified the UN Security Council that its attacks could extend beyond Afghanistan. European diplomats were quoted by Reuters as warning in this context that any attempt by the United States to target Iraq–as some U.S. officials and commentators have urged–could destroy the antiterror coalition and alienate European, Arab and Muslim states. Moscow, however, appeared last night at least to be withholding any immediate condemnation of the U.S. move. Russia’s UN ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, was quoted as saying only that Moscow would reserve judgment for the time being. He suggested that the Kremlin would react to proposals to widen the antiterror war only when the Bush administration winds up its investigation into who was responsible for the September 11 attacks and makes clearer what other countries it might consider targeting (Reuters, AP, October 8).

With the launching of this week’s military strikes on Afghanistan, meanwhile, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has apparently decided to curtail a planned visit to Moscow. Hoon had been scheduled to hold three days of talks with Russian officials on a visit that was to last from October 8 to October 10. As of last night, however, he was scheduled to arrive in Moscow earlier today and to depart in the evening, and to hold talks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Igor Sergeev, the former Russian defense minister who is now an aide to Putin. Earlier planned talks between Hoon and Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo have been canceled, as has a visit that Hoon was to have taken to St. Petersburg. Hoon’s visit is of some importance because, following only days after British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s own brief stop in the Russian capital, it is presumably intended to keep up the spirit of practical cooperation that has developed and grown over the past several weeks between Russia and the West (RIA, Interfax, October 8).