Support From Russia, Ex-Republics Uncertain

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Almost a decade after the end of the Cold War, meaningful Russian cooperation in a U.S-led anti-terrorism coalition could prove the best salve for old wounds and the beginning of a much stronger diplomatic relationship, according to some experts.

There's no question Russia, with its long history of involvement in Central Asia, and the former Soviet republics that share borders with Afghanistan could offer a key geo-strategic edge the U.S. requires if it chooses to launch sustained air- and ground-based missions against Usama bin Laden and his allies in the region.

But experts also warn Russia cannot be considered a guaranteed ally in any such operation. The Soviet Union suffered a devastating defeat by Afghan guerrillas during a savage eight-year struggle in the 1980s, and has kept unsteady relations with predominantly Muslim nations in the region since they achieved independence in the 1990s.

Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly joined other world leaders in condemning last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But he has not yet committed his country to any significant role in a U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, should that become necessary.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Wednesday told President Bush his country "is in full solidarity with the American people" at this moment, but did not detail the extent of that unity in the U.S. preparation for war.

"It's a very interesting situation. Potentially it could really move our relationship with Russia in an entirely different direction," offered Leon Aron, director of Russian studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.

Russia is no stranger to terrorist attacks from Muslim movements, even those connected to bin Laden's Al-Qaida militant Islamic movement, which the U.S. believes is responsible for last week's attacks and is harbored in Afghanistan.

Almost two years ago to the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, two apartment buildings in Moscow were blown up by Chechen rebels. The Chechen separatist movement, on which the United States has taken no official position, has reportedly received both money and manpower from bin Laden, according to the Russians.

Former Soviet states Uzbekistan and Tajikistan border Afghanistan from the north and still deal with a strong Russian presence, including still-operational bases that U.S. and coalition forces could use for strategic air strikes and troop mobilization.

The Russians also still occupy an airbase in northern Afghanistan, an area currently controlled by the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's main opposition. Gen. Ahmed Shah Masood, who led the Northern Alliance before his assassination by the Taliban last weekend, was a Tajik who worked closely with Russian counterparts on both sides of the borders, say experts.

Some experts believe Russia has strong incentive to join the coalition effort, despite its troubled history in Afghanistan.

"Clearly there is a great deal of commonality. Like us, they have no qualms about infiltrating the Taliban," said Aron. With those two bordering countries (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) at their disposal, U.S. forces would "be much more comfortable than operating through Pakistan."

Putin could also ask for more U.S. financial assistance in exchange for allowing use of Russian air space and military bases. Stabilizing the region could also help Russia secure its tenuous position in Chechnya.

But there are certainly obstacles.

There is still "a strong anti-American sense in the Russian military ranks," conceded Aron, particularly those who remember the Cold War, that has kept Russia from making a stronger statement in support of the U.S.

According to news reports, the debate over Russia's role within the coalition has intensified within the Kremlin. Some Russian leaders are said to favor more involvement with the U.S., while others have reportedly called for a United Nations- rather than U.S-led effort.

Officials from Uzbekistan, which immediately after the attacks suggested it would accept a U.S. force on its soil, has since backed away from any commitment, according to The Washington Times. The paper also reports Russian Military Chief Anatoly Kvashnin said this week his country has ruled out any NATO-led military strikes from its Central Asia zone of influence.

But like all of its former foes and tentative friends, the U.S. must be wary of making deals that will compromise its policy in the future, say experts.

For example, in exchange for its cooperation, Russia may request the White House relax its proposal for the anti-ballistic missile system, which Russians say would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Or, they may ask the U.S. to help stop the expansion of NATO.

U.S Navy Rear Admiral Stephen H. Baker, senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information, said the U.S. has to establish which country is going to be a "team player" in good faith, and determine what is fair for both sides in negotiations. That will more or less include demands from potential allies like Russia.

"Everyone will have an agenda," he said.

Tomorrow: NATO and the Western alliance