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Before Sept. 11, Moscow was faced with a U.S. administration that was increasingly unconcerned with Russia’s strategic interests. Now America’s efforts to combat terrorism are creating an environment that will help Russia refashion its domestic security and international image while extending its sphere of influence.
The events of Sept. 11 have awakened an angry activism within America’s foreign policy. The U.S. campaign against Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network is taking multiple forms: the break up of terrorist cells the world over, the shutting down of money-laundering centers and the pursuit of bin Laden and the countries that shelter him.
All of these features create opportunities for Russia. If Russian President Vladimir Putin plays his cards right, he can simultaneously mitigate a domestic insurrection, rehabilitate Russia in the eyes of the West and secure long-term control of Central Asia.
The most immediate benefits Moscow can gain by cooperating with Washington would come in its fight against Chechen rebels. America and its allies are rooting out terrorist cells across the world, and Russia will have no problem assisting in this respect. The Kremlin keeps a wary eye on Russia’s 20 million Muslims, and increasing the Interior Ministry’s powers of investigation has been a developing government aim.
But in the Russian mind, the largest terrorist “cell” in the country is the Chechen republic. Russian authorities have long insisted that there are links between Middle Eastern militants and Chechnya, with some of these links allegedly pointing to al-Qaida. It helps Russia’s case that Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime, bin Laden’s current host, was the only state entity to recognize Chechnya’s declaration of independence last year.
Regardless of whether Washington believes Moscow’s claims, U.S. statements regarding Chechnya have become at best muted since Sept. 11. It is highly probable that Washington will continue this response and perhaps even recommend that allies such as Turkey stop backing the Chechens. If Moscow can convince Washington of the bin Laden connection, American intelligence on Chechnya would also quickly begin flowing Moscow’s way.
America’s next major push is to close money-laundering centers and deny terrorists access to funding, another feature that Russia can assist with to both domestic and international acclaim.
The targets for Moscow would be its oligarchs, the economic elite that profited from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Boris Berezovsky, until recently the most powerful of these oligarchs, has long been accused of having links to the Chechens. Some media have charged him with supplying Shamil Baseyev, a notorious Chechen warlord, with funding just before the 1998 war with Russia began.
Ever since Putin came to power, he has battled the oligarchs for control of the country’s finances, media assets and industrial base. The prospect of using U.S. assistance and legitimacy to nail his most vocal critic, by demonstrating even the most tenuous of links to bin Laden, must be tantalizing for Putin. And since the oligarchs have smuggled billions out of Russia, the new international effort against money-laundering also gives Moscow the world’s stamp of approval in its efforts to eviscerate the oligarchs’ financial holdings.
There are additional benefits to cooperating with Washington. For the past two years, Russia has been on the global blacklist for money laundering, partially because of the oligarchs’ shady financial dealings. Were Russia to truly cooperate with American investigations, it could not only purge some of the oligarchs but also clear Russia from the list. That would open the country to direly needed foreign investment from corporate and multilateral sources.
But nowhere are Russia’s opportunities more tantalizing than in Central Asia. The region has numerous mineral resources, and Russia wants to control an otherwise porous border with the volatile Middle East.
Moscow’s prominence in the region is but a pale shadow of what it was before the Soviet collapse. Prior to 1992, Russia directly controlled all five of the Central Asian republics. Now it only has a rather toothless security agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Possible U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, therefore, provide Moscow with a rare opportunity. The United States needs a location from which to launch air strikes and support special forces. For reasons of operational security, Uzbekistan is quickly sizing up to be the most feasible option.
Uzbekistan has the necessary infrastructure such as air bases in place, is very close to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and has no Russian military presence in its territory. There are reports from the BBC and the Russian press that American forces are already building up in eastern Uzbekistan.
America’s choice of Uzbekistan, the most stable and anti-Russian country in the region, as a staging ground does not on the surface bode well for Russia’s plans of regional domination. But Moscow retains the upper hand, and America’s brief association with Uzbekistan will actually speed Russia’s regional resurgence.
The key is proximity. Any U.S. forces in Uzbekistan will be dependent on air supply lines more than 2,000 miles long, so for geographic and practical reasons, the United States cannot field more than an assortment of special forces teams there. Russia, meanwhile, has forces permanently stationed in Tajikistan next door and on Aug. 24 announced its full political, military and financial support for the Northern Alliance. If the United States truly wants to take out the Taliban, it will need ground forces, and that requires close Russian collaboration.
The game plan would look something like this: Russia will dramatically increase its support to the Northern Alliance, including probably a few dozen airdrops of heavy equipment and artillery support from Russian forces in Tajikistan.
Meanwhile the United States will use its special forces to disrupt Taliban supply lines and intelligence assets, as American airpower grants the Northern Alliance continual air superiority. With both America and Russia working to disrupt Taliban intelligence, while funneling their own intelligence to the Northern Alliance, the balance of forces within the country should shift decisively.
If the pro-Russian Northern Alliance displaces the Taliban, the United States will have completed its mission and will have no reason to maintain a costly presence in Uzbekistan, one of the most isolated countries on the planet. When the Americans vacate, they will leave Uzbekistan surrounded by states dependent on Russia for their security. So encircled, the brittle Uzbek regime will not last, and Russia stands to win the region.
There are risks of course. Moscow’s last period of Central Asian rulership was hardly pleasant, and siding solidly with the United States against al-Qaida is sure to make Russia a long-term target for Muslim extremists. Unlike America’s forces, Russia’s lack the advantage of going to another continent once the operations end. But by joining America’s crusade, Moscow can at the very least secure nominal control over the entire region, and that’s a far better situation than Russia is in now.