Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russian Protection

The Kremlin is warning Central Asian states that only Russia can be relied upon to protect them from Islamic radicalism.

Moscow has threatened to launch air-strikes against Afghanistan in a war of words which seems part of an attempt by new Russian president Vladimir Putin to reassert Moscow's influence in Central Asia.

Presidential aid, Sergey Yastrzhembsky, announced on May 22 that Russia was considering attacking areas where the Taleban is alleged to have provided training camps for Chechens and Central Asian militants.

Meanwhile, the Taleban movement has protested to the United Nations over the alleged violation of its air space by Uzbek planes. Tashkent denies the claims. It suspects the Taleban authorities of helping members of the self-proclaimed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan , IMU, whose goal is the creation of an Islamic state.

An IMU leader, Takhir Yuldash, fled to Afghanistan after an unsuccessful rebellion at the beginning of 1990s. His close associate Juma Namangani is hiding with his followers in mountains on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. They are accused of masterminding a series of bombings in Uzbekistan.

Tashkent also accuses them of close links with the Taleban, claiming both parties are benefiting from the drugs trade, by using Central Asia as a transit route to ship narcotics to Russia and from there to western Europe.

There could also be a regional political explanation for the recent anti-Taleban statements by high-ranking Russian officials. Many experts note that under Vladimir Putin, Russia is trying to reclaim its leading role in the region, which is hotly contested by the US.

Both countries are keen to have a share in the developing energy resources of the Central Asian republics. The Kremlin may now be trying to tell countries in the region that only Russia can be relied on to protect them from Islamic radicalism.

Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, has openly acknowledged that faced with an extremist Muslim threat, his country needs reliable allies. He has also publicly acknowledged that he cannot count on the West when it comes to defending Uzbekistan.

Russian politicians also realise that despite America's official interest in Central Asia, Washington does not want to be dragged into another conflict zone. Thus on the eve of the Clinton's visit to Moscow on June 3-5, the Kremlin is seeking to publicly identify Central Asia as its own zone of geo-strategic influence.

The logic runs that if the US can bomb suspected Afghan bases by targeting Osama bin Laden, then there is no reason why Russia shouldn't attack military camps in Afghanistan alleged to be training Chechen fighters.

In response to the air-strike threat, the Taleban sent warnings to its Central Asian neighbours saying that responsibility for any attacks "will rest with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan".

The threat posed by armed Islamic groups in Central Asia pushed Tashkent, which only last year announced that it would not renew its membership of the CIS security pact, to seek Russian military protection.

Nevertherless, the Uzbek president dismissed reports of Russia sending its special Alpha forces to allied countries, "We do not need foreign soldiers to fight for us, the only thing we need from Russia is arms." Karimov also tried to downplay Yastrzhembsky's air-strikes as a "test" aimed at warning the Taleban that their support for Islamic groups will not be tolerated.

For now, Moscow's threats appear to be little more than sabre-rattling. After his initially bullish statements, the head of the Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, is now hinting that anti-Taleban measures need not be of a military nature. The Taleban can be pressured economically and politically, he said.

It may be that Moscow's warnings were intended to prepare the ground for possible future military involvement in a coalition of anti-Taleban forces known as the Northern Alliance.

So far, Russian has abided by UN sanctions banning the supply of arms to the warring factions in Afghanistan, but it seems that Moscow has now decided to back the coalition, led by Ahmed Shah Masood. He, in turn, refused to support Taleban's latest appeal to all armed groups in Afghanistan to unite in the face of a new Russian threat.

Any attempt by Moscow to back armed factions within Afghanistan could backfire. Groups suspected of coming under the influence of foreign powers are likely to lose the support of other Afghans. A recent statement from Gulbeddin Khekmatiar, the leader of the Mujaheddin who fought Soviet troops from1979-1989, says it all - Afghans who ask for help from the very power which expelled Khekmatiar's fighters from the country could bring about a tragedy.

Arkady Dubnov is a journalist with Vremya MN newspaper in Moscow.

More IWPR's Global Voices