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The high price for Russia's help

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October 04, 2001

The Independent

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has stunned everyone with the extent of his support for the coalition against the Taliban. Anyone who remembers the Kremlin's tantrums over Nato's air war in Kosovo will wonder whether we are dealing with the same country.

At a summit with EU and Nato officials in Brussels, Mr Putin has promised the West more than its leaders dreamed of asking. He did not criticise a military campaign in Afghanistan and even promised to help it by supplying the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, granting the US use of Russian airspace and promising to persuade his clients in central Asia to follow suit.

Mr Putin's final flourish was to announce that Russia is dropping its years-long resistance to Nato's eastward expansion.

While some rejoicing may be in order, no one should imagine these bright Russian baubles come without a price tag. The small print in the deal is that the West appears to have abandoned its opposition to Russia's atrocious war against Chechen separatists. The horror of this conflict has been well documented. The Chechen capital Grozny been razed twice and thousands of civilians have been killed. Mr Putin did not inherit the latest round of this vicious conflict; he started it and it played a key role in his getting elected President.

Until now, this war has been a bone of contention between Russia and the West. But no longer. While Mr Putin always claimed it was a messy business hacking away at the many-headed serpent of Islamic fundamentalism, that argument did not cut much ice outside Russia. Now, when the Russian President reiterated his Chechens-are-Taliban thesis in Brussels, there was not a dissenting murmur.

Russia's support was always going to be important and now Pakistan is proving such a wobbly ally, it is crucial. If the US cannot attack the Taliban from Pakistan it must strike from the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan or Tajikistan, none of which will act without a green light from Moscow. If Uzbekistan turns out to be the key to unlocking Afghanistan, the sacrifice of Chechnya will be seen as a small price to pay. But we should have no illusions. The West has handed Mr Putin a powerful card: he is now to all practical purposes invulnerable to Western criticism. We have signed a Faustian pact, whose consequences will become apparent in the years to come.

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