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U.S. And Russia: How Friendly?

The Bush Administration is forging an international coalition according to stringent guidelines. "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make," President Bush said in his September 20 television address. "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

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In his own address to the nation September 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated Russia's willingness to work closely with the United States in the anti-terrorism offensive. Clearly, this is welcome news to the United States, which wants as many countries as possible to ally with it against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. But other countries have their own agendas. They may demand a very high price from the United States in return for their cooperation. In the case of Russia in particular, the cost may be way too high.

It is clear that Russia expects a free hand to crush separatists in Chechnya. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said, "Afghanistan and Chechnya are two branches of the same tree," the RIA-Novosti News Agency reported September 24. For the United States, acquiescence to Russian expectations-especially an escalation of Russian military action in Chechnya-would be a big mistake.

It is fairly well known in the United States how Moscow has waged two savage wars against Chechens to prevent them from seceding from the Russian Federation. The first war (1994-96) ended with a Russian military withdrawal and an agreement to settle the question in 2001. The second war began in 1999 and has continued up to the present. The Putin Administration has made it clear that Russia has no intention of withdrawing from Chechnya, no matter what the wishes of its inhabitants.

What is less well known is that the plight of the Chechens has become a highly emotional cause in some of the moderate Arab countries with close ties to the United States -especially Saudi Arabia. During a visit I made to Riyadh this past May, several Saudi officials and scholars, as well as Western diplomats, described to me how various Islamic foundation based in the Kingdom (as well as many Saudi citizens) have donated a considerable amount of money to the Chechens.

So much Saudi money has gone to the Chechens that several high level Russian officials have publicly accused Saudi-based foundations, such as Al Haramein, of financing the Chechen rebels. One Russian general even claimed that Saudi funding for them is the main reason why the Chechen rebels are able to continue the fight.

The Saudis I spoke to hotly deny this, claiming that they only fund refugees. The Chechen continue to fight, they insist, because the Russians are oppressing them so viciously. Western observers note that even if Saudi money is intended for refugees, refugees can always become rebels.

The popularity of the Chechen cause with the Saudi public has also benefited the Saudi government. The Chechens are an oppressed Muslim group whose suffering is not due to American policy. As a result, sympathy for the Chechens does not call into question Riyadh's close relations with Washington. This is in stark contrast, of course, to the plight of the Palestinians, which the Saudis (like other Muslims) hold the United States partly responsible, due to its support for Israel.

Because of the Saudi public's sympathy for the Chechens, American support for (or even the appearance of support for) an escalation of Russia's military campaign against them could seriously undermine President Bush's claim in his September 20 speech that America's enemy is not the Muslims or the Arabs, but just the terrorists and their supporters.

If America is going to enlist the support of the Arab and Muslim world against the terrorists and their supporters, Washington will have to convince them that this message is really true. If it does not, the moderate Muslim and Arab governments-including even the Saudi government-could be de-legitimized and destabilized. This is something Washington cannot afford to see happen.

Supporting the Russian suppression of the Chechens just to ensure Moscow's cooperation in a struggle against terrorism is not worth this risk. Indeed, America's interests would be much better served through urging Moscow to end its military campaign in Chechnya and negotiate a peaceful settlement to the conflict there.

Unfortunately, the Russians are not likely to take this course of action, but appear determined to continue fighting in Chechnya. If American support for their military campaign is the price they demand for their assistance in a fight with bin Laden, then Russia is one ally the United States cannot afford.

Material Courtesy Of Eurasianet; written by correspondent Mark Katz. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University

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