Edward Epstein: Hundreds of Russians have arrived in Kabul

Hundreds of armed Russians have landed in Kabul on what Moscow says is a humanitarian mission, but the move apparently was a surprise to the United States, which fears that Russian meddling in Afghanistan could upset efforts to stabilize the country.

The contingent of Russians, from the country's Ministry of Emergency Situations, appeared in the Afghan capital this week. Their mission is to dispense humanitarian supplies, operate a field hospital and start rebuilding the old Soviet Embassy, Russian officials said.

But the sight of Russians carrying weapons in Kabul stirred memories of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union waged a brutal and unsuccessful campaign to conquer Afghanistan, and of the "Great Game," the Russian effort dating back to czarist times to play a major role in a country that is a Central Asian crossroads.

At the very least, analysts said, the move is an attempt by Moscow to remind the Bush administration and others that it is a power to be reckoned with in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, this week and urged him not to do anything to upset efforts to produce a stable Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported.

Yesterday, Powell played down any discord between the United States and Russia, which have cooperated closely in the war on terrorism.

"I'm not concerned," Powell said. "We've been in close touch as to what they are doing.

"The word 'troops' isn't even all that accurate," Powell said of the Russians. "Many of them are the equivalent of our FEMA, our Federal Emergency Management Agency."


Analysts said it was no coincidence that Moscow had sent a contingent just as talks began in Bonn on creating a post-Taliban government. Russia recognizes Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani as the country's president, and hasn't given any indication that it wants to see him replaced by a new coalition government, said Michael McFaul, a Russia expert on the faculty of Stanford University.

"This could be a signal to the Bonn talks," McFaul said. "There is no high- level Russian presence there, and that's bizarre."

The Russians have long supported Rabbani, president of Afghanistan until the Taliban ousted his regime five years ago.

Another analyst, Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Moscow's deployment in Kabul could be an attempt by hard-line elements in Russia's security apparatus to reassert themselves in the face of President Vladimir Putin's overt friendliness with Washington.

Or it could be an effort to boost Rabbani, she said. In the Bonn talks yesterday, delegates worked to compile a list of members for an assembly that would govern Afghanistan through the winter.

Most assembly members will come from Rabbani's group or from among backers of former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah.

A third analyst, Andrew Hess of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said the possibility that Washington was caught off-guard by the Russian move showed that U.S. policymakers were still novices when it comes to Central Asia.

"It's amazing to me how many people in the American government haven't read the history of this part of the world," Hess said.

He said Moscow felt it had to get involved again in Afghanistan because it was afraid Islamic fundamentalism could be exported to Russia and the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

"Russia wants to make sure we don't leave and Afghanistan becomes another mess," Hess said. "It represents an area of instability for them."


This isn't the first time post-communist Russia has made a lightning appearance in the middle of an international crisis. In 1999, Russian forces suddenly flew into the airport in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, as U.S.-led forces were trying to bring peace to that troubled region of the former Yugoslavia.

Some Clinton administration officials wanted to eject the Russians by force,

but cooler heads prevailed.

For Russia, Mendelson said, the strategy was a success.

"It inserted them into the situation, and they got a say in the postwar settlement," she said.

San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/11/30/MN178844.DTL