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Monday, August 17, 2009

Could The Terrorist Attack In North Caucasus Region Lead To Greater U.S.-Russia Cooperation in Central Asia?

At the risk of sounding ghastly, could the terrorist attack in Russia's raucous North Caucasus region lead to greater bilateral collaboration between the Russian Federation and the United States? Russian and Iranian cooperation has long been considered as critical as Pakistani support in the Afghanistan war effort, but under the Bushies the Russian side of the equation evaporated.

A massive suicide bombing attack destroyed a police station in Nazran, Ingushetia, Russia today. From NYTimes:

"In response to the bombing, President Dmitri A. Medvedev fired Ingushetia’s interior minister and ordered the federal interior minister, Rashid G. Nurgaliyev, to increase the number of police forces in Ingushetia after the attack.

"'I suggest that this is not only the result of problems connected to terrorism, but also the result of unsatisfactory work by law enforcement agencies in the republic,' Mr. Medvedev said. 'This terror attack could have been prevented.”

"The statement appeared to criticize Mr. Yevkurov’s strategy on the militant threat. A former intelligence officer and a practicing Muslim, (Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, Ingushetia’s populist president) has reached out to opposition leaders as well as militant commanders in an attempt to ease the bubbling tensions in Ingushetia."

Could this be a catalyst to taking us past Russia's hemming-and hawing regarding support of the United States' effort in Afghanistan? The terrorist attack comes on the eve of this week's Afghani elections. The Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement Program has fortuitously released four papers -- two by Americans, two by Russians -- covering U.S./NATO-Russia cooperation on Afghanistan and Central Asia. In "Prospects for U.S.-Russia Cooperation in Central Asia," by Yuri Morozov, he writes:

"Afghanistan must be seen, not in isolation, but in a broader regional (Central Asian) context. This is true both in terms of the importance of the region (strategic location, energy resources) and of the formidable challenges (instability, economic reversals). Russia and the West both see advantages and interests to be protected (thus the recent competition for a military presence in the otherwise marginal Kyrgyzstan), but should avoid a new 'Great Game' of promoting self-interest over shared concerns."

Dick Cheney's strategically obtuse emphasis on "The Great Game" naturally put Russia-US relations at odds. As the last standing global superpower hunted, wolfishly, in Russia's backyard for natural resource dominance, they, naturally, did everything possible to stymie our progress in the region. Such is the psychology of nations (Which, curiously, wholly escapes those who worship solely at the altar of "Hard Power") It is not inconceivable that Cheney -- of the Cold Warriors -- might be generationally incapable to seeing Russia in the position of military ally in the War on Terror (or, for that matter, in any post-Cold War whatsoever). This terrorist attck presents an unfortunate opportunity for increased military exchanges between the Russian Federation and the United States, as well as for an expansion of discussions on future operational coordination from counter terrorism to peacekeeping. It would also provide Russia closure on its humuliating defeat in Afghanistan.

"Summer," writes Roland Oliphant in Russia Profile, "is the traditional fighting season in the North Caucasus, but this year has been particularly bloody." From Russia Profile:

"The attack in Nazran caps a bloody several days in Russia’s North Caucasus. On Friday, gunmen murdered four policemen and seven women in the town of Buinaksk in Dagestan. On Wednesday, the Ingush construction minister was shot dead in his office. And today’s attack was at least the third suicide bombing since the attack on Ingush President Yunnus-bek Yevkurov’s motorcade on June 22 (the other, involving a bomber on foot, killed five senior police officers in the Chechen capital Grozny on July 26). And this is only a small sample.

"For a few years the insurgency in the North Caucasus seemed to be on its last legs. The relative increase in violence in Ingushetia was seen as a symptom of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s success in crushing the rebels in Chechnya. Kadyrov himself would make regular statements about how few rebels still held out in the forests and mountains. If the rebels could be pushed from Chechnya to Ingushetia, presumably they could be crushed.

"But somehow that has not happened, and it is not clear why. The former-rebel president’s outlandishly brutal approach to counter-insurgency, and the Kremlin’s willingness to overlook it, could be to blame.

"... The official Russian line as that many of these 'sponsored' fighters come from abroad, mostly from the same countries Western governments blame for supplying Islamic extremists - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. It is certainly true that the surge in violence this summer, especially the suicide attacks, have given news from the North Caucasus a similar flavor to the one the world has become accustomed to hearing from Iraq and Afghanistan.

NATO has been "wooing" Russia towards greater cooperation in Afghanistan for some time now. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a "greater unity of purpose". The Bush administration's heavy handedness led to a freeze in contacts over the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Of course, any military cooperation in Afghanistan between the U.S. and the Russian Federation ought to be conducted carefully. The former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979 and fought there until 1989. Russian presence on Afghani soil allied to American could very well rekindle bitter memories and undo the progress we have made with warlords and "the good Taliban." And Russia and NATO naturally have border issues -- particularly regarding Ukraine -- which need to be hammered out (Kiev is 474 miles from Moscow). Already, though, Russia -- in a marked break from their Bush administration stance -- has allowed overflights carrying troops and military supplies to Afghanistan over Russian airspace.

The New York Times' Clifford Levy summed things up nicely in July:

"the Russians seem torn over the American venture in Afghanistan. They understand that failure could threaten even Russia, which has grappled with Islamic extremism in its south, so they have allowed American military goods to flow across Russia. The Kremlin also can sympathize with Washington’s plight, given painful memories of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.

"Still, the Kremlin fears that the United States is setting down lasting roots in Central Asia."

The reset button has been pushed. This unfortunate terrorist attack has occurred. Will the Obama administration take the opportunity to extend the olive branch to Russia in order to get closer to stabilizing Afghanistan?

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