President George W. Bush is being warned by national security advisors that in the wake of last week’s hostage siege on a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels, Russia will likely rush headlong into military action against terrorist cells, without waiting for the U.S. to commence its war against Iraq, DEBKA–Net-Weekly has learned.
Our Washington sources report that Bush was hurriedly briefed by research teams attached to the staffs of Vice President Richard Cheney and the National Security Council on the unforeseen repercussions of a Russian military response against terrorists. The experts rated as high the risk that Russians would soon plunge into military action against one or more terrorist enclaves, possibly in Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, or Arabia.
In a meeting with government members on Monday, Putin declared world war on terror, pledging to hunt its ideological instigators and financial backers “wherever they may be located.” He also gave his military new, broader powers to combat Chechen terrorism within Russia’s own borders. The Chechen guerillas are closely tied to Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab world, notably Saudis and al Qaeda factions.
While Bush has longed praised his Russian counterpart’s support of the U.S. campaign against global terrorism, a stepped-up response by Moscow to the Chechen siege would certainly complicate U.S. strategic goals, particularly if the response occurred in the Arabian Peninsula.
Any precipitate Russian operations in this sensitive region would surely be bad news for Bush. It would weaken his case for war against Saddam Hussein by exposing to the American people and the world the urgency of dealing with already realized terrorist threats in the Gulf and Middle East, instead of what many still see as the uncertain menace posed by the Iraqi ruler.
In their position papers, the White House researchers raised three possible Russian courses of action:
1) A broad-based Russian military operation in the Ferghana Valley that lies across China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where various radical Islamic al Qaeda affiliate groups, including even Chinese Islamists, have established bases.
In the north, some 250 al Qaeda Arab fugitives from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt, have found sanctuary. A Russian assault to root out these bases could gain Moscow a permanent foothold for its special forces in this strategically fertile valley of Central Asia. This would disturb the strategic balance the United States has achieved since the Afghan War by establishing military bases in Kyrgyzstan (a US special forces presence), in Turkmenistan (bases), in Georgia (air and special forces facilities in the military section of Tbilisi international airport), in Uzbekistan (air bases) and in Tajikistan (air and special forces bases).
It would also affect projected American plans for Caspian oil and gas development. The big new Trans-Asian pipeline to link the Caspian to Afghanistan would need to traverse the Ferghana Valley. By dominating the valley militarily, the Russians would also control a vital segment of the pipeline.
2) As the by-product of an all-out operation against the al Qaeda – the “ideological instigators” and “financial backers” of Chechen and other terrorists – Moscow could also thrust a military foot through the door to the Persian Gulf and Arabia.
U.S. intelligence already suspects that Russian undercover agents in the Gulf region have tracked the 200 missing Algerian Armed Group fighters, who are Osama bin Laden’s most hardened and professional terrorist contingent. The Americans badly want these Algerians. Both U.S. and Russian intelligence believe they have been assigned to launch a crushing terrorist attack inside the United States – or against key American targets abroad – as soon as the war against Iraq begins. Thus far, the Americans have discovered only one GIA member in Lebanon.
The likelihood of a Russian anti-terror strike in the Persian Gulf and Arabia gains credence from the information reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources that on Putin’s orders, Russia military intelligence Spetsnaz units have been training for some time for extra-territorial action. The units are furnished with a squadron of huge Antonov-124 Ruslans, some of which can transport helicopters and Spetsnaz special vehicles.
In the last two weeks, Russian representatives are secretly bidding for landing and refueling rights in the air force bases of certain Horn of Africa and Middle East countries, DEBKA–Net-Weekly sources report. In at least two of these countries, Moscow wants to rent permanent facilities for its giant transports to land and take off without restrictions.
Moscow may well take advantage of a military success to retain troop strength in the Arabian Peninsula region on the pretext of keeping up the pressure to root out terror bases. Russian military and intelligence could thus well ensconce themselves firmly at points uncomfortably close to the American-Iraqi war theatre.
3) Russia could land special forces troops in northern Iraq to tackle the 200-250 al Qaeda operatives based in the extremist Muslim Kurdish bastions of Bayara and Tawilla.
Some troops already arrived in these mountain districts recently from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, the Ferghana Valley and Iran. Military sources, including DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts, note that northern Kurdistan is within range of Russian aircraft based in southern Russia and Central Asia. Iran is unlikely to refuse them fly-over permission in view of its interest in preventing American and Turkish special forces from achieving dominance over this region.
This third potential site for a Russian military foothold is but 250 km from Iraq’s northern oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Russian military, if located there, would be in a position to upset American post-war plans (revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly five months ago) to set up a loose federal republic in Iraq with autonomous Kurdish and Turkmen regions in the north.
The White House research teams made three more points to the President:
a) By employing a knock-out opiate gas to end the Chechen siege, the Russians in effect opened the international terrorist warfront to chemical weapons. Whether or not the gas was legal will not matter to al Qaeda and its ilk, who will claim that the use of toxic substances is now fair game. In early 2001, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported that Bin Laden’s network possesses chemical and nuclear capabilities. It is still unclear whether this arsenal extends to the biological option.
b) Putin’s full-scale assault on international terror may serve to let him off the hook with his army, his intelligence community, and his people, many of whom object fiercely to his lining up with Bush on the Iraq War. Keeping them distracted with fighting the rebels in Chechnya and neighboring Georgia and Ostia – as well as military ventures outside Russia – may leave the Russian president a freer hand in the political and diplomatic domains, strengthening Moscow’s hand and Putin’s stature at home.
c) It will take many years before international terrorism is vanquished, even after an American ouster of Saddam Hussein. At present, four world nations, with large armies and strong intelligence agencies, are fighting terrorism – two, the U.S. and Russia, are waging a global war, while the other two, India and Israel, are caught up in regional conflicts. The ongoing war on terror promises to shape new world blocs which are beginning to emerge: a central anti-terror alliance comprising the US, Russia, India and Israel, opposite the European Union and the Arab world, with China seeking a neutral role.
The White House researchers forewarned Bush and Cheney very soon after the Chechen terrorists seized the Moscow theatre hall that Putin would not hesitate to break the hostage-takers with every means at his disposal, irrespective of any loss of life. The Russians, they noted, were opportunists with a penchant for surprises as they demonstrated strikingly in another conflict.
On July 11, 12, 1999, Russian Spetsnaz units serving in the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia raced across Yugoslavia to seize Kosovo’s Pristina airport and set up a Russian ground-air base at the exact spot assigned for the main American military facility in the southern Balkans. No sooner was the airport in Russian hands, when giant Antonovs arrived with the equipment for a Russian early warning station.
With at least 117 already dead in the heart of Moscow, Putin seems poised to use the tragedy at the theatre as a springboard to stage confrontations of an even more dramatic nature.
In competitive mode, he is determined to outdo Washington in the boldness of his counter-terror ventures and prove Russian Spetsnaz is as good as American commandos over long-distance action.