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Russian support could change relations with U.S.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer of broad support for the U.S.-led fight against terrorism could signal he is seeking a new kind of relationship with the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pledges assistance to the U.S.-led initiative. CNN's David Ensor reports (September 25)

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Putin agreed Monday to let the United States use Russian airspace for relief missions. He also said Russia would help rescue downed pilots, would share intelligence with the United States, if needed, and would provide more weapons to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

In an important strategic move, Russia's Defense Minister said Moscow would not object if Tajikistan lets the U.S. Air Force use its air base in Dushanbe.

Tajikistan borders Afghanistan and the base could be used for airstrikes against the Taliban. Russian troops protect Tajikistan, so it is unlikely it would disagree.

Russian officials said Putin rejected arguments from his advisers that helping the United States could anger Muslims in Russia and central Asia and increase support for Chechen rebels, believed to receive aid from Osama bin Laden's organization.

"We think President Putin's remarks demonstrate that Russia can make a contribution to the common struggle," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"It has the potential to fundamentally alter international relations. This could really be the event that truly ends the Cold War and the lingering legacies that still now divide us," said Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment.

Many Russians are still suspicious of the United States, a fact that could pose a test for Putin's leadership.

The United States gave support Tuesday to Russia's claims that separatist Chechen rebels have links to worldwide terrorist organizations.

"The Chechen leadership ... should immediately and unconditionally cut all contacts with international terrorist groups," Boucher said. "Terrorism is a problem in this instance as well as other places around the world, and terrorism needs to be fought, needs to be stopped."

He did add, however, that "only a political process" can resolve conflict in Chechnya.

On Tuesday, Putin offered to open a dialogue with the rebels. The offer was followed by an announcement by Chechen separatist President Aslan Maskhadov that he had appointed a negotiator for talks with Russia.

The State Department welcomed the news, calling it "the first positive development in this conflict in many months."

Before the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Bush administration harshly criticized Russia for what it perceived as an excessive military crackdown on the Chechen population and called for a political solution to the conflict.

-- CNN National Correspondent David Ensor, State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel and Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.


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