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Afghanistan, Chechnya color Russian terror debate

In the 1980s, Soviet troops tried to occupy Afghanistan at a cost of about 15,000 lives.  

From Jill Dougherty
CNN Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- As the United States ponders potential military action against Islamic militants it suspects in the terror attacks on New York and Washington, some Russians are asking why Moscow would want to help a possible U.S. attack against Afghanistan.

The former Soviet Union spent a fruitless decade trying to occupy the country at a cost of about 15,000 lives. Russia is now fighting its own war against what it says are Islamic terrorists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, losing two generals and eight colonels in a single helicopter attack this week.

"I think Russia is not going to come once more to Afghanistan to start a new -- a second -- Afghan war," Russian political analyst Vitaly Naumkin said. "The lessons were very painful to Russia. They led to the collapse of the Soviet Union."

As leaders in Moscow and Washington ponder how to respond to last week's attacks, which may have left thousands dead in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin is faced with a dilemma. One leading Russian politician told CNN, "The risks are serious, the benefits elusive."

Russia has suffered its own wave of apartment bombings, which the Kremlin blames on terrorists.

"Russia's direct participating in American military action, providing its facilities or bases, or even taking part in some of the operations would make Russia an object of new terrorist attacks," said Alexey Arbatov, a member of Russia's parliament.

U.S. defense sources said the Pentagon is drawing up a list of options for military action, which range from airstrikes against countries that support terrorists to the use of special forces to capture or kill terrorist leaders, such as Osama bin Laden -- the man U.S. President Bush named as the "prime suspect" in the New York and Washington massacres.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was meeting Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was to hold talks with senior Russian officials in Moscow. Officials said Armitage would sound out Russian officials about how much military and intelligence cooperation they were willing to offer the U.S. anti-terrorism effort.

President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke out forcefully against last week's terror attacks in the United States.  

Armitage also was expected to ask whether U.S. forces could use Russian airspace or the airspace of former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

Putin spoke out forcefully against last week's attacks on the United States, and the head of Russia's intelligence service has offered to share information on terrorists with U.S. officials. That stance may score diplomatic points for Putin and perhaps win some economic benefits from the West -- but it leaves open the question of how far Russia would go to aid the American-led effort.

The former Soviet republics in Central Asia -- countries such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- already are fighting radical islamic movements like Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, which has hosted bin Laden for the past few years. Those countries say they're ready to cooperate with any nation -- including the United States -- to combat terrorism.

But talk like that makes Moscow nervous. Introducing U.S. military forces to Central Asia would place them squarely in Russia's back yard, and military action could threaten to destabilize an already fragile region.

Veterans of the disastrous Russian campaign in Afghanistan warn that any attack on the country would be difficult. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British and finally the Soviet Union all sent their armies into Afghanistan, only to be beaten back.

The rugged mountains of Afghanistan would make attacks on the country extremely difficult.  

Leo Korolkov, a Russian veteran who trained Soviet special operations units in Afghanistan, told CNN the chances of finding bin Laden are slim because there are numerous places he can hide.

"Modern weapons, rockets, laser-guided missiles -- they're useless against these mountains," Korolkov said. "I feel sorry for the people who are going to be thrown into those deserted, mountainous regions where the enemy knows every single rock, every cave. No maps, no computer training can prepare you for it."

-- CNN's Jamie McIntyre and David Ensor contributed to this report.

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