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Putin's offer may signal new U.S.-Russian relationship

Russian President Vladimir Putin overruled concerns regarding his offer of assistance to the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin overruled concerns regarding his offer of assistance to the United States.  

By David Ensor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to offer help to the United States in fighting terrorism signals he may now seek a new kind of U.S.-Russian relationship.

Putin announced Monday on Russian television that the U.S. forces can use Russian airspace for relief missions, Russia will help with search and rescue efforts for pilots if needed, and Russia will give more arms to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in addition to sharing intelligence with the United States.

But perhaps the most important aspect of Putin's offer is that the government of Tajikistan -- which borders Afghanistan -- has been told by Russia's defense minister that Moscow has no objection to the U.S. Air Force making use of the air base in Dushanbe, a key strategic asset for launching any airstrikes against Afghanistan.

Since Tajikistan is protected by Russian troops, its government is not expected to disagree.

"Concerning the military presence, it's up to the United States to discuss separately with the independent states," said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Russian officials say Putin rejected arguments that overt help for the United States could anger Muslims in Russia and central Asia and increase support for people like Khattab. The Saudi-born Chechen warlord, who has been fighting Russian forces in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, is believed to receive aid from Osama bin Laden's organization.

"There were lots of statements out of Moscow in the last several days saying this is a big mistake to cooperate. He chose to ignore those statements, ignore his own advisors and really lean toward the West," said Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment specializing in U.S.-Russian relations.

The reaction from the U.S. State Department was positive if muted, considering the leader in the Kremlin had just said U.S. forces could use a key former Soviet base.

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

McFaul saw Putin's remarks as signs of a possible change in U.S.-Russian relations.

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

But it could also begin a time of testing for Putin as many Russians are still profoundly suspicious of the United States.

The U.S. did send a signal on Chechnya that Russia will likely appreciate. While urging greater respect for human rights there, a U.S. spokesman said Putin is right when he told Chechen leaders that they should cut off all contacts with international terrorist groups.


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