Russian forces 'already in action'

FROM VANORA BENNETT IN MOSCOW

RUSSIAN troops and technical experts, wearing camouflage but no identifying badges, have secretly entered Afghanistan and are waiting with the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance for orders to attack Kabul, according to a prominent Moscow military analyst.

“Two weeks ago . . . Russia effectively went to war on foreign territory without the parliamentary approval demanded by the Constitution,” Pavel Felgengauer wrote in the weekly Moscow News.

Mr Felgengauer, a usually authoritative commentator, said that the strength of the Russian 201st motor-rifle division stationed in Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan, had been increased from 7,500 to more than 8,000 men. Quoting informed military sources, he said anti-aircraft and artillery units from the division had penetrated Afghanistan.

Mr Felgengauer also quoted Alexei Arbatov, of Russia’s parliamentary defence committee, as saying that Russian technical experts were being sent into Afghanistan with the latest supplies of tanks for the Northern Alliance. He said Mr Arbatov was worried that US attacks on the Taleban might not last long, leaving those Russians “face-to-face with a new enemy”.

The story contradicts every public statement made by the Defence Ministry since Russia first offered to help Washington to fight terrorism. On Monday, Sergei Ivanov, the Defence Minister, repeated that Russian troops would never again fight inside Afghanistan. A Defence Ministry spokesman denied Mr Felgengauer’s story yesterday.

Two years ago, however, Russian troops startled Western allies by grabbing control of Pristina airport during Nato’s 1999 operation in Kosovo. An insecure Moscow apparently wanted to prove that its Armed Forces were quicker off the mark than the West’s.

Russia today is closer to the West, making it less likely that Moscow would want to compete with Washington over who got to Kabul first and after a disastrous ten-year engagement in Afghanistan, the Russian military still suffers from “Afghan allergy”.

President Putin has made a point of reassuring nervous compatriots that his backing for international action against terrorism will never mean sending Russians to die in the dusty southern mountains.

Moscow has openly pledged military hardware to the Northern Alliance. But Mr Felgengauer said Moscow had broken its public promise by sending in small numbers of troops to beef up the alliance.

If the Taleban counter-attack now, Mr Felgengauer said, alliance guerrillas could easily vanish into the hills, but Russians would be left to face capture.

This happened during a bungled Russian military operation in 1994 that sparked Russia’s war in Chechnya. Russian tank drivers who had been secretly sent to help pro-Moscow Chechens attack separatists fell into enemy hands. Moscow promptly denied involvement with the botched operation, and insisted that the Russian prisoners must be mercenaries.

“If our specialists are taken prisoner in Afghanistan, will Moscow call them deserters and disown them as it did in 1994, or start negotiating to ransom them?” Mr Felgengauer said.