Tags: Interview: | Former | Russian | Regards | Afghans

Interview: Former Russian VP Regards Afghans

Wednesday, 19 September 2001 12:00 AM

He knows about the pitfalls of trying to fight on a terrain only the enemy knows, and can use to hide, lying in wait for sneak attacks with massive firepower and an unyielding determination to win. About the patience of a population so steeped in war that they managed to drag a superpower through 10 years of brutal combat, leaving 15,000 of the invaders' men dead.

And, like many Russians, he is certain that the terrorist network that President Bush has vowed to eradicate, should it be linked to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, has an active counterpart in Chechnya.

The restive, mountainous republic on Russia's southern frontier, where Moscow has been fighting a second war in seven years against separatists, is aided, Russia says, by radical Islamists like bin Laden.

An air force officer and fighter pilot, Rutskoi served two tours during the latter half of the Soviet Union's 1979 to 1989 war to prop up a communist government in the face of guerrillas intent on independence, a state free of Afghanistan's centuries-long manipulation by imperialists such as Russia and Britain. Those guerrillas, the Mujahideen, skilled in assassinations and masters of ambush, fought with a pride and ferocity that stunned the Soviets. That tenacity helps explain why the rebels' present incarnation, the much-winnowed and under-funded Northern Alliance, has managed to keep the Taliban, the radical Islamic militia that controls nearly all of Afghanistan, engaged in five more years of Afghanistan's never-ending state of war.

Rutskoi, flying a Su-25 fighter, was shot down by Mujahideen antiaircraft fire - twice. The first time, in 1986, came during his first tour in the arid country whose historical instability Moscow saw as a threat to the Soviet republics of Central Asia. Though seriously injured, he escaped capture that time, but when downed again two years later - over Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighbor and the United States' proxy in the war - the 40-year-old commander was taken prisoner, but soon released in exchange for a Pakistani officer who was aiding the Afghan rebels.

After gaining his freedom Rutskoi was awarded the state's highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. He brought his hero status and fighter pilot's mien to an organization intended to foster the birth of multiple political parties, a daring move in the reformist agenda of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. That was followed by a full entry into politics, with Rutskoi winning a seat in the Russian republic's parliament representing Kursk, in central Russia.

Boris Yeltsin, the Russian republic's president and an up-and-coming politician, took the war hero under his wing and had him direct the work of Russian nationalist parties while keeping his parliament seat.

When Rutskoi stood at the side of the reformer Yeltsin and helped convince a crowd of thousands to stand down a coup against Gorbachev by Communist hard-liners in 1991, the alliance was sealed. Yeltsin, soon to become post-Soviet Russia's first president, chose Rutskoi as his vice president.

Less than two years later came the event for which Rutskoi is best known: the October 1993 armed standoff between Yeltsin and an intransigent parliament, bitter over what they saw as a presidential power-grab.

Rutskoi, then 46, had turned against Yeltsin and sided with rebel legislators who holed up in their offices. When Yeltsin ordered tanks to shell the parliament building, Rutskoi was on the firing line again. This time there would be no medals, but four months in jail. Freed again, he resuscitated his political career by forming a more moderate nationalist party, then won the governorship of his home region in 1996. He was kept off the ballot for re-election last year on a technicality, and his bid to run for a seat in the national parliament, the Duma, was denied by election authorities over his misreporting the size of an apartment he owned, under asset-disclosure laws for political candidates in Russia.

The retired general, now living in Moscow, does not like to talk about his political misfortunes but he spoke openly in a telephone interview with United Press International about his views on the unfolding plan by the Bush administration - should suspicions prove true - on how to go after bin Laden and his terrorist network, harbored by Afghan radicals.

UPI: What do you see as the main challenges to the United States in leading a coalition into military action in Afghanistan?

Rutskoi: "It's necessary to factor in the geographical position of Afghanistan. It's located far from the United States, and besides that, the terrain is mountain and desert together. The second thing is that combat operations won't be as simple (there) as might appear at first glance.

A blitzkrieg could not be waged in Afghanistan because the land offers natural hiding places - caves, crevices, and cracks. Third, there's an absolute lack of communication facilities - I mean, no railroads, no drivable roads to speak of - to the extent they exist. They're in such bad condition they might as well not exist. Of course you can imagine what roads are like in the mountains. Fourth, you're fighting not just against people but against fanatics. Because (fundamentalism) is not really Islam but a movement within Islam.

This is a very serious direction for the Islamic religion - it's a movement of fanaticism, orthodoxy.

Next, before starting a combat operation, you shouldn't be making politically expedient statements over such matters. Military actions are determined by military people, not by politicians. It's a military prerogative. They should stop this political advertising, scoring political points from such a tragedy. It's just not possible. This is unacceptable. The question should be left to the military. Let them discuss what they're going to do and then they can report to the U.S. president. After that, they can make any kinds of statements they want. That's why today's statements were ill=suited to the situation. I understand that - he's a politician, but this is a serious matter, it's not just a political game.

This is a serious combat operation, a very serious combat operation. So when you consider the factors - geography, politics, people's mentality - (it's clear that) the United States should not start an infantry war in Afghanistan. That is to say, including any movement of infantry or even special forces.

Q: What would be required for a U.S.-led ground campaign on Afghan soil to be successful?

A: Here, you need to make intelligent moves. What kind of plan? There is the Northern Alliance. It's a shame that (rebel commander Ahmed) Shah Masoud was killed. I knew him well and I respected him, I respected him as an enemy, since he was a very smart person. He fought not for power but for the independence of his country. You must not only hate your enemy but respect him if he's clever.

Given the fact that the Northern Alliance is a large force, has sufficient strength, there is a need to provide it with support - technical, material, food, firearms, artillery. And with the help of the Northern Alliance then the Northern Alliance can fight that ground war - with major help from a strategic air force. The strikes should be carried out not merely to turn the mountains into rubble but to select specific targets that have been verified by three or four sources at least. Then, it can be successful. If it's to be done the way the American politicians are saying today - they talk of covering themselves in talk of a blitzkrieg, with a fast payback, but that isn't going to happen.

It would be a disgrace for America - that's why there ought not be any hasty decision made. I myself flew 456 combat missions as part of an air battalion - that's why I know what I'm talking about And when I hear all these political statements from the mouth of the American president, whom I deeply respect, I think he's behaving quite rashly. That's my general overview of the situation and my stance on that question.

Americans do not maintain combat operations, particularly when dealing with fanatics. America should help the Northern Alliance. We need to give people who don't agree with the (Taliban) regime a chance to confront these bastards. But of course you can't judge all the people (of Afghanistan) in the same way; only some of the people support these radical views.

Q: It has been said that Osama bin Laden, the man the United States accuses in the terrorist attacks last week, was active in fighting against the Soviet army in the late 1980s. Did you or your fellow troops have contact with bin Laden?

A: During my service - 1985 to 1986, and then in 1988 - nobody had ever heard of bin Laden. The leaders of the time were Shah Masoud and Gulbadin (Hikmatyar, the Afghan prime minister after the Soviet withdrawal, an event that triggered a civil war from which the Taliban would emerge). That was it.

Q: Last weekend, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney hinted that there was activity by bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic. What would you say to that, given the fact that Uzbekistan has been mentioned as a site the United States would like to use for its military bases to launch a ground war into Afghanistan?

A: I can say that Mr. Cheney is mistaken. There has never been and there is not now support for the Taliban from Uzbekistan. It is just misinformation.

Q: What about the other former Soviet republics in the region being used for training sites by bin Laden?

A: I'll tell you openly, I was in politics 10 years, and I can assure you as an authority that no one form the former Soviet republics ever, ever supported the Taliban. But the Taliban have come on the territory of Russia - in Chechnya. That is 100 percent true.

Q: How likely is it that the U.S. Army and the Russian military would be able to work together in a joint operation in Afghanistan?

A: As far as this question is concerned, that's the prerogative of the Russian president, (Vladimir) Putin. He's the commander in chief of the army and the head of the government, and it's his decision to make, right? Personally, it's not my place to state an opinion. Therefore, I won't say anything on this.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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He knows about the pitfalls of trying to fight on a terrain only the enemy knows, and can use to hide, lying in wait for sneak attacks with massive firepower and an unyielding determination to win. About the patience of a population so steeped in war that they managed to...
Wednesday, 19 September 2001 12:00 AM
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