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Russians Ambivalent About US Strikes
October 17, 2001

MOSCOW (AP) - While President Vladimir Putin has expressed firm support for U.S.-led air strikes against Afghanistan, many Russians are wary of a new war so close to home, in a country where Soviet troops were tangled in a bloody 10-year conflict.

Expressing sympathy for Americans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Russians say they understand the need to react and hunt down those responsible. But when it comes to using military force, they are ambivalent.

``Those who deserve this should get it,'' said Vladimir Gordus, a retired colonel in the Soviet army. ``But bombings are bombings, and I feel sorry for those American boys. ... Mistakes are made.''

In condemning the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Putin compared the organizers to Nazis, an emotionally loaded analogy in a country that lost millions of lives in World War II.

But for some, the memory of that struggle was a warning against getting involved rather than an inspiration to join the U.S.-led fight.

``I remember the war, and war is always scary,'' said 66-year-old Yulia Isachenkova. ``There is always blood, there are always victims.''

According to a poll conducted last week by the All-Russia Public Opinion Center, 57 percent of Moscow residents wholly or partially disapprove of the U.S.-British air strikes. The telephone poll of 400 Muscovites, which had a 5 percent margin of error, found that 41 percent wholly or partially approved of the strikes.

The poll showed opposition to deep Russian involvement in the conflict: 47 percent said Moscow should remain neutral, while 30 percent said it should demonstrate limited support. Only 13 percent were in favor of decisive Russian backing.

Such caution may stem from fears that a long-term war in Afghanistan could spill over into former Soviet republics in Central Asia - which still have strong political and cultural ties to Russia and which many Russians continue to regard as their territory.

``It's very dangerous, because you know how many years we were in Afghanistan,'' said Andrei Gurov, a 40-year-old real estate appraiser, who sat reading on a bench by the Kremlin wall. ``Besides, this is on Russia's border, not America's.''

Russian officials have drawn parallels between the U.S. strikes and Moscow's own campaign in the rebel region of Chechnya. They have long termed that war an ``anti-terrorist operation'' and have sought to portray Chechen rebels as part of the same network as Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In recent years, Russians have seen brutal terrorist attacks on their soil - particularly in 1999, when more than 300 people were killed in apartment house bombings blamed on Chechen rebels. So there was an outpouring of sympathy for America, with scores of Russians laying flowers at a makeshift memorial at the U.S. Embassy.

Still, deep anti-American feelings remain. Many recall the 1999 U.S. air strikes against Yugoslavia, which both the Russian government and most Russian people bitterly opposed. They say the strikes against Afghanistan are part of the same trend.

``It's not about America,'' Gen. Leonid Ivashov, a former top Defense Ministry official, said on a TV talk show Thursday. ``It's about America's policy, which is moving toward decree by military force.''

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