Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said today the United States could use military facilities in Tajikistan to launch strikes on neighboring Afghanistan "if the need arises," marking the first time Russia has publicly approved what would be an unprecedented U.S. military presence in former Soviet Central Asia.

Leaders of several Central Asian countries in recent days have publicly offered use of their airspace and military facilities to the United States.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the United States was trying to encourage the Central Asian nations to assert their independence from Russia's sphere of influence. But now, the United States is targeting Afghanistan and needs to base forces in Central Asia. The Bush administration has openly acknowledged Russia's role in the region and paid deference to Moscow.

As the United States mobilizes to take retaliatory action against Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, Russia has pledged to assist what President Vladimir Putin called "the war on terror" that could erupt on its southern borders. But until this week, Putin had yet to spell out how cooperative he was willing to be on the issue of basing U.S. forces in Central Asia, where Russia continues to play a dominant role, both politically and militarily, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a televised speech Monday, Putin declared that Russia is firmly on the side of the U.S.-led Western alliance while stopping short of pledging his own military forces. Instead, he vowed to step up Russian aid to the opposition forces inside Afghanistan, agreed to allow "humanitarian" flights over Russian airspace and said Russia would participate in "search and rescue" missions stemming from an Afghan conflict.

Indirectly, Putin gave approval for a new U.S. military presence in Central Asia, saying leaders of those countries "do not rule out" use of their air bases by the Americans.

But it fell to Ivanov to make clear just how far the Russian position has shifted. A little more than a week ago, Ivanov categorically ruled out use of Central Asia as a staging ground for an Afghanistan campaign. "I see absolutely no basis for even hypothetical suppositions about the possibility of NATO military operations on the territory of Central Asian nations," he told reporters.

But today, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, he said the U.S. military could use facilities in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, "if the need arises." The only caveat he offered this time was a practical one: It hasn't happened yet, he said. "No one is flying anywhere at the moment."

Since Ivanov's first statement, Putin has held lengthy consultations with leaders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said on Monday he was ready to allow U.S. warplanes to launch strikes from his airspace. Today, he was joined by Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akayev, who said, "We are ready to provide our airspace." The decision, he said in a statement, was made after consulting with Russia.

But the three Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan have been less forthcoming. Turkmenistan's leader Saparmurad Niyazov said today his country would open airspace to the United States, but only for humanitarian flights. Uzbekistan has pledged cooperation, without saying what kind. Tajikistan, which is the most reliant on Russian military support as it recovers from a civil war, has also been vague.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov says U.S. may enter Central Asia to strike Afghanistan "if the need arises."