Russia is signaling a willingness to help the U.S. secure new supply lines for its mission in Afghanistan but only if Washington is willing to accommodate Moscow's concerns on other issues that have soured their relationship. Last week's swing through central Asia by U.S. Central Command leader General David Petraeus to shore up support for the U.S.'s mission in Afghanistan was followed, within days, by a visit to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who met with President Islam Karimov. Although the talks were nominally about oil and gas, Afghanistan featured prominently in comments by both Presidents after the meeting. "Relating to the situation in Afghanistan, and in countries that border Afghanistan, we ... have come to the conclusion that there is no unilateral solution," Medvedev said, adding, "Cooperation with the United States must be equal and full."
Strategic cooperation between Russia and NATO broke down last August during the conflict in Georgia, and both sides have remained chilly over the issues of possible membership in the alliance for Georgia and Ukraine and U.S. plans to station a missile shield in both Poland and the Czech Republic. But both sides are hoping that the arrival of the Obama Administration represents an opportunity to repair relations. President Barack Obama and Medvedev spoke on the phone on Monday and agreed to meet in the near future. (See pictures of Russia's conflict with Georgia.)
One of Obama's immediate priorities is to shore up the beleaguered NATO mission in Afghanistan by deploying thousands more troops. But the turmoil in Pakistan has imperiled the mission's main supply line that runs through the Khyber Pass, which is why the Pentagon has sought additional logistical routes into northern Afghanistan. To that end, Petraeus said late last week that the U.S. had reached agreements with several central Asian states and Russia.
Moscow is playing along, seeing Washington's need for help in Afghanistan as an opportunity to seek a quid pro quo. On Monday, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's NATO envoy, met for two hours behind closed doors with alliance heads in Brussels for the first time in five months. More talks are planned next month between NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov. "The ice is thawing," Rogozin told a Moscow radio station last weekend. "The ice has been broken because the informal NATO-Russia meeting on Monday marks a resumption of large-scale activity in all our cooperation with the alliance."
For its cooperation, however, Russia will demand concessions on U.S. missile-defense plans and concerns about NATO "encroachment" along Russia's borders. "Russia wants to get NATO's agreement that Ukraine and Georgia will not accede to the organization," said Alexander Khramchikhin, a senior researcher at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "I think that was the main objective, and that that objective will be achieved."
"There are signals from Washington for the revision of the terms of the deployment of the U.S. missile-defense system in Europe," Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, told a Russian newspaper. "And we can place specific conditions regarding the Caucasus." Rogozin added, "The integration of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO is a red line, and we do not advise anyone to cross it."
Helping NATO succeed in Afghanistan is not simply an opportunity for Russia to press unrelated concerns; it also conforms to Russia's national interest. Rogozin noted that defeat for the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan could spur instability in central Asia, which Russia calls its "near abroad." Said Rogozin in the radio interview: "I can responsibly say that in the event of the defeat of NATO in Afghanistan, fundamentalists, inspired by this victory, will begin to look north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan. If things end up badly, in something like 10 years, our boys will have to fight well-armed and highly organized Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan ... Therefore, it is necessary to assist NATO in Afghanistan."