Russia Puts a Price on Its Cooperation in Afghanistan

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Igor Kovalenko / AP

U.S. soldiers open the gates of Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan

The U.S. badly needs Russia's help in Afghanistan, and Moscow can't afford to let the NATO mission there fail for the sake of Russia's own security. But Russia will extract a geopolitical price for its cooperation — and the resulting bargaining process could be lucrative for those caught in between. That's the message of Tuesday's bombshell dropped by Kyrgyzstan: President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ordered the U.S. to close down an air base in his tiny central Asian country that is used to provide key air support for NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Kyrgyz leader's announcement came on the same day that militants in Pakistan blew up a key Khyber Pass bridge, cutting NATO's main supply line into Afghanistan and highlighting its vulnerability. Of course, Bakiyev happened to be standing alongside Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at a Moscow news conference when he served notice on the U.S. to vacate the Manas air base. Moscow, in fact, had just promised to give Bakiyev a vital $2 billion economic bailout package. Russia's motivations, and its intentions, are ambiguous. (See pictures of NATO's vulnerable Pakistani supply route.)

The growing peril facing the logistical route in Pakistan — notwithstanding Washington's plans to increase the deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — has prompted the U.S. to turn to Russia for help. Last month, after visiting Moscow, U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus announced that the U.S. had reached a tentative agreement with Russia on using its territory to supply the Afghanistan mission. And Medvedev seemed keen to reaffirm that cooperation, even as Bakiyev made his announcement about the Manas base. "No one is trying to evade responsibility," Medvedev said, emphasizing that Russia and Kyrgyzstan would continue to cooperate with Western forces in Afghanistan. "But the forms of cooperation are to be agreed with partners." Translation: Russia will play ball, but only in the pursuit of its own interests, and as a full partner rather than simply as a favor to Washington.

Russia's interests in the situation are far from simple. Moscow clearly recognizes that Washington's needs in Afghanistan are an opportunity for Russia to press for greater accommodation of some of its top concerns. Russia expects the Obama Administration to scale back U.S. plans to deploy a missile-interceptor system on Russia's doorstep in Poland and the Czech Republic; it also expects the new team in Washington to abandon the Bush Administration's effort to press reluctant European allies to admit Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. But Russia also has a direct interest in the outcome in Afghanistan. Moscow has made clear that a NATO failure in Afghanistan would be a disaster for Moscow, because a Taliban victory would spur an Islamist challenge all along Russia's southern flank. Better to have NATO stop the jihadists than to have to rely on Russian troops to do the job.

But while Russia can't afford for NATO to fail in Afghanistan, it would not be comfortable seeing the U.S. prevail, boosting its position in Moscow's traditional central Asian backyard — where the increasingly competitive geopolitics of energy supplies has ignited a new "great game" battle for influence between the rival powers. While it needs the Taliban to lose, Moscow doesn't necessarily want NATO to win, as such. Instead, it needs the outcome to strengthen Russia's own strategic position in its former Soviet sphere of influence. The Russians have made no secret of their desire to have a greater say in the political outcome in Afghanistan.

President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin want to start their relationship with the Obama Administration on a new footing, one in which Russia is treated as an equal and a strategic partner. Moscow has underlined that it owes Washington no favors, and a cooperative relationship will come at a price. Much of this, of course, involves muscle-flexing: days after Obama was elected, Russia announced that it would deploy medium-range Iskander nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, near the border with Poland, in response to Washington's planned missile shield. Just this week, Moscow quietly withdrew that threat.

And then there are the strongmen of the former Soviet republics of central Asia, for whom being caught in a battle for influence between Washington and Moscow has clear advantages. Bakiyev made clear that the Manas decision was a financial one — Russia was ponying up cash, and Washington hasn't been paying enough, as far as the Kyrgyz leader is concerned. But he gave the Americans six months to vacate the base, and, well, a lot can happen in six months. U.S. officials say negotiations on the base deal are ongoing. Given Russian indications — and the loopholes left by Bakiyev — the Manas base announcement may turn out to be just more muscle-flexing designed to remind Washington that it will have to pay a price for Moscow's cooperation.

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