Russia and NATO: A Meeting of the Minds on Afghanistan?
During the run-up to the NATO summit in Bucharest, expert attention has tended to focus on the differences between Russia and members of the Atlantic alliance, specifically on Kosovo's independence, a Central European anti-missile shield and Georgia's and Ukraine's gravitation toward Brussels. But there is one important area where interests are converging -- in Afghanistan.
Both Russia and Washington have become alarmed by the revived Islamic radical insurgency in Afghanistan. And both countries want to stamp it out. Of course, there is no way that Russia will deploy troops to Afghanistan. For one, NATO would not consent to it. And, more importantly, the Soviet legacy of brutalization, left behind after the 1979-89 occupation, precludes such an option.
Still, Russia is interested in doing what it can do to help the United States and NATO keep Islamic radicalism at bay in Central Asia. Russian officials have now formally confirmed a trend that has been readily evident for several months: a Kremlin spokesman announced on the NATO summit's first day that when Russian leader Vladimir Putin meets alliance leaders on April 4, he will offer NATO transit rights for "non-military" goods bound for Afghanistan, to help with both the reconstruction process and counter-insurgency efforts.
Rumors that Russia was willing to facilitate humanitarian/supply operations in Afghanistan have been circulating for several months. Some experts believe that Moscow's consent was essential in Uzbekistan's decision to permit US forces to return to the Central Asian country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Meeting journalists in late March in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, US Ambassador to Uzbekistan Richard Norland stressed that US forces now in the Central Asian nation were operating under NATO command. He also stated repeatedly that reestablishing a purely American base on Uzbek territory was "not on the agenda of the civilian leadership of the United States."
At the same time, Norland stressed that Washington and Tashkent were interested in streamlining efforts to combat Islamic militancy. Left unsaid was the fact that Moscow too is interested in improving the efficiency of NATO operations in Afghanistan. "Both the United States and Uzbekistan are interested in this [Afghan] issue," Norland stated. "Everybody understands that the solution of the Afghanistan problem is more a political and economic issue. Of course, there is also a part which deals with security and military issues."
Russia's offer to facilitate a transit corridor stretching from Europe to Afghanistan stands to revive a long planned railway that would connect the Uzbek city of Termez and the strategically important settlement of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, via a rail bridge over the Amu Darya River, which serves as the Uzbek-Afghan border. A plan has existed since 2004 to construct an 80-kilometer spur to Mazar-i-Sharif. The project was mothballed in 2005, however, amid the fallout over the Andijan events. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It is worth noting that US forces now have access a NATO base near Termez. US officials have quietly pushed for the railway as a means to improve the efficiency of both the reconstruction and counter-insurgency mission being carried out by NATO. The project, according to some estimates, would cost about $210 million. The railway would make it far easier and cheaper for NATO member states to move goods and materiel to Afghanistan. Currently, the goods must be ferried in by air.
While the Kremlin wouldn't be entirely happy to be helping NATO, Russian officials also don't want to see alliance members scale back their involvement in Afghanistan, and therefore leave Russia's southern underbelly exposed to the spread of radical Islam. By making it easier for European nations to re-supply Afghanistan, Moscow hopes to make it more difficult for NATO to abruptly withdraw.
"The longer NATO stays in Afghanistan, the worse for them. However, it would be a mistake to think that Russia wants NATO out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, and at any cost," Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in comments published by the Vremya Novostei newspaper in early March. "We will not let them out of Afghanistan until they solve the problems they have helped create -- international terrorism, unprecedented growth in drug trafficking -- and build a strong state there, and rebuild the economy."
Russia's willingness to cooperate on Afghanistan does not mean that the Kremlin might be flexible in other areas, in particular on the issue of Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO. Over the past month, Moscow has taken a variety of steps -- most notably the renunciation of a 1996 treaty that imposed an economic embargo on the breakaway territory of Abkhazia -- that have been designed to intimidate Brussels into declining to offer Georgia a membership action plan (MAP). [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russia's unilateral decision to lift the Abkhazia embargo was what Kremlin spin doctors describe as a typical "asymmetrical response" to the West's endorsement of Kosovo's secession from Serbia.
Russian officials have suggested that Moscow, in light of US and European recognition of Kosovo, would acknowledge the independence of Georgia's separatist entities, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russia experts, however, scoff at the idea. Beyond the practical danger that such recognition would unleash separatist forces within the Russian Federation, some experts believe that Abkhazia now can be used for propaganda purposes. Indeed, one expert -- Vladimir Zharikhin, Deputy Director of the CIS Institute -- suggested that Russia now occupies the moral high ground on the recognition issue.
"For Russia it would be illogical to recognize Abkhazia now -- then we wouldn't differ in any way from the United States," Zharikhin said in comments posted on the political website Gazeta.ru. He implied that, unlike Washington, Moscow's international behavior is based on principle. Thus, Moscow will not be goaded into "tit for tat" diplomacy. "Unilateral recognition is US logic -- not Russia's," Zharikhin asserted. In making his comments, though, Zharikhin overlooked the Kremlin's unilateral decision to dump the economic sanctions on Abkhazia.
Some Western experts say the Russian decision to abandon the Abkhazia embargo was a matter of opportunism: Russian officials had long wanted to get rid of it, but were waiting for a geopolitically expedient moment to do so. These observers point out that Russia's primary motivation for introducing the embargo was not rooted in political principles, but in the cold-hearted strategic calculation back in 1996 that Abkhazia might develop into a safe haven/logistics center for Chechen militants during the apex of First Chechen War.
Chechens fought on the Abkhaz side during the 1992-1993 conflict in Georgia. But since the Abkhaz didn't support the Chechen struggle against Russia, and the Chechen armed resistance was eventually suppressed, the blockade of Abkhazia ceased to be strategically important for Moscow. Moscow's decision to abolish the sanctions also may be connected to the upcoming Olympic Games to be held at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014. According to Dmitry Kozak, Russia's Minister for Regional Development, the removal of trade restrictions make it easier for the Russian companies to procure the construction materials and laborers needed to prepare Sochi for the games.
Igor Torbakov is a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki specializing in Russian and Eurasian history and politics.
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