Russia, Allies to Aid U.S. in Afghanistan
Published: February 6, 2009 (Issue # 1446)
Russia and four former Soviet republics offered to help the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan on Thursday even as one, Kyrgyzstan, moved forward on a decision to cut off American access to an air base used for war supplies.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the five countries, including the Central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, are ready for “full-fledged and comprehensive cooperation” with NATO forces in the region. He spoke on state broadcaster Vesti-24 today.
At the same time, Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Adukhan Madumarov said on the same channel that the U.S. air base at Manas airport near Bishkek must cease operations within 180 days. The base would be crucial to President Barack Obama‘s plans for a buildup of troops to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Kyrgyz Parliament will likely vote Feb. 6 on legislation formally renouncing the agreement allowing U.S. operations at the base, the Interfax news agency reported from Bishkek.
Andranik Migranyan, a Russian institute director with ties to senior officials in Moscow, said Russian cooperation on Afghanistan may be linked to progress on resolving differences over issues such as missile defense and NATO expansion.
“I am absolutely sure the Russian side is going to cooperate,” said Migranyan, director of the New York-based Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, in an interview. “But Russia needs some security guarantees. Not guarantees about dominance, but about its own security.”
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev disclosed the move to close the base in Moscow on Wednesday after receiving a Russian pledge for more than $2 billion in economic assistance.
The U.S. hasn’t received any notification from Kyrgyz officials about a base closure and still hopes to negotiate a way to preserve American access, spokesmen for the State and Defense departments said. “We’re having discussions with the Kyrgyz about this and we’ll continue to do so,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
There may be basis for the hope of keeping the base accessible to the U.S., said an expert on the region, Stephen Larrabee of the RAND Corp. policy research organization in Arlington, Virginia.
“It is not clear if this is a final and formal decision or whether they’re playing hardball to try to get more money out of the United States,” said Larrabee, who is head of European security at RAND. “It’s just not clear whether the game is over.”
Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad, said that based on recent history he thought a solution could be found to preserve U.S. access to the base.
“In the past we have had these ups and downs with some of the northern neighbors, but always a solution was found,” Jawad said in an interview on Wednesday. “Usually they ask for more money or some kind of concession. In the end they will come forward.”
Russia’s role and motive in the base closure are also open to interpretation, said Larrabee and Paul Saunders, a Russia expert at the Nixon Center in Washington.
Saunders said that, while Russian pressure was a factor in the Kyrgyz move to close the base, Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian governments have grown increasingly wary of a U.S. presence in their region.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told reporters Thursday that the base closure was Kyrgyzstan’s independent decision and not connected to the Russian aid package.
Saunders said the main message Russian leaders are trying to deliver is that they insist on playing a brokering role between the U.S. and the Central Asian nations.
“The message is that they really want us to take into account their interests in that part of the world, and we’re going to need to deal with them,” he said. “We can’t just go directly to all these governments and get what we want if they’re not involved.”
Jawad agreed, saying Russia was concerned about Western influence in Central Asia. “Russia is trying to push some of our northern neighbors not to be too cooperative with the U.S. and NATO,” he said.
Larrabee said Medvedev’s statement about cooperation on Afghanistan was an effort to “keep their options open with the United States.”