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Russia Profile
December 17, 2009
Let’s Just Be Friends
Russia and NATO Share Common Interests in Afghanistan, but a Meaningful Alliance Remains Elusive

By Tom Balmforth

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen this week asked the Kremlin to provide Russian helicopters and spare parts to bolster the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. Russian assistance to NATO has been in the offing since the Russia’s “reset” with the United States got under way in July. But all the alliance’s chief got on Wednesday was a promise from President Dmitry Medvedev that the Russian government would consider the request. Stability in Afghanistan is important for both sides, but can they put their differences behind them to make it happen?

In yesterday’s meeting in Moscow, Rasmussen told Medvedev that Afghanistan should become the focus of renewed NATO-Russia cooperation. “I do believe that it’s also essential for Russia that we succeed in Afghanistan,” Rasmussen told a press conference after his meeting with Medvedev.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, agreed that there is “substantial” scope for cooperation on Afghanistan. “Russia, the United States and NATO have…close interests in Afghanistan and, although Russia is not interested in getting directly involved in Afghanistan, it will do several things to help the Americans continue their effort to create the conditions for withdrawal,” he said. Russia would benefit greatly from a defeated Taliban in Afghanistan, but shies away from direct involvement in the U.S.-led campaign because of its own traumatic experience of fighting in the war-torn country from 1979 to 1989.

Rasmussen’s trip to Moscow this week hoped to elicit Russia’s indirect assistance. “I suggested a helicopter package. I think Russia could contribute in a very concrete way by providing helicopters, helicopter training and spare parts,” Reuters quoted Rasmussen as saying after the meeting. A shortage of helicopters has long been a thorn in the side of NATO’s war effort in Afghanistan and it has been said for some time that Russian helicopters could be the answer. Back in October Dmitry Shugayev, the deputy director of the state-owned Russian Technology corporation, announced at a meeting with NATO members that his company was prepared to provide coalition forces with helicopters on commercial terms. But there is still little to show for all this talk. So, why has there been no breakthrough?

“It suits Russia to have NATO somewhat bogged down in Afghanistan, so Russia isn’t going to be too helpful,” said Margot Light, emeritus professor and guest lecturer on international relations at the London School of Economics. As long as NATO is reliant on Russia for cooperation on Afghanistan, Moscow has a bargaining chip with which to influence other areas of NATO policy, she said. “One could argue that it’s already used it in that way in relation to the NATO response to the Georgian war,” said Light. Although NATO condemned Russia for its role in the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, many said the alliance’s response was too mild. The NATO-Russia council was temporarily suspended, but was up and running again less than a year later. “So, if the Russians can use cooperation on Afghanistan again, then they will…They’d be foolish not to, in a way,” she said.

But Lukyanov said the delays in establishing cooperative efforts derive from the two sides giving different weight to different aspects of the Afghanistan campaign. “For example, Russia has special interests in combating drugs in Afghanistan because drug trafficking to Russian territory is huge and is growing. But America and NATO for understandable reasons are less keen to do it, because if they really start eradicating drugs, it could have an extremely destabilizing, rather than a stabilizing effect in Afghanistan,” he said.

Russia bears the brunt of the war-torn country’s booming drug trade. The rising flow of heroin from Afghanistan, which Medvedev has called a “threat to national security,” has provoked some extremely barbed comments from Russian officials, and Moscow would like to see progress in curbing drug trafficking before agreeing to help the alliance. After his meeting with Rasmussen, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he hoped NATO would step up efforts to tackle the Afghan drug trade and again suggested that NATO work with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led alliance of Central Asian states, to fight Afghanistan’s narcotics trade, RIA Novosti reported. “We would like to hear the response to our proposals,” said Lavrov. Lukyanov seemed optimistic that agreement would be reached. “It’s a case of balancing interests,” said Lukyanov. “The Americans need our assistance in, say, the helicopter issue; well, okay, but we need your assistance in the drugs issue,” he said.

It is still unclear whether a breakthrough is round the corner. But this week marked the first trip from a NATO chief since the Russia-Georgia conflict in August last year. The U.S.-Russian “reset” seems to be gaining traction in relations with NATO. Russia is now in a position to help the transatlantic security alliance not only with helicopters, but also with new transit routes across Russia for NATO supplies destined for Afghanistan. And the bottom line is that indirectly contributing to the campaign would benefit Russia. “Objectively Russia has no interest in seeing Afghanistan further destabilized. The spill-over effect is quite likely in this case and Russia has formal obligations to Central Asian countries to protect them,” said Lukyanov. If the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO troops exit, then Muslim Central Asia, Russia’s “backyard,” will once again be vulnerable to the spread of Islamic extremism. And that will be Russia’s problem, said Lukyanov. “Right now, I don’t think anyone here has illusions that the Americans will succeed in Afghanistan and build a really stable country. But making the situation more manageable ­ this is in everyone’s interest,” he said.

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