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US-Russia 'reset' gets a boost with Russian offer of airbase

Russia has made an unprecedented offer that indicates a desire to improve ties ahead of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

By Correspondent / March 15, 2012

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walks at the State Duma, the lower parliament chamber, in Moscow Wednesday, March 14.

Misha Japaridze/AP

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Moscow

In an unprecedented move, Russia is offering NATO the use of a Russian airbase for aircraft refueling and the transit of "non lethal" supplies and personnel. Moscow says the offer is an effort to ease the strain on the alliance's increasingly restricted supply chain to forces in Afghanistan

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The tentative offer was described yesterday by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a speech to the Russian Duma, the lower house of parliament. It could see up to 30 NATO cargo flights a day come through the Vostochny airport in the Volga region of Ulyanovsk, en route to or from Kabul, about 2,000 miles away.

NATO has been struggling to deliver supplies to troops in Afghanistan since Pakistan's decision in November to close US overland supply routes into Afghanistan. And if Kyrgyzstan follows through with its announcement this week that it wants to make an airbase used by NATO a purely civilian facility, that could throw another wrench into NATO's supply efforts. 

The plan still needs to be approved by the Russian government, but there seems little doubt that the idea comes straight from the Kremlin and is unlikely to face any obstacles. 

Russian experts say the apparent change of heart in Moscow is partly because of president-elect Vladimir Putin's desire to turn away from his sometimes-strident anti-American electoral rhetoric and return to more normal cooperation with the West. Another reason, they say, is that Moscow has become alarmed at talk in the US and other NATO countries about a precipitous pullout of forces from Afghanistan, particularly in the wake of last weekend's deadly shooting rampage by a US soldier that killed 16 civilians, which appears to have undermined public support for the war. 

Despite its often critical stance toward the US, Moscow has long acknowledged that NATO forces are fighting for essential Russian interests in Afghanistan. Should the coalition troops depart and the Taliban return, Russia believes it would face a wave of potential consequences, including an upsurge in Islamist radicalism across former Soviet Central Asia

Since President Obama started his controversial "reset" of relations with Russia, Moscow has moved to increase cooperation by allowing NATO aircraft to use a permanent "transit corridor" through former Soviet territory (Russian and former Soviet airspace was previously off-limits to NATO military flights) and stepping up joint action against drug trafficking, which Moscow views as one of the biggest threats emanating from Afghanistan. 

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