Russia urges NATO to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the timeline for a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia fears a spillover of Islamist militancy into the former Soviet republics on its border.

Virginia Mayo/AP
From right, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov and British Foreign Minister William Hague share a word during a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, April 19.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov urged NATO to keep its forces in Afghanistan beyond President Barack Obama's 2014 deadline for withdrawing from the decade-old war.

"As long as Afghanistan is not able to ensure by itself the security in the country, the artificial timelines of withdrawal are not correct and they should not be set," Mr. Lavrov said during a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels today.

That appeal comes, ironically, just days after Lavrov's boss, President-elect Vladimir Putin, called NATO a "relic of the cold war," and suggested it be disbanded. During his recent election campaign, Mr. Putin leaned heavily on anti-Western rhetoric and even accused the US of seeking "absolute invulnerability" at the expense of everyone else.

Though Russia has a long and painful list of differences with the Western alliance, chiefly US-led plans to install a missile defense shield in Europe, it has grown increasingly anxious about NATO's loss of enthusiasm for the Afghanistan war.

Moscow's main worry is that a precipitous NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan might lead to a Taliban victory, and a return to the turbulent conditions of the 1990's, when Islamist militants infiltrated the neighboring post-Soviet republics of central Asia, mainly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and threatened stability on Russia's southern flank.

"Withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would be a very unfavorable development for Russia," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee. "It would lead to dramatic worsening of the situation in Afghanistan, and perhaps a repeat of all the turbulence that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (in 1989). We are watching (the approaching deadline for NATO withdrawal) with deep wariness and perplexity."

Detente

Though Russia has always agreed that the NATO war against the Taliban was in Moscow's fundamental interests, chilly East-West relations during the administration of George W. Bush prevented agreement on material cooperation.

But since 2009, Russia has allowed NATO to use an air transport corridor through former Soviet territory to resupply its forces in Afghanistan with "non-lethal" equipment, and is now offering the use of an advanced Russian airbase in the Volga region of Ulyanovsk as a "transit hub" for supplies moving to and from Kabul. Both NATO and the Kremlin agree that the airfield would remain completely under Russian control and would be used only as a stop-over and refueling point for NATO planes carrying food, medical and other non-military cargoes to Afghanistan.

Lavrov reiterated today that the Ulyanovsk offer is solid, despite the fact that Russian Communists and nationalists have mounted a passionate campaign to block the scheme.

"There has never been a foreign military base in Russia in 1,000 years, and we will not let one appear now," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov as saying today.

Over the past two years, Russia has also cooperated in the training of about 2,000 Afghan anti-narcotics agents. Last year it signed a $367 million contract – to be paid for by the US Department of Defense – to supply 21 Russian Mi-17 attack helicopters to the Afghan air force.

"There are two basic reasons Russia-NATO cooperation has taken shape in the past few years, after a long period in which nothing much happened," says Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the independent International Institute of Political Expertise in Moscow.

"First, Obama came into the White House and launched the 'reset' of relations with Russia, which showed a change of attitude and real respect toward us on the part of the US leadership," he says.

"Second, Russia is increasingly worried about US forces leaving Afghanistan, and the repercussions of that for security across the entire post-Soviet region of central Asia. The threat of Islamization and an explosion of drug trafficking is very real. We worry about the stability of countries like Kazakhstan, which is very vulnerable to terrorism, and of Islamist insurrection in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even Turkmenistan. We wish NATO would stay in Afghanistan and finish the job because, frankly, the idea of it leaving too soon is a nightmare for Moscow," he adds. 

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