MOSCOW – Russia granted transit rights Friday to nonlethal U.S. military supplies headed to Afghanistan but only after apparently pressuring a former Soviet state to close an air base leased to the Americans.
The signal from Moscow: Russia is willing to help on Afghanistan, but only on the Kremlin’s terms.
Kyrgyzstan announced the closure of the Manas air base but American officials suspect that Russia was behind the decision, having long been irritated by the U.S presence in Central Asia.
The Russian decision to let U.S. supplies cross its territory opened another route to those through Pakistan now threatened by militant attacks, but U.S. officials were still left scrambling for alternatives to Manas.
Russia wants to open discussions on thorny policy issues that Washington and Moscow have clashed on in recent years: NATO enlargement, missile defense in Europe, a new strategic arms control treaty. More importantly, Russia’s expectation is that Washington must go through Moscow where Central Asia is concerned.
Russia may also be showing Washington that its positions aren’t immovable – particularly where Afghanistan is concerned. Russia fears Afghanistan is collapsing into anarchy, leading to instability or Islamic radicals migrating northward through Central Asia.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had agreed days earlier to allow transit of U.S. nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan.
“We are now waiting for the American partners to provide a specific request with a quantity and description of cargo,” Lavrov said Friday.
He and other officials did not say whether the U.S. will be offered air or land transit corridors. Any new transit routes are unlikely to make up for the loss of Manas, home to tanker planes that refuel warplanes flying over Afghanistan as well as airlifts and medical evacuation operations.
The Kremlin last year signed a framework deal with NATO for transit of nonlethal cargo for coalition forces in Afghanistan and has allowed some alliance members, including Germany, France and Spain, to move supplies across its territory. Ground routes through Russia would likely cross into Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan before entering northern Afghanistan.
The U.S. has reached a tentative deal with Kazakhstan to use its territory and officials have said they are considering resuming military cooperation with Uzbekistan, which neighbors Afghanistan.
That option is problematic for Washington: Uzbekistan kicked U.S. forces out of a base there after sharp U.S. criticism of the country’s human rights record and the government’s brutal quashing of a 2005 uprising.
Renewing those ties would also open the United States to new accusations it is working with an authoritarian government that tortures its citizens.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said talks with Kyrgyzstan on the Manas base are ongoing. U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid suggested Friday that officials may be divided over whether to close the base, a source of income for the impoverished nation.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament delayed a vote on the government’s decision until next week, and some Kyrgyz officials have indicated they may be willing to discuss the issue with the United States.
But National Security Council chief Adakhan Madumarov said Friday the decision to close the base was final.