By Conor Sweeney - Analysis
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia is ready to play a more active role in helping fight the Taliban in Afghanistan if the United States is prepared to water down its plans for a missile defence shield and NATO enlargement.
Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the Soviet military’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia, which shares Western worries about the Taliban insurgency, is ready to give logistical support to U.S.-led forces there.
U.S. plans for elements of a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and its drive to bring ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, are seen in Moscow as “red lines” that Washington should not violate.
“Russia is ready to assist the United States with priority issues for American foreign policy, and in the first place, the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan,” Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, told Reuters in an interview.
“But we want our relations to be considered in the general context that if we help the U.S. on one question that they help us with our important tasks.”
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama would like Russia to help supply equipment to the extra troops it plans to send to Afghanistan, especially as militants have attacked convoys using the other supply route via Pakistan.
But Russia will drive a hard bargain, especially because it feels it was deceived in the past.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, Russia sanctioned the creation of U.S. air bases in ex-Soviet states near Afghanistan that Moscow sees as part of its sphere of interest.
In exchange, Moscow hoped for a partnership of equals with the United States but instead watched with anger as Washington backed the expansion of NATO to include its neighbours Ukraine and Georgia and prepared plans for a missile shield in Europe.
The Kremlin though feels a cautious optimism that the Obama White House could behave differently, said Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal.
“Russia is not naive enough to think Washington would accept a Russian claim of a sphere of interest, but at least there are signals the new administration won’t be as aggressive in the post-Soviet sphere as the previous one,” said Lukyanov.
The announcement this month by Kyrgyzstan that it will close a U.S. air base used as a staging post for Afghanistan showed there are limits to Russian cooperation, say some analysts.
Russia has denied any role in the decision but Kyrgyzstan’s president announced it in Moscow after securing a $2 billion Russian loan to help it ride out the economic slowdown.
The Soviet Union lost thousands of troops fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the country still matters greatly to the new leaders in the Kremlin.
Officials feel that if militant Islam is not halted in Afghanistan it could spread through the fragile ex-Soviet states of Central Asia towards Russia’s borders.
Narcotics officials say Russia is the world’s biggest user of Afghan heroin and that the flow of the drug will only be stemmed if order returns to Afghanistan.
Moscow has watched with growing impatience the failure of the international force in Afghanistan to get to grips with the Taliban insurgency.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, almost 1,100 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan, with 647 U.S. casualties as of February 12.
“Seven years have passed and what has happened? ... The only result is that people are dying ... We are just taking losses,” said a senior Russian official with close ties to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Colonel Oleg Kulakov, a lecturer at Moscow’s Defence University, said U.S.-led forces need to change their approach.
“The coalition forces cannot achieve their goals militarily and no one will be able to do that so they should attempt other strategies,” he told Reuters.
But Kulakov, who served with the Soviet military in Afghanistan, said there was no desire in Moscow to go back there. “Under no circumstances will Russia send troops to Afghanistan,” he said.
Reporting by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Jon Boyle