Moscow is being surprisingly accommodating about Washington's request for a route across Russian soil for supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Obama administration's top-priority conflict zone.
The request is under consideration, said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday, Feb. 11, when asked at a briefing with European Union foreign policy officials about paths to more friendly ties with a Washington under new management.
The supply route through Pakistan has been disrupted by constant Taliban attacks on the convoys and depots, forcing the US-led international force fighting in Afghanistan to seek alternatives. A week ago, Kyrgyzstan barred the Manas air base to US forces after its use for seven years to fly in supplies, a move which the Americans suspect Moscow is behind.
Lavrov remarked that non-military transit had recently been granted “as part of our agreements with NATO and the United States…: adding: “Additional steps are also possible.”
By “additional steps” the Russian foreign minister opened the door to accommodate the transit of US war materiel to Afghanistan as well. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that this includes flying US soldiers in aboard Russian military transports.
A day earlier, an American delegation headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Moon arrived discreetly in Moscow to discuss the use of Russian military bases for transferring US supplies including ammunition and fuel for the forces fighting in Afghanistan.
Though accommodating, Moscow keeps its eye on its goals
The talks went swimmingly. The Russian officials came to the table accompanied by high air force officers in civilian garb who, according to sources close to the meeting, brought with them maps, practical suggestions and plenty of good will.
They offered the US, according to those sources, the use of two civilian airfields and a military air base: the Rostov-on Don international airport in southern Russia; the Narimanovo international airport in Astrakhan near the Caspian Sea and the Engels Air Force Base, Russian's sole installation for the Tu-160 Blackjack bomber. Engels has a 3,500 meter runway and 10 large reventments. It was listed in the 1998 START-1 treaty as housing 20 operational Tu-95 (Bear) bombers and 6 Tu-160 bombers, all with cruise missile capability.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that administration officials found Moscow's offer of the Engels air base for the use of US supply flights to Afghanistan surprisingly generous.
It was seen as a signal from president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin wants its relations with the new US administration placed on a better footing and are ready to do business at the most practical levels.
At the same time, Moscow has its own fish to fry.
The case of the Manas base was meant to emphasize a point Moscow made in the 2008 Georgian conflict, namely that the Americans would not be allowed to horn in on the Caucasian and Central Asian regions which it regards as Russian spheres of influence.
Why not install the US missile shield on Russian soil too?
On other matters, the Kremlin is happy to offer a generous measure of cooperation with Washington, but here too it never loses sight of its ultimate goal, which is to get Washington to waive its plan to install missile interceptors and radar stations in Poland and the Czech Republic.
An option hinted at now is their installation at alternative sites acceptable to Moscow.
US administration officials interpret the offer of Russians Engels Air Force Base and the use of Russian military transports for supporting the US-led war effort in Afghanistan as an invitation to go back to negotiations held last year between US and Russian military officers. Those talks centered on a proposal by the Bush administration that Russian officers be posted at the American missile shield sites in East Europe. Moscow countered with a proposal to relocate the US missile interceptors in southern Russian close to the Iranian border.
Its willingness now for the US military to use a strategic Russian air bomber base is intended to support the Kremlin's argument that the US missile shield might equally be installed on Russian territory and Russian officers be posted there.
Clinton's message to Moscow: Turn the heat on Tehran
With this kind of trade-off in mind, the Russian foreign minister quoted a comment by vice president Joseph Biden at the Munich security conference last week. He said this approach could “help normalize our relations and take them to the level of a construction partnership.”
(Biden was welcomed by Russian officials when he said it was time to “press the reset button” on relations with Moscow. “There are many problems in the world which we need to resolve together, there are too many threats that are common for both Russia and the United States and Europe and other states,” said the US vice president.)
Moscow also found a new US approach on the missile shield controversy in a reference to the issue by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Tuesday, Feb. 10, after meeting Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, she said: “This is one of those issues that really will rest with the decisions made by the Iranian government,” and went on to say, “If we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians with respect to what we believe to be their pursuit of nuclear weapons, then we will reconsider where we stand.”
This comment was addressed more to Moscow than to Tehran. She was telling the Russians they must lean hard on Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons if they wanted Washington to reconsider its position on the missile shield.
She had her answer the next day: The Russian foreign minister's words opened the door to discussion.