Russia granted transit rights to non-lethal US military supplies headed to Afghanistan, but only after apparently pressuring a former Soviet state to close an air base leased to the US.
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 on Friday but US officials suspect that Russia was behind the decision, having long been irritated by the US presence in central Asia.
The Russian decision to let US supplies cross its territory opened another route to those through Pakistan now threatened by militant attacks, but US 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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow had agreed days earlier to allow transit of US non-lethal 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 on Friday in remarks broadcast by Vesti-24 TV. “As soon as they do that we will issue relevant permissions.”
He and other officials did not say whether the US would 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 non-lethal 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 US has reached a preliminary 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 US forces out of a base there after sharp US criticism of the country’s human rights record.
Renewing those ties would also open the US to new accusations it is working with an authoritarian government that tortures its citizens.
US officials have repeatedly said talks with Kyrgyzstan on the Manas base are still ongoing. US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said on Friday that Kyrgyz officials may be divided over whether to close the base, a source of income for the impoverished nation.
“They’ve not told us they reached a final decision,” Duguid said.
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 US.
But Kyrgyz National Security Council chief Adakhan Madumarov said on Friday the decision to close the base was final.