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A return for Russia?

November 6, 2010

With the US and NATO searching for answers to the myriad problems in Afghanistan, a cautious shift in Russia's thinking may lead to Moscow offering much-needed logistical and strategic support to the faltering mission.

A Russian border guard patrols along the Tajik-Afghan border
So far Russia has observed Afghanistan from a distanceImage: AP

With NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen holding talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently on the prospect of increased Russian involvement in Afghanistan, the NATO summit later this month could take on a new significance in the context of the war in Afghanistan should new initiatives between the former Cold War foes be agreed.

Medvedev has been invited to the summit in Lisbon on November 19-20 and is expected be sounded out on a number of proposed NATO-Russian initiatives on Afghanistan that have been added to the agenda. The US and Britain originally planned to pressure the Europeans to provide more assistance in Afghanistan at the summit but it appears that plan has now been extended to include discussions with Medvedev over Russia's involvement.

NATO chiefs have been preparing plans to approach the Russians with proposals regarding the expansion of transit routes to Afghanistan, the supply of Russian helicopters to the Afghan military and the training of Afghan soldiers and counter-narcotics units.

NATO officials believe that shared goals - specifically the desire to deny terrorists a haven in Afghanistan, the destruction of the country's heroin industry and the consolidation of a democratic system of government - will help persuade the Russians to return to Afghanistan for the first time since the defeated occupying Soviet forces left the country in 1989 after a decade of war.

Russia takes first tentative steps in helping NATO in Afghanistan

The signs from Russia have so far been encouraging. Russian and US operatives were involved in an unprecedented joint anti-narcotics operation in Afghanistan recently while Russia started shipping small arms to Afghanistan's police forces earlier this week.

Russian troops move boarding a Mi-26 helicopter
Russia's use of choppers in Afghanistan could benefit NATOImage: AP

NATO hopes that Russia will follow this up by responding to requests to supply helicopters and crews to train Afghan pilots. NATO planners consider Russian helicopters to be better-suited to Afghanistan's landscape and the nature of the war, and that Russian crews, which gained considerable experience in flying helicopter gunships during the Soviet occupation, can provide Afghan pilots with better training for the conflicts they face.

"Russia is more active in Afghanistan than a year ago," Stanislav Secrieru, associate researcher at the Center for East European and Asian Studies in Bucharest, told Deutsche Welle.

"However, this does not come as a result of a shift in perceptions about NATO in Moscow, which are likely to remain suspicious for some time. Partially it is an effect of the US reset policy with Russia. Thus, Moscow sees the opportunity to reciprocate to NATO and the US cooperative overtures."

Despite a cautious shift toward involvement in Afghanistan, the stumbling block to Russia fully committing to a role in the war will be any request to put Russian ground troops into action in the country.

Memory of Afghan occupation and defeat haunts Russia

The defeat to the Mujahedeen in the late-1980s is still an open sore for the Russian military and while Moscow may consider sending soldiers to train Afghan national security forces and border patrols, it is very unlikely that any troops will be deployed in the country in an offensive capability.

Russian tank crew
Russia is unwilling to commit ground troops to the missionImage: AP

"Russia doesn't want to be involved in Afghanistan," Alain Deletroz, the European vice president of the International Crisis Group think-tank, told Deutsche Welle. "It had its time there and it has enough of it. But it doesn't want to see NATO losing and the Taliban back, with their potential to create troubles in the rest of Central Asia and even in the North Caucasus."

To have Russian military trainers on the ground in Afghanistan and in the border regions, along with Russian hardware supplying the Afghan forces, would be a small yet significant victory for NATO and the US. Should the Russians agree to improved air and land supply and transit arrangements via Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both NATO and the US could rightly celebrate an even greater success.

Russian opposition to routes through its territory and former Soviet states has meant that NATO has had to make use of more dangerous supply routes through Pakistan which has led to increased attacks on supply convoys and combat deaths. The situation has been made more difficult by a recent Pakistani government decision to temporarily close the Khyber Pass.

Russian involvement could ease some of Obama's Afghan worries

Any change of direction over Afghanistan by Russia could be seen as a victory for beleaguered US President Barack Obama. After getting a bloody nose in the midterm elections in which Republicans captured control of the House of Representatives from his Democrats, Obama is desperate for good news, especially in Afghanistan. Support for the on-going operation is faltering back in the US and Obama's perceived inability to bring an end to the conflict amost certainly contributed to his party’s battering at the polls.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, looks at US President Barack Obama
Obama needs Medvedev but Russia has its own goalsImage: AP

NATO cooperation with Russia is also seen by the Obama administration as a crucial part of his plans to 'reset' the relationship with Moscow after the post-Cold War depths plumbed by George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Good relations with Russia are integral to Obama's belief that US and global security hinges on cooperation between the two nations.

"Since the reset button has been pushed, cooperation between the US and Russia in Afghanistan has intensified," Secrieru said.

The United States and NATO are under no illusion that Russia would be helping out of the goodness of its heart. Russian interests in the region will be always be at the heart of any geo-political decision taken by Moscow.

"Firstly, Russia wants security along its southern periphery," said Secrieru. "Secondly, Russia has commercial interests in Afghanistan. Russian officials have talked about possible implication of Russian companies' in rebuilding Afghan infrastructure. It is also an opportunity to boost Russian arms sales. Thirdly, Russia wants greater political influence in Afghanistan."

"The Cold War patterns of thinking are still very much enshrined in the minds of the security services in the US and in Moscow," Alain Deletroz concluded. "But the US and NATO have no choice: Afghanistan's neighbors must stop playing games with NATO if they really want to see the Taliban defeated. Moscow is simply realizing that now. It may be a bit late but better late than never."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge