At a time when the United States are preparing to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, American cooperation with Russia, compromised on other foreign policy issues, including the missile defense program in Eastern Europe and the situation in Syria, turns out to look like a promising deal for both sides.
American authorities have come to understand the importance of securing Russian support in order to operate the departure from Afghanistan in safety.
Another factor adding to American-Russian cooperation is the continuing souring of relations between Washington and some of its regional allies, namely Pakistan, especially after last year’s killing of more than twenty Pakistani soldiers by an errant NATO airstrike.
Despite their many differences in such parts of the world as Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Russia and the United States have embarked on a vast project aimed at facilitating the future withdrawal of American armed forces from Afghanistan across the Russian territory. This project will complement previously signed agreements allowing the transit of combat troops bound for Afghan battlefields.
Up to this day, the United States military has mainly relied upon Pakistan and a few Central Asia states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan) to transport its troops and equipment to Afghanistan. The so-called Northern Distribution Network represents a collection of routes which cross these countries’ territories and link them with western parts of Russia.
With the departure of forces from Afghan soil planned for 2014, American authorities are actively negotiating “retrograde transit” agreements to allow the reverse movement, from Central Asia back to the Western Hemisphere. Despite the signing of such accords with the majority of Central Asian states, some of them are not really willing to aid Washington in this vast enterprise.
It is not only about Pakistan which decided to cut off supplies after the November 2011 incident when 24 of its soldiers were killed as a result of a misguided airstrike.
Uzbekistan, whose president Islam Karimov became a staunch supporter of the NATO coalition in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks but soon ousted all foreign troops from the Khanabad military base in 2005, is one of these fair weather allies playing a double game.
Uzbekistan is reportedly trying to extort generous transit fees from the American government in exchange of its full support of the withdrawal operation.
In this context, an interesting agreement is being negotiated with Russia. It is expected that Russian authorities will create a regional transport hub in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk from where American troops and equipment would be flown into Europe and North America after having been transported by trucks or rail from Afghanistan.
In response to those Russians who think that a rapprochement with the United States on the Afghan issue is not only useless but harmful to their country’s strategic interests in the region, the Kremlin affirmed that this cooperation is based exclusively on commercial calculations and will directly benefit Russia’s state budget.
The Diplomat reports incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin’s words from a recent statement about NATO:
We understand what is happening in Afghanistan, right? We are interested in things there being under control, right? And we do not want our soldiers to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border. Well, NATO and the Western community is present there. God give them good health. Let them work.
Russia is clearly not only expecting to gain from its upcoming cooperation with the United States but also seeking to weaken ties between Washington and its Central Asian partners.
According to the Kremlin’s reasoning, if the United States need less of Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, it will lose interest in cooperating with them. Time will tell if this strategy of Russian policymakers will actually succeed.
Wikistrat Bottom Lines
American-Russian cooperation over the planned departure of forces from Afghanistan offers the cheapest and safest solution to the problem of withdrawal, whereas continued dependency on relations with Pakistan and Uzbekistan represents a serious risk for the success of such a massive operation. This cooperation may lead to progress on other foreign policy fronts.
The biggest risk in this tactical rapprochement is that Russia will use its “retrograde transit agreement” with the United States as a means of blackmail on other issues, for example the missile defense program in Eastern Europe.
The success of the transit agreement fully depends on the general atmosphere of American-Russia cooperation. It may be expected that this cooperation will last if Barack Obama is reelected in November and Vladimir Putin continues to conduct a realist foreign policy. If the White House goes to an anti-Russian candidate or Putin decides to downgrade his relationship with his American counterpart, the success of this cooperation becomes highly dubious. The implementation of the withdrawal also hinges largely on numerous technicalities.
It may turn out that the removal of so many troops and of such a big quantity of equipment is not practically possible without at least partial support from the Central Asian states. If that is the case, negotiations will become multilateral and may be blocked by any of the parties concerned. The loss of the transit center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan is one of those scenarios in which the situation of American troops currently stationed in Afghanistan becomes most difficult.
Georgiy Voloshin contributed to this analysis.