Foreign Policy Blogs

From Russia with Realist Intentions


"It's a deal, Barack! (For now at least)"

“We reaffirm our commitment to the goals of the common fight against the threats of terrorism, armed extremism, and illegal drug trafficking in Afghanistan.  We shall continue and develop our cooperation in the interest of enhancing the capabilities of the government of Afghanistan to accomplish key socioeconomic objectives, to raise living standards, and to ensure the security of its people.”

Joint Statement by President Obama and President Medvedev

In all the hoopla over the Obama-Medvedev-Putin Summit this past week, many may have missed the most concrete accomplishment of the meetings, Moscow’s permission for over 4,500 flights over Russian airspace for American military personnel and equipment headed to Afghanistan.  Though this agreement was mainly hashed out before the summit, it was given attention and made to appear part of a greater cooperative future between these two states regarding the situation in Afghanistan by the release of this joint statement.  This strategic agreement goes beyond discussions of ‘reset buttons’, the idea that power is not a ‘zero sum game’ (I think it still is Mr. Obama), and may in fact hold more geopolitical importance than the promised reductions in nuclear warheads by Washington and Moscow (does anyone really think this will cause other states to give up their nuclear aspirations?).  The Obama administration claims that these new overflight routes over Russian territory will save valuable time and an estimated $133 million dollars.  And many also hope that the agreement combined with the nice words of cooperation in the joint statement portend a growing partnership between the two former cold warriors regarding stabilizing Afghanistan.

However, it has long been claimed that the US and Russia share similar interests in Afghanistan, mainly the destruction of international terror networks and regional stability.  But this has never meant that there are still not conflicting interests and the lack of real cooperation between the two great powers the past 7 years has shown these quite clearly.  Russia has and will probably never accept a strong US military presence so close to its borders and ‘near abroad.’  Moscow considers Central Asia its backyard and holds dearly its gas and oil pipeline monopoly in the area.  A stable, US/Western controlled/backed Afghanistan and Pakistan may mean diversified pipeline routes for the CA states.

Russia’s actions in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan (Manas airbase) showcase an aggressive state that will follow its perceived interests, even if they are contrary to ‘cooperating’ in stabilizing Afghanistan.  The Obama administration needs to be prepared for a possible setback after this positive agreement, as Moscow has shown that deals like this can easily be reneged upon and even outright contradicted.  Nicklas Noring from the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute offers cautious advice regarding US-Russian relations in Afghanistan;

Until Russia displays a genuine concern for Afghanistan and does not undermine other channels supporting this mission, it cannot be considered a worthy partner for cooperation. The terms of this “cooperation” suggest nothing less than that the U.S. is being duped, with the success of Afghanistan at stake.

PS:  I would like to recommend you check out Afghanistan Conflict Monitor.  A great clearinghouse of news/stories regarding Afghanistan.  A very useful and well-run site.