Lavrov Open to Transit of NATO Arms

APLavrov, center, with Ferrero-Waldner, left, Schwarzenberg, second left, and EU officials after talks Wednesday.
Russia is open to the possibility of letting the United States and NATO ship weaponry across its territory to Afghanistan if the broader relationship between Moscow and the West improves, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.

Lavrov spoke after U.S. and Russian diplomats discussed logistical details of possible U.S. shipments of nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan via Russia. Moscow has previously allowed nonlethal cargo from European nations to cross its territory and said last week that it would let the United States do the same. The U.S. Embassy said Washington hopes to finalize details of such transit, but there has been no final deal yet.

Asked at a news conference whether Russia could also agree to transit of weapons, Lavrov said "additional steps are also possible."

"Last April and May, we discussed the possibility of using Russian military cargo planes to deliver supplies to coalition forces with our NATO colleagues," he said. "Any other agreements are also possible."

He added that broader cooperation on Afghanistan would be contingent on improvement of Russia-NATO ties.

A delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Moon on Wednesday wrapped up two days of talks in Moscow on details of Afghanistan-bound shipments via Russia and other issues related to the war effort.

Vladimir Pirogov / Reuters
Bakiyev, speaking to reporters Wednesday, blamed the U.S. for the closure.
"Noting the importance of bringing stability to Afghanistan, the two sides agreed to continue cooperation and discussions in the future," the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said.

Supplying allied forces has become increasingly tenuous as insurgents intensify attacks on supply lines through Pakistan — the primary route for U.S. supplies. Transit routes through Russia and possibly through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would serve as key alternatives to Pakistan routes.

Adding to the uncertainty is the decision last week by Kyrgyzstan to evict U.S. forces from an air base that is important to U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev insisted Wednesday that he made the move for purely economic reasons after repeated appeals to the United States to pay more for rental of the base went unheeded. He said the United States promised $150 million in annual rent in 2006 but that Washington failed to keep its word. The United States now pays $63 million a year.

A parliamentary vote on approving the closure was expected this week, but the bill has been delayed, leading some analysts to suggest that negotiations on a settlement may continue.

nAt the same news conference, Lavrov and EU officials agreed on the need to speed up the creation of a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, a framework for political, economic and other ties.

"The European Union and the Czech presidency are very interested in achieving substantial progress in these negotiations," said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said diversification of supply sources and transit routes will be high on the EU's agenda. She particularly mentioned Nabucco, a pipeline that would pump Caspian gas to Europe, bypassing Russia.