Working Together in the Land of the Unruly

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There is so much talk about the "confusing signals" being sent by the Kremlin to the United States these days. Some are confrontational, while others are cooperative in equal proportions. And nowhere is the dissonance more pronounced than on the issue of Afghanistan. In the space of a week, the major U.S. supply point for its northern route -- the air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan -- is being closed, while the Russian leadership proclaims its readiness to work more closely with Washington on this very question.

But I don't see a contradiction. The Kremlin is simply putting Washington on notice: This isn't 2001 anymore.

From Moscow's perspective, the initial decision to support the U.S. presence in Central Asia in 2001 was based on two assumptions. One proved to be correct: The U.S. military could accomplish in a matter of weeks what Russia (and Iran) had been unable to accomplish via the Northern Alliance -- the overthrow of the Taliban. The mistake, however, was to take at face value the assurances given in February 2002 by then-Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones: "We don't want U.S. bases in Central Asia. ... Our goal with the Russians is to make sure that they understand we are not trying to compete with them in Central Asia, [that] we're not trying to take over Central Asia from them."

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Instead, the Kremlin feels that in return for its support, it has received color revolutions in three former Soviet republics, NATO expansion in its backyard, renewed efforts to build energy pipelines that compete with Russian interests and plans to place missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev might not want to repeat this experience with a new U.S. administration.

And as U.S.-Russia ties have worsened over the last year, the Kremlin has sought to challenge the guarantees given by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that former Soviet republics would find it "safe to be associated" with the United States. For all the declarations of support from Washington, Georgia found its infrastructure wrecked and its two separatist regions lost for good. In addition, Ukraine suffered a grievous economic shock. It is not surprising that the Kyrgyz leadership, after weighing the costs and benefits of what Moscow and Washington had on offer, decided that terminating the Manas arrangement was the better choice.

Nothing precludes, of course, a new agreement. Russia could propose a joint U.S.-Russia operation to coordinate all resupply efforts across the northern route; former Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev proposed something similar to this in 2003. Perhaps it would be more acceptable if another NATO country -- say France or Germany -- could negotiate an agreement for a new base, including putting a non-U.S. commander in charge. This might be something that would mollify Europeans who are concerned for the safety of their own forces in Afghanistan, and it would give Moscow the opportunity to call for the moribund NATO-Russia Council to play a greater role. And a revived NATO-Russia partnership could be expanded to lay the basis for joint operations, something Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group political risk consultancy, and I discussed in these pages nearly five years ago.

Russia wants improved ties with the United States, and no one in the Kremlin wants the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan. But Moscow apparently now feels that it has the advantages. If the United States is serious about upgrading its presence in Afghanistan, it needs Manas or its equivalent -- a secure air base in the north to house troops, supplies and equipment. With the "southern route" through Pakistan under greater threat, Washington is not at all eager to contemplate the geopolitical ramifications of NATO allies using Iran as a transit country. And the price that Uzbekistan might demand for allowing renewed access to its Kharsi-Khanabad air base, which the United States abandoned in November 2005, might be too high a price for President Barack Obama's administration to pay.

The standard argument in Washington is that Moscow will never want to contribute to the failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan because this would endanger Russia's security, but this misses the point. Russia very much wants to cooperate with the United States to root out Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, but it is more concerned about facilitating a long-term U.S. presence in Central Asia or having Washington stabilize the country so that energy projects that damage Russian interests can go forward.

But Russia's interests can be met without allowing the Obama administration to necessarily triumph in the "land of the unruly." The Taliban is more contained in 2009 than it was in 1999, and a reinvigorated group of Northern Alliance warlords and chieftains remain a formidable barrier to the expansion of Taliban influence back into Central Asia.

So the burden shifts to Washington. Just how important is the Afghan mission? In Munich, Vice President Joe Biden rejected the idea that Russia should have a "sphere of influence," but is Washington amenable to giving Moscow a "zone of preference" across the Eurasian space if, in the end, this raises the chances for success in Afghanistan? Is this preferable to weakening Washington's continued efforts to isolate Iran by giving Tehran greater leverage over NATO operations?

The Obama administration is still quite uncertain as to what price it can afford to pay to work with the Kremlin. In addition, it is not completely convinced that the help Russia is willing to provide is crucial to combat the major threats to U.S. security. And Moscow sees no reason to offer the United States any "free" assistance. So the real question is: Who is going to blink first?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions expressed in this comment are entirely his own.