Russia-NATO cooperation on Afghanistan: Yesterday, today and tomorrow

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Russia-NATO cooperation on Afghanistan: Yesterday, today and tomorrow
Published 25-04-2013, 11:42
During his visit to Moscow, NATO Deputy General Secretary Alexander Vershbow said that the United States was reconsidering using cargo transit routes through Pakistan, which are no longer dangerous and are less expensive than the transit center in Ulyanovsk.
NATO’s actions are driven by three factors. First, NATO headquarters in Brussels are pondering the best route for the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. Theoretically, there are two options: Central Asia and Pakistan, but the latter is more likely. The United States and other NATO members seek to restore the military partnership with Islamabad that suffered a blow in late 2011, and build the infrastructure needed to withdraw their troops.

Second, the United States is seeking to reduce its dependence on Russia for transit to Afghanistan. The White House does not like the growing dependence on Russia for supply routes to its troops in Afghanistan. That is why the Obama administration seeks to diversify transit routes.

The third reason is the desire to prevent Pakistan's partnership with the SCO, which has been in the making for the past two years. Islamabad already has observer status in this organization and is holding talks on the Afghan problem with Tajikistan, Russia, and, possibly, China. Washington is concerned about the growing independence of Pakistan. The resumption of military partnership will once again refocus the military policy of Islamabad on priority cooperation with the United States. 

Apart from Pakistan, NATO leaders are also interested in using the infrastructure in Central Asia and India. It is safe to assume that there will be negotiations on expanding NATO’s military partnership with Tashkent, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Delhi.

Russia-NATO cooperation on Afghanistan is coming to an end for objective reasons. If NATO withdraws most of its troops from Afghanistan by late 2014, it won’t need Russia’s help as much. NATO will be able to send supplies to the limited number of its trainers and technical staff using transport aviation or through Pakistan. As a last resort, the alliance may make an arrangement with a Central Asian state to accomplish this, most likely, Uzbekistan.

At this point, NATO is not going to curtail its cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan, but it does not plan to expand it, either. After the 2010 Lisbon summit, Russian experts were thinking that the alliance would look for ways to work with Russia on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. However, this did not happen. NATO prefers to discuss this issue with Pakistan rather than Russia. Russia-NATO cooperation is expected to remain unchanged in 2013.

Russia, the United States, NATO and the Ulyanovsk factor

The Ulyanovsk-Vostochny airport is not an important part of Russian-American relations and cannot be used as a leverage to influence NATO.


First, Russia has never used the transit issue in its talks with the United States. I do not remember the Russian side telling the Americans once: "Either you make concessions to us, or we shut down the transit route to Afghanistan.” Even after adopting the Magnitsky Act, Moscow hasn’t mentioned the possibility of ending cooperation on Afghanistan. Clearly, the airport is not a trump card in negotiations.

Second, the Obama administration has not taken a more cautious approach to Moscow as a result of transit through Russian territory. 

Third, China's position is quite interesting. Over the past five years, Beijing has never said that Russia-NATO cooperation on Afghanistan hurts its interests or undermines the SCO, although Beijing held quite a different position with regard to the opening of the US bases in Central Asia and the US-Uzbek partnership. Beijing does not see this partnership as a serious threat to its interests.

Russia-NATO partnership on Afghanistan is significant for other reasons. To date, it is the only tangible partnership between Russia and the United States. If there’s no cooperation on the Afghan problem, Moscow and Washington will have nothing to show for their partnership. There’ll be no progress to show on the Reset policy, either.

There is another angle to this issue. Without the partnership between Russia and NATO on Afghanistan, the SCO would look like an openly anti-American organization. Cooperation on the transit of goods, including the use of the Ulyanovsk-Vostochny airport, makes it possible to balance this contradiction, or at least appear to. This helps maintain the unity of the SCO at a time where some of its members (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and recently Uzbekistan) have spoken in support of expanding cooperation with NATO, seeing it as a counterweight to Russia and China.

The future of the collective security system in the region

So far, all attempts to build any kind of collective security system in and around Afghanistan have failed. First of all, the idea of tripartite US-Afghan-Pakistani guarantees was unsuccessful, just like the partnership between NATO and CSTO. On July 8, 2004, CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha sent a message to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer regarding the expansion of cooperation within the SCO/CSTO. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed the most comprehensive cooperation project ever between the two organizations on February 16, 2009, where he outlined ways to work together to fight drug trafficking and address the problem of stabilizing Afghanistan. NATO countries didn’t seem to show any interest in his proposal.

One can’t say, either, that the negotiations of the Afghan quartet that was formed during the meeting of the presidents of Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan in Dushanbe on July 30, 2009, have had any degree of success. A meeting of the leaders of the quartet scheduled for 2012 in Islamabad failed to materialize.

The Americans, for their part, do not disclose the details of their negotiations on nuclear security in Pakistan, which creates distrust in Moscow. Russian experts have expressed concerns that Washington seeks to water down the SCO and the CSTO under the guise of talks on military and political partnership with Central Asian countries on Afghanistan. To prove it, they usually refer to a clandestine visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Tashkent on October  22-23, 2011 that led to Tashkent withdrawing from the Collective Security Treaty Organization one year later.

The most viable option would be for Russia to propose creating separate NATO and CSTO working groups. One could be a working group on Afghanistan that could address issues such as restoring the country, strengthening the Kabul government, fighting drug trafficking and guaranteeing Afghanistan's borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. A second working group could be on Pakistan. It would be in charge of issues related to the Waziristan war, assist the Pakistani government and guarantee the Durand Line (the current Afghanistan-Pakistan border). A third working group would address internal security in Central Asia.

The Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative could provide the mechanism underlying the activities of these groups. Focusing on Central Asian problems will help overcome the growing mistrust between Russia and NATO on issues of regional security in Central Asia that emerged after the Lisbon summit. Theoretically, it is possible to discuss the guarantees of the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Pakistan's nuclear security as well.

Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.


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