ROAR: Afghanistan “the basis” for rapprochement between Russia, NATO

Russia and NATO have begun practical fulfillment of the agreements to restore military ties in the framework of the joint council.

On January 26, Russia’s and NATO’s chiefs of staff approved a framework military cooperation treaty. They also agreed upon a military cooperation plan for the year 2010 Chief of the General Staff, General Nikolay Makarov, represented Moscow at the meeting.

Top military officials will hold their next meeting on May 6 in Brussels to finalize a draft treaty and determine joint practical actions. The military ties were frozen after the August 2008 events in the North Caucasus.

Makarov’s visit to NATO “has continued the chain of steps to restore relations between the alliance and Russia,” Gazeta daily said. It started last summer during the meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with his NATO counterparts in Corfu, and continued with the official meeting of the ministers in December and a recent visit by the alliance’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to Moscow, the paper said.

Now a new format of cooperation has become possible, the daily noted, citing its sources in NATO. Russian servicemen may take part not only in joint military exercises, but also in the alliance’s trainings and seminars, it added.

Russia has already supported NATO’s operation in Afghanistan, allowing military transit of US planes via its airspace. The two sides have also agreed to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and piracy.

The meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on January 26 focused on efforts in Afghanistan, where the alliance relies quite a lot on Moscow’s assistance, Russia’s envoy to the alliance Dmitry Rogozin said. NATO is interested in strengthening Afghanistan’s army, which “likes military equipment produced in Russia,” the envoy stressed.

Afghanistan was the only direction of cooperation between Russia and NATO that was not frozen in 2008, Kommersant daily noted. This issue has become “the basis” for the “rapprochement” that started last year. The negotiations on this issue will be continued at the international conference on Afghanistan on January 28 in London, the daily added.

“Russia is going to reconstruct Afghanistan for Western money,” the paper said. Moscow is ready to restore 142 industrial and infrastructure facilities in the war-torn country. According to Rogozin, Moscow expects to get these contracts “without tenders,” the daily noted. The work might be also financed by the international community, it added.

Western diplomats agree that the part of facilities built by Soviet specialists should be restored, however, they have spoken in favor of tenders, the paper said. The alliance has its own priorities in cooperation with Moscow in Afghanistan. They include supplies of Russian helicopters, cooperation in the fight against drug production and training of Afghan national troops and police on Russian territory.

However, the work on these directions is not going smoothly, Rogozin told the paper. Russia is ready to supply the helicopters to Afghanistan, but only on the commercial basis. It is not clear if the alliance is ready to pay for them.

Fighting drug trafficking is one of the key issues for Russia, and it proposed to create “a security belt around Afghanistan,” as well as the cooperation between the alliance and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in this sphere, but NATO is avoiding this,” the paper said.

The talks on the transit of NATO’s lethal military cargo through the Russian airspace are not easy either. “Let NATO first organize the transit of non-lethal cargo, about which we have been talking for two years, and then we will start negotiating the lethal one,” the envoy said.

Russia’s proposals on the reconstruction in Afghanistan will likely get a cold response in the West, Vedomosti daily said. “NATO’s priority in that country concerns reconstructing the agricultural sector and only separate infrastructure facilities,” the paper noted.

Another key task for Moscow is to “persuade NATO’s representatives to step up the fight against Afghan drug trafficking, from which Russia and countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States suffer a lot,” Moskovsky Komsomolets daily said.

Some results of the cooperation in this sphere have been already achieved. About 300 Afghan specialists in the sphere of fighting drug trafficking have been prepared during four years in the Moscow Region, in the framework of the joint pilot project of NATO and the Russian Interior Ministry. This year, the training of Afghan officers will be continued in Moscow Region and St. Petersburg.

At the same time, NATO’s partners want Russia to “widen supplies, maintenance and modernization of arms for Afghan troops,” the paper said. The alliance needs Russia’s fuel, helicopters and personnel for their maintenance, Tatyana Parkhalina, director of the Center for European Security, told the daily.

However, observers say that the two parties cannot boast of many joint programs. “The Russia-NATO Partnership for Peace program is 16 years old, but it has only one real achievement: the two sides have not become partners, but have saved peace,” Argumenty i Fakty weekly said.

Earlier, all attempts of military cooperation encountered political obstacles because the parties see Bosnia, Kosovo, South Ossetia and Iraq differently,” the weekly said. And when Georgia and Ukraine “rushed towards NATO,” talks lost any sense, it added.

This time, simultaneously with the Russia’s chief of staff his counterparts from Ukraine and Georgia were invited to Brussels. “The West is interested in Ukraine and Georgia… but these countries present no military interest and Georgian troops will not win the war in Afghanistan, the weekly said. Conversely, it is useful for NATO to speak about the cooperation with Russia, it added.

Many in Russia still take the NATO abbreviation in a negative way, Argumenty i Fakty said. “Of course, it is not a pro-Russian bloc, and one can hardly expect it to love our values,” it noted, adding that Moscow also should not “oppose itself to the alliance.”

“We can defend ourselves and our close allies,” the weekly said. “But in global operations, NATO can well do without Russia,” it added. “In Asia, the alliance counters terrorists who otherwise could have had a free hand for operations in the North Caucasus. If we cannot oppose the North Atlantic bloc, we should learn how to turn its activities to maximum advantage.”

The meeting of chiefs of staff has become a practical fulfillment of agreements achieved in December last year, political analyst Sergey Markedonov believes. “But can we say that the session of the Russia-NATO Council will be the turning point in resetting relations between Moscow and the alliance?” he asked, writing in Kommersant.

Before freezing its relations with Moscow, the bloc “exaggerated its strength and abilities and underestimated Russia’s interests in Eurasia,” the analyst said. The change of “the rhetoric of ‘hot August’ that has not brought real dividends to the alliance was inevitable,” he added.

“The events in the North Caucasus have demonstrated that despite the unwillingness to recognize Russia’s hegemony on the space of the former Soviet Union, NATO has no determination to openly oppose Moscow’s aspirations in that part of the world,” the analyst said.

However, improving relations with NATO is equally important for Russia, Markedonov said. “Otherwise, its involvement in Afghan affairs will not be limited only by the transit,” he stressed.

Sergey Borisov, RT