The arrival of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the NATO Summit in Bucharest April 2-4 may prove to be a turning point in the relationship between the Alliance and Russia, not only signaling potential future cooperation over Afghanistan, but also opening a more constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington relating to key geopolitical and security issues. Coming at a vital point, as both Moscow and Washington face transition in their presidential leaderships in the coming months, Bucharest may yield a framework within which security cooperation will flourish. Many Western observers have been preoccupied with the issue of NATO enlargement and the objections presented by Moscow especially over extending Membership Action Plans (MAP) to Ukraine and Georgia. Putin, however, has raised the prospect of deepening Russia’s cooperation with NATO in its most critical challenge: Afghanistan.
Optimism has been expressed in Brussels. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on March 15 that he was hopeful that increased cooperation with Russia might be realistic. In particular, this has emerged from a Russian proposal within the NATO Russia Council for opening land and air corridors for Alliance access to Afghanistan. NATO hopes to gain these agreements for its troops and equipment, which could involve the lease of Russian planes and trains, Russian training for Afghan helicopter pilots and counter-narcotics assistance. Scheffer explained, “I hope that Afghanistan might be an area where NATO and Russia can make strides to cooperate more closely together” (Interfax, March 15).
While this was not being presented as a “done deal” there were clear indications that the Alliance had taken such prospective cooperation very seriously, and anticipated a possible conclusion to such a deal at the Bucharest Summit. One thing is clear, President Putin’s step in traveling to the NATO Summit is deeper and more strategically significant than what cynics view as mere pressure to preclude extending MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia. This appears to have been openly blocked by Berlin ahead of the summit, with diplomatic sources in Brussels suggesting that any offer to these countries may be scaled down.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met their counterparts Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov in Moscow on March 17 and 18 within the two-plus-two format. Both sides discussed the most controversial area of disagreement between Washington and Moscow, namely, missile defense. Both sides essentially stuck to their positions, but there were signs of some tentative progress. Washington is intensifying its efforts to allay Russia’s concerns about deploying components of the missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moreover, a “strategic cooperation” framework document was discussed, in an effort to find common ground and ways of emphasizing cooperation rather than disagreement.
On March 18 a conciliatory tone was adopted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “We are satisfied with the development of relations. Both sides clearly understand the need to step up efforts regarding the agreements reached and minimize the differences on some issues. This is natural between great powers,” Lavrov said. In his view, Washington and Moscow understand the need to increase efforts to implement agreements and downplay differences. Praising the two-plus-two format, Lavrov sought to promote a more positive view of relations between Washington and Moscow. “We appreciate this format. This was confirmed during a telephone conversation of the Russian and U.S. presidents. Three days before the negotiations, President George Bush phoned [President-elect] Dmitriy Medvedev, and they agreed to ensure continuity in all areas of the partnership, including military-technical cooperation, international relations, and economic and humanitarian ties,” Lavrov said (ITAR-TASS, March 18). In some ways, while it was predictable that progress on missile defense, the CFE Treaty, or other areas of contention would be limited to rhetoric, these consultations also had an eye on the presidential transition in Moscow. Both Rice and Gates were keen to meet Medvedev, for instance, as well as to testing the atmosphere ahead of Putin’s attending the NATO Summit in Bucharest.
“The issue is ripe because relations between such countries cannot be built on the ‘reaction-stimulus’ principle with the sides taking turns to act as they please and the other side responding to this action. The agreement to devise this document shows Russia and the U.S. both understand that their policies are considerably interdependent and contain global aspects,” noted Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee. In fact, the two-plus-two talks appeared to recognize implicitly that Washington and Moscow’s strategic security agendas could eclipse the NATO enlargement debate at the Alliance’s Bucharest summit. “Consequently, our bilateral relations are turning into multilateral, and the fact that the sides have noted that their stances coincide on a majority of issues comprising the Russian-US relations inspires optimism,” Margelov said. (Interfax, March 18).
President Putin’s presence at the NATO summit, should it result in agreement over greater cooperation on Afghanistan, will have important security implications for Central Asia. It has been reported that Russian diplomats are currently canvassing support for the land/air corridor to Afghanistan in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Russian cooperation with NATO over Afghanistan could stumble on the concept of multilateral cooperation involving NATO and the CSTO. Brussels has thus far resisted Russian efforts to initiate such interaction. Moreover, the Moscow led strategy, expressed in the language of the SCO, envisaging the formation of a “security belt” around Afghanistan, could feed into this latest drive to stimulate security cooperation on Russia’s southern periphery. Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001 after President Putin facilitated the opening of airspace in Central Asia in order to support the overthrow of the Taliban; since that time cooperation between Washington and Moscow in the War on Terror has faltered on the rocks of “zero-sum” calculations. Putin leaves office in May 2008 offering another opportunity for security synergy between the U.S. and Russia in Afghanistan. The real test may come when Medvedev assumes the presidency, and how this translates into a new dynamic in U.S.-Russia relations between Medvedev and his future counterpart in Washington.