MOSCOW – Russia said Friday it would grant transit rights to U.S. military supplies bound for Afghanistan, but the move came after the Kremlin apparently pressured the ex-Soviet country of Kyrgyzstan to close a Central Asian air base leased to the United States.
U.S. officials suspect that although Kyrgyzstan announced the U.S. eviction from the Manas air base, Russia was behind it, having long been irritated by the U.S. presence in Central Asia.
The Russian decision to let U.S. supplies cross its territory opened an alternative to routes through Pakistan that are now being threatened by militant attacks, but U.S. officials were still left scrambling for alternatives to Manas.
The Kremlin appeared to be sending a clear new message to Washington: Russia is willing to help the United States on Afghanistan, but only on Moscow's terms.
Those terms include opening discussion on the thorny policy issues that Washington and Moscow have clashed on in recent years — NATO enlargement, missile defense in Europe, a new strategic arms control treaty. More importantly, they include the expectation that Washington must go through Moscow where Central Asia is concerned.
Russia may also be showing Washington that its positions aren't immovable — particularly where Afghanistan is concerned. Russia fears Afghanistan is collapsing into anarchy, leading to instability or Islamic radicals migrating northward through Central Asia.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had agreed days earlier to allow transit of U.S. non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan.
"We are now waiting for the American partners to provide a specific request with a quantity and description of cargo," Lavrov said Friday in remarks broadcast by Vesti-24 TV. "As soon as they do that we will issue relevant permissions."
He and other officials did not say whether the U.S. will be offered air or land transit corridors. Any new transit routes are unlikely to make up for the loss of Manas, home to tanker planes that refuel warplanes flying over Afghanistan as well as airlifts and medical evacuation operations.
The Kremlin last year signed a framework deal with NATO for transit of non-lethal cargo for coalition forces in Afghanistan and has allowed some alliance members, including Germany, France and Spain, to move supplies across its territory.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said Germany has been using air and land routes and France so far only has used air transit.
The U.S. has reached a preliminary deal with Kazakhstan to use its territory and officials have said they are considering resuming military cooperation with Uzbekistan, which neighbors Afghanistan.
That option is problematic for Washington: Uzbekistan kicked U.S. forces out of a base there after sharp U.S. criticism of the country's human rights record and the government's brutal quashing of a 2005 uprising.
Renewing those ties would also open the United States to new accusations it is working with an authoritarian government that tortures its citizens. Uzbekistan has also in the past faced a low-level insurgency from Islamic radicals, though a government crackdown has quelled much of it.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said talks with Kyrgyzstan on the Manas base are still ongoing. U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid suggested Friday that Kyrgyz officials may be divided over whether to close the base, a source of income for the impoverished nation.
"They've not told us they reached a final decision," Duguid said.
Kyrgyzstan's parliament delayed a vote on the government's decision until next week, and some Kyrgyz officials have indicated they may be willing to discuss the issue with the United States.
"There is no doubt the bill to revoke the basing agreement will be ratified," he said. "The fate of the air base has been sealed."
In a separate development, Tajikistan's president pledged Friday that his government would allow the transit of non-military supplies to coalition troops based in neighboring Afghanistan.
Still, Tajik routes are unlikely to greatly affect U.S. supplies because the mountainous country is hard to traverse by land and it already allows U.S. overflights.