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U.S.-Russian Accord On Transit Of Military Cargo Fails To Get Off The Ground

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in July -- was their "deliverable" actually delivered?
U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in July -- was their "deliverable" actually delivered?
When Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama met in Moscow last July, their primary aim was to push negotiations on a replacement for the expiring START nuclear-arms treaty.

The two leaders promised to deliver an agreement before the end of 2009 -- a deadline that has since lapsed amid talks that are reportedly growing ever more contentious.

Still, the presidents were able to smile and shake hands over one key "deliverable": an agreement that would allow the United States to transit lethal military cargo via Russian airspace to Afghanistan. That deal was said to mark an important uptick in bilateral cooperation on stabilizing Afghanistan, a goal that both sides emphasize is in their strategic interests.

Speaking a few days after the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized the grand scale of the accord, saying, "the U.S. military plans to carry out a significant number of flights, up to 4,000-and-something per year."

But six months later, that agreement has produced no significant results, despite the growing insecurity of U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan through Pakistan and the dramatic increase in the number of coalition forces deployed in the region.

The inability of the two sides to implement this seemingly straightforward agreement may illustrate the difficulty that Moscow and Washington have in separating out areas of common interest from the complex of contentious disputes that characterize bilateral relations generally.

One Flight Or Two?

U.S. Pentagon spokeswoman Almarah Belk told RFE/RL there have been just two test flights into Afghanistan under the agreement, the first of which landed at Bagram Air Base near Kabul in October.

One flight or two makes little difference.
Andrew Kuchins, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the co-director of the institute's research project on the so-called Northern Distribution Network to supply Afghanistan, says there were test flights in October and November.

Russian sources, including Viktor Ozerov, the chairman of the Federation Council's Defense and Security Committee, say there has only been one flight.

Whether there has been one flight or two in half a year, the figure is far below the 12 daily flights originally envisioned.

Officially, the Pentagon asserts that all needed supplies are reaching coalition troops and that Russia has never denied a request for a transit flight. The Pentagon and independent analysts emphasize that the ground transit of nonlethal cargo across Russia to Afghanistan is generally proceeding smoothly.

At The Mercy Of Kremlin Policy?

But there is more to the story of the nonimplementation of the July agreement. For one thing, the original accord was overplayed in the context of a summit where expectations had been raised by weeks of talk of "resetting" relations, but where there was actually precious little agreement, says Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations:

"There was a clear desire by both parties to come out of the Moscow summit between Presidents Medvedev and Obama with some tangible, deliverable agreements," Korski says.

"Most of the agreements were incredibly contentious and complex -- such as what to do with the different military treaties, what to do with the missile-defense shield, and so on. And this agreement to provide the facility for transportation of supplies across Russian territory, in a sense, was the simplest one of all the different agreements that were discussed."

"And so it is obvious that both parties wanted it to be highlighted as a success," Korski adds, "even though it may actually take longer to figure out what goes on, and even though there may still be some reticence across the Russian military establishment."

The CSIS's Kuchins also emphasizes the political origins of the agreement, saying air transit over Russia was "not something high on [the Pentagon's] want-list," although the U.S. military is happy to have alternative supply routes. Pentagon spokeswoman Belk described the July agreement as "a redundancy system."

Julian Lindley-French, a professor of strategic studies at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, says no Western military "would ever wish to put its forces entirely at the mercy of Kremlin policy."

"We all know from past experience that the Kremlin can use whatever lever it can to try to influence Western policy and Western forces," he says, "and I cannot imagine for the life of me that Washington would want to be that vulnerable to a Kremlin veto."

A Complex Calculus

But there are increasing indications that even on the political level, this agreement was not as straightforward as Washington and Moscow indicated during the summer.

While both countries have a strategic interest in stabilizing Afghanistan, Russia seems to be treating the issue as merely part of a larger political calculus. Analyst Korski argues that Moscow sees the air-transit agreement as more beneficial to the United States than to Russia, and therefore may be seeking additional advantages.

Does Russia expect the United States to fail in Afghanistan?
"I think it is in both Russia's and America's interests that Afghanistan stabilizes. And I think the Russians, to some extent, are playing a bit of a parochial game, in that they would prefer that America does not fail, but they are not doing everything they can to [help America] succeed," Korski says.

"And in some respects, this agreement is not something the Russians seem to be approaching as useful to them as well, because it will help America and the international coalition to succeed in Afghanistan. But rather, it's something they are approaching from a narrow perspective of scoring immediate points for Russia."

Russian Federation Council member Ozerov conceded in comments to RFE/RL's Russian Service that Moscow has tied implementation of the transit agreement to the broader range of contentious issues that bedeviled the July summit.

"It is big politics. And in politics, games can be played," Ozerov said. "We tell the U.S. that we'll give you military transit, and they say to us, 'give us the telemetry of your new missiles.' How can we reach an agreement with such brazenness? It's laughable.

"We say to them, since you have occupied Afghanistan, you should also fight against opium. And they say, no, this has to be done with special police forces. And we say, we're giving you military transit, but then what?"

In addition to such explicit linkages, Ozerov emphasizes Russia's pragmatic approach to the Afghanistan problem. "Today we must have a foreign policy that meets Russia's interests" he said. "Yes, at various stages we can bring our policy in line with the interests of the international community, but doing so, we must be careful that we are not deceived."

Moscow's New Consensus

Korski says Moscow is becoming "uncomfortable" with the prospect of a NATO victory in Afghanistan and, as a result, is "half-hearted" in its commitment to assisting the effort there.

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer goes further, arguing that a "consensus" has formed in Moscow that NATO will fail in Afghanistan.

"There is, of course, undoubtedly a political subtext in what is happening. A consensus has developed in Moscow among specialists, the military, diplomats, and the political class generally that the U.S.-led coalition is losing in Afghanistan and that the current situation there is similar to what happened with the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s," Felgenhauer says.

"And if the Soviet Union collapsed, now NATO will collapse -- or it will lose, certainly. If we lost there, then the Americans will lose there. So no one is in any particular hurry to support a hopeless and losing operation."

Throughout the first year of the Obama administration, officials in both Moscow and Washington have asserted it is possible for the two countries to cooperate in areas of mutual interest, particularly nuclear arms control, combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, insuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear arms, fighting international terrorism, and so on.

But the failure over the last six months to implement the military transit agreement shows that the practice of isolating such areas of mutual interest is far from easy.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Danila Galperovich contributed to this report from Moscow

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