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February 03, 2009

Devil Went Down to Georgia
Posted by Patrick Barry

It may be time to dispel any notions that the U.S. can waltz into better relations with Russia through cooperation on Afghanistan. If reports turn out to be true, and Kyrgyzstan does intend to shut us out of the vital transport hub at the Manas airbase, then Russia has scored a major diplomatic coup, one with broad and unpleasant ramifications for U.S. policy in Afghanistan.  It will mean that in the span of about two weeks, the Kremlin will have successfully pulled off a two-part maneuver to decisively wrest substantial control over affairs in their strategic orbit away from the U.S.  

Consider the sequencing.  First, you had the announcement late last month that Russia had granted Gen. Petraeus permission to move supplies for Afghanistan through Russian territory. Several commentators greeted this announcement as a sign of warming relations, but a skeptical few theorized the decision had more to do with both the Kremlin's desire to own policy in it's region, and a feeling that alternative transit routes running farther to the south would wind up empowering neighbor Georgia.  Russia may have been motivated by a concern that any supply route passing through Georgia could have eventually become the basis for transiting other commodities.  From that perspective, Russia's offer of assistance in Afghanistan looked a lot less altruistic. 

Then you have today's announcement that Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev plans to close U.S. access to the airbase at Manas, a transport hub for supplying the mission in Afghanistan. Based on the the fact that this announcement came "minutes" after Russia announced its intent to provide Kyrgyzstan with billions in foreign aid, Moscow's involvement seems clear.  This development, coupled with the earlier transit route agreement, means that Russia now wields significant leverage over U.S. Afghanistan policy, controlling a supply artery that seems to grow more vital by the day. Moreover, they appear to have deliberately calibrated their policies to attain that leverage, which makes one wonder what else might be in store.

What implications these events will have on U.S. policy toward Russia going forward is unclear. Speculation that the Obama administration is planning a big nuclear arms reduction initiative demonstrates why a cooperative relationship is in both countries' interests.  However, the developments in Afghanistan show that attaining better relations will not be easy.


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