Russia throws a wrench in NATO's worksFor the first time in the 60-year history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia will attend the alliance's summit meeting on April 2-4 in Bucharest, Romania.
It is clear that NATO will defer to a future date any decision to put Ukraine and Georgia on its Membership Action Plan. This means effectively that the two former Soviet republics cannot draw closer to NATO for another year at the very least, which in turn implies that the earliest the two countries can realize their membership claim would be in a four-year timeframe.
That is a huge gesture by NATO to Moscow's sensitivities. Conceivably, it clears the decks for what could prove to be a turning point in Russia-NATO relations. Russia may be about to join hands with NATO in Afghanistan. A clearer picture will emerge out of the intensive consultations of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia and the United States within the so-called "2+2" format due to take place in Moscow from Monday through Tuesday next week. From the guarded comments by both sides and the flurry of US diplomatic activity, it appears highly probable that Russia is being brought into the solution of the Afghanistan problem, along with NATO.
According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant and the Financial Times of London, the initiative came from Russia when its new ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin - erstwhile Russian politician with a controversial record as a staunch Russian nationalist who routinely berated the West - signaled a strong interest in this area at a recent meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at Brussels. The plan involves Russia providing a land corridor for NATO to transport its goods - "non-military materials" - destined for the mission in Afghanistan. Intensive talks have been going on since then over a framework agreement.
From the feverish pace of diplomatic activity, the expectation of the two sides seems to be that an agreement could be formalized at NATO's Bucharest summit. In an interview with German publication Der Spiegel on Monday, Rogozin confirmed this expectation, saying, "We [Russia] support the anti-terror campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I hope we can manage to reach a series of very important agreements with our Western partners at the Bucharest summit. We will demonstrate that we are ready to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan."
Russian diplomats have been quoted as saying that Moscow is engaged in consultations with the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as regards the proposed land corridor to be made available to NATO.
Given the complicated history of Russia-NATO relations, the issue is loaded with geopolitics. Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted as much at a joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow last Saturday. He said, "NATO is already overstepping its limits today. We have no problem to helping Afghanistan, but it is another matter when it is NATO that is providing the assistance. This is a matter beyond the bounds of the North Atlantic, as you are well aware."
Putin also took the opportunity to harshly criticize NATO's expansion plans: "At a time when we no longer have confrontation between two rival systems, the endless expansion of a military and political bloc seems to us not only unnecessary but also harmful and counter-productive. The impression is that attempts are being made to create an organization that would replace the United Nations, but the international community in its entirety is hardly likely to agree to such a structure for our future international relations. I think the potential for conflict would be only set to grow. These are arguments of a philosophical nature. You can agree or disagree."
The implications are obvious. Russia would be willing to cooperate with NATO, but on an equal and comprehensive basis, and, secondly, the sort of selective engagement of Russia by NATO that the US has been advocating will be unacceptable to Moscow. Significantly, Putin frontally questioned the standing of NATO's monopoly of conflict resolution in Afghanistan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also separately signaled Russia's readiness to provide military transit to Afghanistan for NATO provided "an agreement is concluded on all aspects of the Afghan problem between NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO]". Significantly, Lavrov was speaking immediately after the 7th session of the Russian-French Cooperation Council on Security Issues in Paris on Tuesday. He asserted that "most NATO members, including France", favor Moscow's idea of a NATO-CSTO cooperative framework over Afghanistan. Lavrov all but suggested that Washington was blocking such cooperation between NATO and the Russian-led CSTO.
On the face of it, Washington should jump at the Russian offer of support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Pakistan has proved to be an unreliable partner in the "war on terror". The growing political uncertainties in Pakistan put question marks on the wisdom of the US continuing to depend so heavily on Pakistan for ferrying supplies for its troops in Afghanistan.
US military spokesmen are on record as saying that about three fourths of all supplies are currently dispatched to Afghanistan via Pakistan. There are fundamental issues as well, such as the US's continued ability to influence Pakistani politics and, indeed, the evolution of Pakistan's political economy as such in the coming critical period.
The coming to power of the Awami National Party (ANP), an avowedly Pashtun nationalist leftist party, in the sensitive North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, further complicates political alignments.
ANP leader Amir Haider Khan Hoti bluntly told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an exclusive interview this week, "Our priorities are clear. We first want to move toward peace through negotiations [with the Taliban], jirgas [tribal councils], and dialogue. God willing, we will learn from [failed talks and jirgas in the past] and will try not to repeat the same mistakes. We will try to take into confidence our people, our tribal leaders, and our [clerics] - and together with them, we will try to move toward peace through negotiations."
Hoti didn't speak a word about the "war on terror" or the George W Bush administration's expectations of Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas. It remains a riddle why the Bush administration should have so far kept out of conflict resolution in Afghanistan countries such as Russia and China, whose interests are vitally affected, perhaps even more immediately than the US or European countries. As US statesman Henry Kissinger wrote in an article in the International Herald Tribune on Monday, "A strategic consensus remains imperative ... Pakistan's stability should not be viewed as an exclusively American challenge."
The million-dollar question is whether there is political will on the part of the Bush administration to reach a "strategic consensus" over Afghanistan with Russia at the forthcoming NATO summit. Clearly, Moscow is willing. NATO old-timers such as France and Germany, too, are conscious that the alliance may suffer a defeat in Afghanistan, which would be a catastrophic blow to its standing, and that NATO and Russia after all share the same goals in Afghanistan.
The Kremlin has badly cornered the Bush administration. Taking Russia's help at this critical juncture makes eminent sense for NATO. The alliance is struggling to cope with the war in Afghanistan. By the analogy of Iraq, some observers estimate that a force level close to half a million troops will be required to stabilize Afghanistan, given its size and difficult terrain.
But cooperation with Russia involves NATO embarking on cooperation with CSTO and possibly with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well. (Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, addressing the Security Council in New York on Wednesday, proposed that for effectively combating drug trafficking originating from Afghanistan, a system of security rings promoted by Russia in the Central Asian region in recent years would be useful and that the potential of CSTO and SCO should be utilized.)
What worries the US is that any such link up between NATO and CSTO and SCO would undermine its "containment" policy toward Russia (and China), apart from jeopardizing the US global strategy of projecting NATO as a political organization on the world arena.
The most damaging part is that Russia-NATO cooperation will inevitably strengthen Russia's ties with European countries and that, in turn, would weaken the US's trans-Atlantic leadership role in the 21st century.
At the meeting of the foreign ministers of the alliance at Brussels on March 6, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged the NATO Council to "take into account Russia's sensitivity and the important role it plays". Moreover, he argued, relations with Russia are already strained over Kosovo and the US's planned missile defense shield based in Europe, and should not be subjected to further strain. The French newspaper Le Monde quoted him as saying, "We [France] think that EU-Russia relations are absolutely important. And France is not the only country wanting to maintain a relationship with Russia as a great nation." (France is assuming the rotating EU presidency in July.)
Indeed, France is not alone in this respect. Germany also has lately shifted to equidistance between the US and Russia on global security issues and is reaching out once again - reminiscent of the Gerhard Schroeder era - as a strategic partner to Russia in European Union-Russia relations.
Two days after her recent visit to Moscow, Merkel addressed the prestigious forum of the German armed forces' top brass (Kommandeurtagung) in Berlin on Monday, where in the presence of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, she brusquely proceeded to bury the proposals on NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia even ahead of the Bucharest summit.
"Countries that are involved in regional or internal conflicts cannot become members," she said. Merkel added that aspiring countries must ensure that "qualitatively significant" domestic political support would be available for their accession to NATO. Germany has virtually blocked NATO's further expansion into the territories of the former Soviet Union - a declared goal of Russia.
By putting forth a bold blueprint of cooperation with NATO over Afghanistan, Russia has effectively challenged the US to make a choice. It is by no means an easy choice for Washington. How do you deal in the world of tomorrow with a country whose energy exports are close to reaching a milestone of US$1 billion per day? Russia's benchmark Urals crude topped a record of $100 per barrel this week and once it trades at $107.5 per barrel, the daily value of crude, refined products and gas exports will hit $1 billion. And, Russia's 2008 budget is based on an average Urals price of $65 per barrel.
Besides, post-Soviet Russia's influence in Central Asia has peaked even as the first real possibility of the emergence of a "gas OPEC" involving Russia and the Central Asian countries has appeared. This may well outshine all other foreign policy legacies of Russia in the Putin era. Russia has been for long seeking an association of former Soviet gas producers and exporters on the pattern of the oil cartel. Russia and the Central Asian suppliers - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - have now agreed that starting in 2009, they will switch to the European price formula.
The move, which bears all the hallmarks of the Kremlin, elevates energy cooperation between Russia and the Central Asian producers to an altogether higher level of coordination and common strategy in foreign markets. The implications are far-reaching for European countries and the US. Russia has checkmated US-sponsored trans-Caspian energy pipeline projects.
Surely, the great shortfall in the Putin legacy has been the failure of his presidency to make Russia a full-fledged partner of Europe. He has now made an offer to NATO that is irresistible - making Russia a participant in the alliance's Afghan mission. The Russian offer comes at a time when the war in Afghanistan is going badly and NATO can afford to take help from whichever quarter help is available.
Washington faces an acute predicament insofar as Moscow won't settle for selective engagement by NATO as a mere transit route but will incrementally broaden and deepen the engagement, and major European allies might welcome it. Moscow insists on the involvement of the CSTO and even SCO. On the other hand, Russia's involvement could invigorate the NATO mission in Afghanistan and ensure that the mission is not predicated on the highly unpredictable factor of Pakistan's partnership.
Will Washington bite? Putin, with his trademark fighting spirit of a black belt in karate, could well be counting that his presidency still has five or six weeks to go and that is a lot of time for making Russia NATO's number one partner globally and ensuring a durable place for Russia within the common European home.
At the very least, history comes full circle when Putin arrives in Bucharest in the next 18 days for the gala 60th anniversary summit of the alliance. That would be 54 years since the Soviet Union suggested it should join NATO to preserve peace in Europe.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).