The Duck of Minerva

How do you say “Great Game” in Russian?

6 February 2009

For some time now, NATO and Russia have engaged in on-again, off-again discussions about supplying Afghanistan via the Russian Federation. So consider this sequence of events:

1. An increasingly hard-currency strapped Kremlin offers Kyrgyzstan $2 billion in aid.
2. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev announces that he’s expelling the US and NATO from Manas.
3. The Russians agree to give the US transit rights for non-military supplies headed for Afghanistan.

As the BBC reports:

Russia has long opposed the presence of American military forces in Central Asia, says the BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow.

Russia says it has agreed to a request from the US to allow the transit of non-military Nato supplies across its soil, but says it is waiting for details of specific shipments before issuing permissions.

“As soon as that happens we will give the corresponding permission,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, quoted by Russian media.

For the US, the base closure comes at a critical moment, as the new administration of President Barack Obama plans a sharp increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan.

For Russia, on the other hand, its closure would be a significant diplomatic victory as it seeks to reassert its influence in all former Soviet republics and beyond, analysts say.

Now, a cynic might see an additional motive for the Russians. If Russia became a key supply route for Afghanistan, that would certainly give Moscow some leverage over the US and NATO on a variety of other issues. At the very least, they get to play “the good guys” as part of their bid to de-ice US-Russian relations.

The advantage may not last, however.

The US is negotiating with both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to acquire a replacement for Manas, and the BBC reports that a US-Uzbek deal may be very close.

Despite the K2 fiasco, in fact, a number of reports suggest increasingly low-level US-Uzbek cooperation prior to the last few days; one has to wonder if Islam Karimov might be concerned about the consequences of the Russians consolidating their position in Central Asia.

UPDATE: Patrick Barry got their first, and adds some stuff I didn’t address about how this all relates to Georgia and the potential Georgia-Azerbaijan transit route.

It seems I need to start reading Democracy Arsenal again.