The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s exclusive interview to the Afghan channel TOLO (which was telecast on Sunday evening) will be carefully analysed in the world chancelleries — both in terms of its content and timing. Russian thinking on the Afghan situation is multi-dimensional.
In a manner of speaking, it mixes memory with pleasure, since the United States is in a somewhat comparable situation to what the former Soviet Union faced in the latter half of the 1980s. The major difference is that Moscow is not inflicting any pain on the US in retaliation for what Washington did to bleed the Red Army during the Afghan jihad. But all the same, it is only human if some people in Moscow are smiling at the quirks of fate.
A great feature of Russian strategic thinking is that it is coolly logical, realistic and unfailingly pragmatic to suit the national interests. And in this case, America is indeed fighting Russia’s war against Islamist radicalism and terrorism — albeit unintentionally or unwillingly. Russia’s interests lie in an eradication of the pernicious extremist elements that threaten to destabilise Central Asia, which, of course, is Russia’s ’soft underbelly’. Moscow is delighted that the West is attending to this important business, which saves Russia a lot of resources that would otherwise have been committed on this front.
Russia always counts the roubles in its kitty very carefully — Bolsheviks fired up by futile ideological notions were a foolish exception and history has since resumed on the Volga. So, if and when Moscow lends any support to the US and NATO war effort, it is compulsively put on a commercial basis. Unlike the ebullient Gen. Pervez Musharraf who agreed spontaneously and enthusiastically to provide transit routes through Pakistani air space, seaports and highways for the NATO supplies to be transported ad infinitum, Moscow insists on levying a hefty transit fee from Brussels. Again, if NATO wants Russian supplies such as helicopters for the war effort, that, too, is not a problem so long as Brussels pays. Russia even entered into a service contract with NATO to repair and maintain the helicopters.
This hard-headed realism is something that Pakistanis (and Indians) ought to admire and emulate. India apparently spent something over 1 billion dollars on Afghan infrastructure development, but in contrast, as Lavrov pointed out, Moscow’s willingness to repair, overhaul or reconstruct the Salaang Highway (Afghanistan’s vital communication link between the south and north) is all dependent on the funding by someone else — although Salang was originally built by the Soviets and Moscow still keeps the drawings on that mind-blogging engineering marvel. (Try to take a walk, as I once did, through the 2.6 kilometer long Salaang Tunnel. It even has a duct for fresh oxygen to breathe at that height of 11000 feet.)
Quite obviously, Moscow is unhappy that the US, which is strapped for cash, is inclined to call it a day and exit from Afghanistan. Lavrov says emphatically with a straight face that the US and NATO must fulfil the mandate given to them by the UN Security Council to stabilise Afghanistan and shouldn’t pull out the troops before that or contemplate timelines such as ‘transition’ through 2013 or end of ‘combat mission’ by 2014. To an outsider, it might seem Lavrov is taking Russia to become a member of the NATO.
Does it mean that Moscow is suddenly showing enthusiasm for the war — almost Indian-style enthusiasm for the US-led war? Certainly, not. It seems to me that Lavrov is fully conscious that Barack Obama will ultimately decide only in terms of US interests and in the given situation, that decision is going to be to get rid of this useless war somehow, which is a drain on America’s resources and an Albatross on the American neck impeding its imperial march on the global commons.
The question, then, is why Lavrov said that the ‘combat mission’ should continue. To my mind, as an inveterate observer of Lavrov’s mind, he was actually highlighting the fundamental contradiction in the US policies by claiming on the one hand that there is no need of ‘combat mission’ beyond 2014 while insisting that there is need for permanent military bases in Afghanistan nonetheless beyond 2014. That is to say, Russia is furious that the US is suo moto transforming the war and making it an alibi to create a platform for the pursuit of its global strategies.
It’s geopolitics, Stupid! In fact, Lavrov doesn’t mince words in opposing the US game plan to set up military bases in Afghanistan. Moscow can see that Obama is keen to wrap up a strategic pact with Karzai before the NATO summit in Chicago. That is, Moscow estimates that the crunch time is coming.
An engrossing portion of Lavrov’s interview is as regards the issue of Afghan national reconciliation. The Russian thinking seems to flow this way: A. Moscow won’t oppose Taliban’s reconciliation as such. B. But Moscow wants this reconciliation to be part of an intra-Afghan process. C. Moscow disfavors the US’ secretive dealings with the Taliban and indeed the lack of transparency in the entire process. D. On the other hand, Moscow is supportive of Karzai — and is, arguably, encouraged by the Afghan president’s pluckiness to plough his own furrow. E. The bottom line is an inclusive settlement that accommodates the diverse Afghan groups. F. The role of outsiders should be minimal as mere facilitators.
Interestingly, Lavrov didn’t voice any criticism of Pakistan — directly or indirectly. Nor did he pitch for a role for Russia or even the SCO. He didn’t seem sanguine about the prospects of stability in Afghanistan in a foreseeable future.
Without doubt, Moscow intends to keep the Afghan problem as a template in the US-Russia reset. Russia holds a few advantages here and it intends to leverage them. The offer of Ulyanovsk as a a transportation hub for the NATO’s Afghan supplies is the latest breathtaking example. The full transcript of Lavrov’s interview is here.