U.S.–Russia: A Stress Test over Afghanistan

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Russia is trying to exploit U.S. vulnerability in Afghanistan by squeezing concessions on European missile defense. This is a disturbing development, potentially threatening security of the U.S. logistical operations.

The campaign of anti-Americanism led by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, culminated in his remarks before the Duma that Russia may link its opposition to the NATO missile defense in Europe to the future of the NATO supply line to Afghanistan. This complex logistics operation, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), is responsible for 40 percent of NATO supplies, while 50 percent goes through Pakistan.

However, the land routes via Pakistan are currently suspended due to the November 26 NATO attacks on a Pakistani border post. The route remains dangerous, as the supply vehicles are attacked and the road is regularly sabotaged.

The NDN is more crucial now than ever for two reasons. First is the fraying relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, especially in light of the recent NATO operation that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and unanswered questions about Osama bin Laden’s long sojourn in Abbotabad, the Pakistani garrison city a two-hour drive from the capital city, Islamabad.

The second reason the NDN is crucial is the current Administration’s plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The NDN is soon to become a two-way street. With soldiers returning home, the equipment will need to go with them. Capture of NATO military supplies by the Taliban is not an option. The U.S. and NATO are busy negotiating their way out and have started stockpiling equipment for removal in northern Afghanistan, to be shipped further west.

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Russia’s attempt to link the NDN to missile defense demonstrates the failure of the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy. The reset had two main functions: sweeping disagreements under the rug and showering the Kremlin with concessions.

Russia has argued for years that NATO’s proposed missile defense system is somehow damaging to its security interests by directly threatening Russia’s nuclear deterrent force—in case it launches a nuclear strike against the U.S. This issue is brought to the forefront, repeatedly, through periodic bouts of hysteria emanating from Moscow.

NATO officials maintain that the proposed defense system is intended to protect Europe from a possible limited missile strike from the Middle East—specifically, Iran. Rogozin’s comments mark the first time a senior Kremlin official has suggested limiting Russian cooperation with NATO regarding Afghanistan as a retaliatory measure against the U.S. position on missile defense.

In these difficult times for the U.S. and its allies, a senior Russian official decided to speak brashly—without considering the consequences for his country. It is an open question whether this was a trial balloon approved on the highest level, or Rogozin simply ad-libbing.

While the Obama Administration works hard to provide Russia with coveted membership in the World Trade Organization, some Russian policymakers are dreaming up new ways to undermine U.S. foreign policy, hoping that a payback for the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan is around the corner.

Rogozin forgets that if the U.S. contingent in Afghanistan is trapped or leaves in haste, the Russian troops may need to fight the Taliban on the Tajik border. This will be a disaster for a country that was defeated in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Russia does not have the resources, personnel, or credible allies for such an open-ended engagement.

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The Obama Administration must recognize that the reset has reached its limits. The White House should clarify to the Putin–Medvedev administration that Rogozin is out of line and that a mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Russia is contingent on full cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan.

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