Russia considers Nato request for helicopters

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has asked the Kremlin to provide Russian helicopters and spare parts to bolster the Nato campaign in Afghanistan. What the alliance chief got was a promise that the Russian government would consider the request. Stability in Afghanistan is important for both sides, but can they put their differences behind them to make it happen?

Meeting in Moscow, Rasmussen told president Medvedev that Afghanistan should become the focus of renewed Nato-Russia cooperation. “I do believe that it’s also essential for Russia that we succeed in Afghanistan,” Rasmussen told a press conference after his meeting with Mr Medvedev.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, agreed that there is “substantial” scope for co-operation on Afghanistan. “Russia, the United States and Nato have… close interests in Afghanistan and, although Russia is not interested in getting directly involved, it will do several things to help the Americans continue their effort to create the conditions for withdrawal,” he said. Russia would benefit greatly from a defeated Taliban in Afghanistan, but shies away from direct involvement in the US-led campaign because of its own traumatic experience of fighting in the war-torn country from 1979 to 1989.

Rasmussen’s trip to Moscow hoped to elicit Russia’s indirect assistance. “I suggested a helicopter package. I think Russia could contribute in a very concrete way by providing helicopters, helicopter training and spare parts,” Reuters quoted Rasmussen as saying. A helicopter shortage has long been a problem for Nato in Afghanistan and it has been said for some time that Russian helicopters could be the answer. In October Dmitry Shugayev, deputy director of the state-owned Russian Technology corporation, announced that his company was prepared to provide coalition forces with helicopters on commercial terms. But there is still little to show for all this talk. Why has there been no breakthrough?

As long as Nato is reliant on Russia for cooperation on Afghanistan, Moscow has a bargaining chip with which to influence other areas of Nato policy, said Margot Light, emeritus professor and guest lecturer on international relations at the London School of Economics. “One could argue that it’s already used it in that way in relation to the Nato response to the Georgian war,” said Light. Although Nato condemned Russia for its role in the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, many said the alliance’s response was too mild. The Nato-Russia council was suspended, but was up and running again less than a year later. “So, if the Russians can use cooperation on Afghanistan again, then they will… They’d be foolish not to, in a way,” she said.

But Lukyanov said delays in establishing cooperative efforts stem from the two sides giving different weight to different aspects of the Afghanistan campaign. “For example, Russia has special interests in combating drugs in Afghanistan because drug trafficking to Russian territory is huge and growing. But America and Nato for understandable reasons are less keen to do it, because if they really start eradicating drugs, it could have an extremely destabilising, rather than a stabilising effect in Afghanistan,” he said.

It is still unclear whether a breakthrough is imminent. But last week marked the first trip from a Nato chief since the Russia-Georgia conflict last year. The US-Russian “reset” seems to be gaining traction in relations with Nato. Russia is now in a position to help the transatlantic security alliance not only with helicopters, but also with new transit routes across Russia for Nato supplies destined for Afghanistan. And the bottom line is that indirectly contributing to the campaign would benefit Russia. If the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan after US and Nato troops exit, then Muslim Central Asia, Russia’s “backyard”, will once again be vulnerable to the spread of Islamic extremism. And that will be Russia’s problem, said Lukyanov.

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