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Swords and Shields: Cutting supply lines

Posted by Kris Roman on February 18, 2009

Despite Moscow’s assurances of support and cooperation in efforts to defeat the Taliban, Russia appears to be working hard to undermine NATO supply lines to the troops in Afghanistan.

The coalition forces have used part of Manas Air Base as a military airfield since December 2001. They have set up semi-permanent hangars, aircraft maintenance facilities and a cargo depot, as well as a tent city near the airport to host the troops.

In 2002 the European members of the coalition forces were deployed at Manas. Their aircraft included the French Dassault Mirage 2000N fighter jet, and the joint Dutch, Danish and Norwegian wing of the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighter aircraft. The Boeing (formerly McDonnell-Douglas) KC-10 Extender aerial tanker aircraft provided refueling support. However, the Europeans, who have better ties with Russians than the Americans, did not pull their weight to ensure a comprehensive NATO deal for logistics. Instead, the Germans and the French cut their own deals for shipping facilities.

Russia has long pursued the policy of squeezing the United States out of the former Soviet Union. And despite the acute economic crisis in Russia, the Kremlin is seeking to carve out “privileged spheres of interest” in Eurasia and exert dominance over the independent states in the former Soviet Union, specifically in Central Asia — to the detriment of U.S. priorities in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan gave in to the pressure to evict the Manas U.S. air base from its international airport at Bishkek after Moscow promised to provide massive financial injections to the impoverished Kyrgyz economy — a $2 billion loan and a $150 million aid package, plus debt relief from Russia.

This may be a good bargain for Kyrgyzstan, but it’s a bad deal for the Pentagon and NATO. Washington pays some $150 million per year to Kyrgyzstan, $63 million of which was linked to using Manas.

Moscow is aware that consolidating power in Central Asia costs a lot, and it’s ready to pay despite its own economy facing the worst turndown since the Asian financial crisis of 1998 caused Moscow to default on its state bonds and sent the ruble plummeting 75 percent against the dollar.

Still, the Tony Soprano approach to geopolitics seems to work. After causing Manas to shut down, Moscow is now offering its own aircraft to ferry ammo and supplies to Afghanistan. As they say in the Northern New Jersey waste management business, “You can use only our trucks and facilities. If you want to use your own, fuhgedaboudit!”

In other words, the Kremlin is sending the message that the West must come to the Kremlin first to ask for access to Central Asia. And it may help, for a price. If an agreement to supply the U.S. troops in Afghanistan via Russian cargo aircraft, military bases and Central Asian hubs is signed, some Russian interests with high-level military ties will control the cash flows from the transit.

Despite Moscow’s assurances of cooperation in efforts to defeat the Taliban, Russia appears not to be dealing in good faith. No wonder Washington is desperate to find a secure alternative via the states bordering Afghanistan. An alternative northern route — five times longer, but much more secure — could start in the German ports, proceed by railway via Poland to Central Asia, and further by trucks to Afghanistan. Another corridor, via Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, would increase time of shipment, but would reduce cost and would be more secure.

The pending closure of Manas demonstrates that redundancy may be a good thing, especially in global logistical operations supporting far-flung expeditionary troop deployments.

(Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Catherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation).

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