The Washington Times - February 18, 2009, 10:48PM

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that Russia is “working against” U.S. efforts to retain a crucial resupply base for the war in Afghanistan, speaking to reporters en route to Poland for a meeting of NATO defense ministers.

“The Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan, in terms of Manas,” Mr. Gates said, referring to the air base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

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The Kyrgyz government said earlier this month that they would tell the U.S. military to vacate the Manas base after the Russian government promised to a $2 billion loan, which is much more than the $150 million paid each year by the U.S. government for use of the base.

The Kremlin has denied any connection between their loan and the Kyrygz government’s decision, and has offered to let the U.S. transport troops and equipment to Afghanistan through Russian territory. Russia has also pledged to help the NATO-led force in Afghanistan if the U.S. makes certain concessions.

“And the question is,” Gates said Wednesday, “on one hand you’re making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan, and on the other hand you’re working against us in terms of that air field, which is clearly important to us.”

Gates said that there will likely be talks with the Russians “on the sidelines” of the two-day summit in Krakow Thursday and Friday, but that “the way forward” for U.S.-Russia relations is under review at the White House.

“That needs to be the result of a review of the relationship led by the [National Security Council] that involves the State Department and so on in terms of where we go from here, in terms of the relationship,” he said.

There are Russian behaviors that are a concern to us. We also need the Russians in other areas, and so we need to work this relationship through, I think, in a constructive way that allows us to move forward. But at the same time, mindful of some of their actions that still give us a problem.”

The Obama administration sent two top officials to Moscow late last week to talk with the Kremlin, the Times’ Nicholas Kralev reported.

Gates also said Wednesday that the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine — both former Soviet Republics — to join NATO will not “be a central issue” at the defense ministers’ meeting.

Just under a year ago, Georgia and Ukraine very nearly were voted into the membership process, at last year’s summit in Bucharest. But pressure from the Kremlin on European countries prevented the two nations from gaining entry. In August, Russia invaded Georgia, destroying much of the nation’s transportation and military infrastructure.

As for Afghanistan, Gates acknowledged that it unlikely that NATO countries will contribute any significant additional troops to the country any time soon, one day after President Obama announced an increase of roughly 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

“I think the likelihood of getting the allies to commit significant numbers of additional troops is not very great,” Gates said, noting that NATO allies have sent 15,000 additional troops over the last year.

The U.S. currently has about 36,000 troops in Afghanistan, and NATO countries have about 32,000 soldiers.

Gates said, however, that NATO allies can still increase their commitment in civilian resources.

“We really need additional help on the civilian side. There needs to be a civilian strengthening on the civilian side as we are strengthening on the military side. And frankly, I think that it may be — I hope that it may be easier for our allies to do that than significant troop increases, especially for the longer term,” he said.

The upcoming NATO summit April 3-4 in Strasbourg-Kehl, on the Franco-German border, will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the alliance, which was formed after World War II to defend Europe against Soviet aggression.

I wrote last weekend about how the Obama administration has changed the U.S. approach to Russia from the way the Bush administration handled it. This is a story being overlooked now that will be important to watch over the next few years.

- Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times