- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

MOSCOW | Russia said Friday it will allow the United States to ship weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, a long-sought move that bolsters U.S. military operations but potentially gives the Kremlin leverage over critical American supplies.

The announcement by a top Kremlin aide came ahead of President Obama’s visit to Moscow next week, when the deal is expected to be signed during a summit aimed at improving the nations’ strained relations.

Russia has been allowing the United States to ship non-lethal supplies across its territory for operations in Afghanistan, and Kremlin officials had suggested further cooperation was likely.

Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko told reporters Friday that the expected deal would enable the U.S. to ship lethal cargo and would include shipments by air and land.

He said it was not clear whether U.S. soldiers or other personnel would be permitted to travel through Russian territory or airspace.

“They haven’t asked us for it,” he said.

The normal supply route to landlocked Afghanistan via Pakistan has come under repeated Taliban attack, and the U.S. and NATO have been eager to have an alternate overland supply route through Russia and the Central Asian countries.

Confirmation of such a deal appeared aimed at setting a constructive tone for the meetings between Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday and Tuesday. After years of increasing strain, both governments have expressed hope the summit will put relations between the former Cold War rivals back on track.

Military analyst Alexander Golts, however, said the U.S. should be under no illusions about Russia’s intentions. Although Mr. Medvedev has set a warmer tone in relations with the West, his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, retains considerable power as prime minister.

“The least impression you should get from this is that Putin’s foreign policy style foresees gestures of good will,” Mr. Golts said.

Mr. Obama, in a pre-trip interview Thursday, told the Associated Press that Mr. Putin needed to “understand that the Cold War approach to U.S.-Russian relationship is outdated” and that Mr. Putin had “one foot in the old ways of doing business.”

Mr. Putin rejected the charge Friday, saying Russians were standing firmly on both feet.

“We are standing firmly on both feet and always look to the future. That is the peculiarity of Russia. That has always allowed Russia to move forward and get stronger. That will continue,” Reuters news agency quoted Mr. Putin as saying on state television.

While the Afghanistan transit agreement is a positive development, serious rifts remain over other defense issues. The U.S. and Russia want to forge a nuclear arms reduction agreement to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty treaty, which expires in December.

But talks on a new treaty are complicated by Russia’s push for the U.S. to scrap the previous administration’s plans for missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe.

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