Only a couple of short months after the United States and Russia exchanged encouraging remarks about resetting troubled relations, the two countries find themselves again at odds over Georgia. Last week, NATO began monthlong military exercises in Georgia that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called an “open provocation.”
It’s unfortunate that these current NATO exercises have the capacity to disrupt much broader strategic interests that the United States and Russia have in common, most notably the mutual fight against al Qaeda. At stake are strong U.S.-Russian cooperative efforts in defeating al Qaeda and stopping its encroachment into the Central Asian and Caucasus regions.
Although NATO describes the exercises, run by its Partnership for Peace program, as routine and small-scale (only 1,000 soldiers or so will take part), Russia credibly argues that, less than a year after its war with Georgia, any NATO training there is confrontational. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made Russia’s concern very clear, saying it was “dangerous to appease the current Georgian regime, which has in no way abandoned attempts to solve its problems via militarization and the use of force.” Other countries originally planning to participate in the NATO exercises seem to think so as well. Armenia, Kazakhstan, Serbia and Moldova have already pulled out of the exercises.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a threat not only to the United States and Russia, but to many other countries as well. Handling this threat requires a joint Herculean effort similar to, or perhaps even more substantial than, the anti-Nazi alliance during World War II. This time, the task is more complicated. We face dedicated and hardened fanatics without a centralized government, using different warfare techniques, and working through numerous cells that enjoy support - even if just moral support - throughout the world.
In Pakistan, considered a U.S. ally, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups feel comfortable enough to plan and execute major terror attacks and disrupt supply lines to U.S. and NATO forces, sometimes with a helping hand from Pakistani security services. So working together has taken on new importance, especially as NATO seeks Russian cooperation in the war in Afghanistan, and the West seeks Moscow’s help with Iran’s nuclear program.
It is the West’s goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, and it is in Russia’s strategic interests to join the West in this fight. Working together toward this goal is an area where “pressing a reset button” in bilateral relations could bring quick results. Russia has allowed nonlethal supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan through its territory, a vital complement to the existing supply route through Pakistan.
However, this is not enough. Russia could and should do much more - for example, allow the transit of military hardware through its territory, urge the former Soviet southern republics and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to contribute to this effort, and permit the United States to use Russia’s military base in Kant as a replacement for the loss of the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.
The current Afghan government would welcome the supply of familiar Russian weapons and training by Russian instructors, as was done for the Northern Alliance during the first, successful war against the Taliban in 2001 and 2002.
After Sept. 11, 2001, when he was president, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered America sympathy and solidarity not only with words, but with deeds. Russia contributed more to the defeat of the Taliban than any other U.S. ally, including NATO members.
And how did former President George W. Bush show Russia his gratitude for the relatively easy victory? Abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without so much as consulting Russia, a decision to place components of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and NATO expansion into Russia’s backyard.
Any one of those things would greatly diminish Russia’s appetite for helping the United States. However, the Kremlin should look at this from another perspective. For argument’s sake, let’s suppose America is defeated in Afghanistan. This would mean Russia would be left one on one with the Taliban and al Qaeda on its southern border, holding the potential for some 20 simultaneous Chechnya-like conflicts in or near Russia’s territory. Would Russia be able to manage all these conflicts by itself?
With such compelling, mutual interests at stake for the United States and Russia, it is time the two countries make serious efforts to reset relations. Strained relations between the two will only embolden their mutual enemies, endangering not only themselves, but the rest of the world as well. All these strategic interests are being undermined by the lack of sensitivity toward Russia’s security concerns that NATO has shown by holding military exercises in Georgia.
An early wrap-up to NATO’s activities in Georgia - a nation engrossed in internal political turmoil - would go a long way toward restoring confidence within Russia that NATO and the United States are willing to consider Russia’s legitimate national-security interests.
Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow.