Putin’s Clever Plan to Keep NATO in Afghanistan

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By Marc Champion

Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines yesterday by saying he wants NATO to stay in Afghanistan and is happy to be offering a Russian airport through which to resupply NATO troops. Weird? Not really.

Russian nationalists and communists alike have tried to attack Putin over the decision earlier this year to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to transfer equipment to Afghanistan through an airbase in Ulyanovsk (Lenin's birthplace). He has defended the move to the base, which should become operational this month, on grounds that it serves Russian interests.

Putin isn't suddenly warming to the West or its military alliance. He still loathes NATO with a Cold War passion. Some of the language he used in his remarks on Wednesday suggests a grim satisfaction in having U.S. troops stay and suffer in the same way that the U.S. helped make the Soviet military suffer in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"Let them stay there and fight," Putin said of NATO. "They have taken up that heavy burden and must carry it until the end."

The core point, though, is that Putin is right about NATO's presence in Afghanistan being in Russia's national interest. Instability in Afghanistan is a more immediate threat to Russia than it is to the U.S. or to any NATO member, Sept. 11 attacks notwithstanding. Russia cannot go back to Afghanistan to impose order -- the legacy of its own 10-year war there makes that inconceivable; and if other regional players such as Iran, Pakistan, India or, God forbid, China should get involved, that would present Russia with an even greater strategic threat.

NATO, therefore, is the only available solution. Being distant, it's relatively neutral in terms of the everlasting regional tug-of-war over Afghanistan. Putin told Russia's parliament, the State Duma, earlier this year in a debate on the NATO offer that he wanted to avoid Russian troops having to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border. If you look at a map of Afghanistan and put yourself in Putin's mindset -- which considers the borders of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as virtual Russian borders -- then his concern becomes natural.

True, Putin had a problem with NATO re-supply bases in Central Asia, after initially blessing them in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. He feared the U.S. was getting too comfortable and using its presence in the host countries to weaken Russian influence in its backyard. But no such threat exists inside Russia.

Putin may detest NATO and distrust the U.S. such that it colors his judgment -- for example on Libya and Syria. Even in Afghanistan, before NATO's planned 2014 withdrawal became imminent, he played games by giving transit rights to only a few NATO members and not to NATO as an organization. But Russia's president is neither paranoid nor irrational. He knows Russian interests can only be damaged when Western troops pull out of Kabul.

(Marc Champion is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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-0- Aug/02/2012 18:51 GMT