Moscow to help US stabilise Afghanistan

By Mary Dejevsky

Russia is positioning itself for active reinvolvement in Afghanistan, its Foreign Minister indicated yesterday.

Sergei Lavrov said his Government wanted to offer Washington and Nato help to stabilise the war-torn country, short of sending troops.

In the most explicit statement yet of Moscow's desire to boost its influence there, two decades after the humiliating withdrawal of its troops from Kabul, Lavrov said: "We do not want to take any leading role but we want to help those who are already there, because we know how hard it is from our own sad experience.

"We want to help stabilise the situation. We would do anything short of military involvement."

Moscow's proposals include sending Russian engineers to renovate some 140 infrastructure projects, including power stations built during the Soviet occupation and help repair the key Salang tunnel and provide helicopters.

Moscow's interest represents a significant shift and reflects a comprehensive reappraisal of post-Soviet Russia's position in the world and its national interests.

There have been growing signs of the desire for greater involvement in Afghanistan - last month Russia hosted a four-way meeting of regional leaders which included Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Speaking yesterday, Lavrov said Russia's desire to co-operate stemmed in part from its own "bitter experience" in the country, which cost more than 13,000 Soviet lives and was finally ended by Mikhail Gorbachev, who called the Soviet Union's 10-year occupation "a bleeding wound".

But Russia has two other reasons for becoming more actively engaged with Afghanistan now. The first is its own national security. Once American and Nato troops depart, Russia could face more terrorism, drug trafficking and lawlessness on its already troubled and exposed southern frontier.

The second is the general reorientation of Russian foreign policy, which some experts have described as the most significant since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Two years after the war in Georgia, Russia is making a determined effort to show a friendlier and more co-operative face to the world.

The signs have been multiplying for some time: the participation of foreign delegations at the May Victory Day parade in Moscow, the response to the death of the Polish President in the air crash near Katyn, and the muted reaction to the expulsion of Russian spies from the US in July.

In late May, the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine printed what it said was an internal Foreign Ministry document, setting out a newly pragmatic set of priorities, designed to make foreign policy the motor for its ambitious internal modernisation programme.

While Kremlin officials have made it clear that the document has not yet been approved as Russia's new foreign policy orientation, Lavrov's answers yesterday were distinguished by a whole new vocabulary, starting with the Russian for "soft power", and continuing with "pragmatism", "team work", "co-ordination" and "co-operation" - but always "on an equal footing".

In principle, Russia's first two reconstruction offers appear to have been accepted by the Americans, while the helicopters, to which the Russians would contribute one-seventh of the cost, are still under discussion.

Nato forces have continually complained about the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Russia also permits the transport of Nato supplies for Afghanistan across Russian territory, upgrading a series of piecemeal agreements concluded with individual European countries.

The official said it had also recently concluded an agreement allowing Nato planes through Russian airspace.

- Independent

- NZ Herald

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