Russia has threatened to cut off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan if the alliance doesn't compromise on its missile defense plans, Moscow's NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, has said. From the Wall Street Journal:
If NATO doesn't give a serious response, "we have to address matters in relations in other areas," Russian news services reported Dmitri Rogozin, ambassador to NATO, as saying. He added that Russia's cooperation on Afghanistan may be an area for review, the news services reported.
This is just the latest in several headaches that the U.S. has had to deal with over the last couple of weeks regarding its supply lines to Afghanistan. First, there was an explosion in Uzbekistan on a line used by the U.S. and NATO, then Pakistan cut off its supply lines in response to a NATO attack that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers. And the flamboyantly nationalist Rogozin rarely misses a chance to kick the U.S. when it's down. (He also gloated, via twitter, that a somewhat threatening statement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on missile defense last week forced U.S. officers at NATO to go into work on Thanksgiving.)
An expert quoted by the Journal suggests that this new Russian threat isn't too serious:
Ivan Safranchuk, deputy director of the Moscow-based Institute of Contemporary International Studies, said Russia is unlikely to cut off the flow of NATO supplies to Afghanistan as an immediate response to missile-defense decisions. But Russia does want its objections to the missile shield to be taken more seriously, he said.
"If the U.S. is not responsive, then a cutoff could be a reality at some point," Mr. Safranchuk said. "Russia would like the U.S. to be more serious about Russian concerns."
And EurasiaNet's Deirdre Tynan reported today that Russia has quietly acceded to U.S. and NATO plans to begin using the Northern Distribution Network to take materiel out of Afghanistan, rather than just into the country as has so far been the case. So on a technical level, at least, there has been progress on U.S.-Russian cooperation on Afghan transit.
The broader question is, why is Russia all of a sudden making a big deal on missile defense again? Russia somewhat out of the blue ratcheted up the tension on missile defense with his statement last week, in which he threatened to attack NATO missile defense sites. There is a large element of posturing on both sides here. As Tomas Hirst put it on twitter: "To be clear. Medvedev is threatening to attack missiles that don't yet exist, which are supposed to intercept missiles that also don't exist."
Russians also know that the timing is terrible from a U.S. perspective: just as the U.S. presidential campaign starts to get underway, they know that President Obama can't make any concessions to Russia, because such a move would just invite Republicans to attack him for "selling out" to America's "enemies."
To come up with an explanation for all this is beyond the scope of this blog (and perhaps beyond human understanding). Fyodor Lyukanov makes a game effort in Gazeta.ru (translation by Johnson's Russia List):
Why is Moscow being so stubborn? If considerations of prestige, deep distrust of the United States, and other (although also important) factors of a psychological character are not taken into account, it in effect boils down to an unsolvable problem. Everyone, even the most obstinate hawks on both sides of the Atlantic, understands that in present conditions the likelihood of a nuclear conflict between Russia and America is insignificantly small, if it exists at all. However, the very fact of the existence of enormous nuclear potentials built up in the years of the ideological confrontation makes it impossible to brush off the concept of "strategic stability," which was and is based on guaranteed mutual destruction.
No matter what politicians and even military may say, as long as these arsenals exist, each of us has no other enemy than the arsenal of the opposite side. And hence, violation of the principle whereby there is no possibility of delivering a first strike with impunity leads to acute destabilization. Especially since America since the Cold War times has shown itself to be a country that has the overwhelming advantage over any other country or group of countries and is ready to use armed force quite readily. And the nuclear potential serves as a reliable pledge that it will not be used (see the differences in approaches to Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and North Korea -- on the other).
It's as good an explanation as any. Will the NDN be a casualty of this "unsolvable problem?" It doesn't seem likely now -- but if Putin and a future Republican U.S. president start escalating their rhetoric, all bets are off.
UPDATE: Rogozin is now saying he was misquoted on the NDN.