Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shaking hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at the G-20 summit in London, United Kingdom on April 1, 2009
The expectations regarding the first face-to-face meeting between Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama are running high. Herein lurks a danger, for few things are worse that broken hopes and disappointments. The issues facing both countries are so daunting, and the accumulated mutual mistrust is so overwhelming, that the chances for dramatic breakthroughs are minimal. However, if common sense prevails, both leaders should be able to reach agreement at least in some critical areas. And nowhere is the situation more critical than in Afghanistan.
A U.S. Army soldier training an Afghan Army soldier in a live fire exercise
The rise of Islamist fundamentalism is a threat to the United States, Europe, Russia, China, and many other countries. 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, as we face dedicated and hardened fanatics without a centralized government, but with different sets of warfare techniques and numerous cells that enjoy wide support, even if at times merely moral support, throughout the world.
Moreover, in Pakistan, believed to be a U.S. ally, al-Qaida and other groups of jihadist terrorists feel comfortable enough to plan and execute major terror attacks and disrupt supply lines to U.S. and NATO forces, sometimes with the Pakistani security services lending a helping hand.
The crucial goal of the West is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida, and it is in Russia's strategic interests to join the West in this fight. It is an area where "pressing a reset button" in bilateral relations could bring quick results.
Russia has allowed non-lethal supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan through its territory, a vital complement to the existing supply route through Pakistan. However, this is not enough. It could and should do much more -- e.g., allow transit of military hardware, 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 replacement for the loss of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan.
The current Afghan government would definitely welcome the supply of familiar Russian weapons and training by Russian instructors, as was done for the Northern Alliance during the first, successful war with the Taliban in 2001 to 2002.
Of course, this time Russia does not want to be taken for a ride by the United States, as it repeatedly was in the last 17 years. After Sept. 11, 2001 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 what did it get in return?
How did U.S. President George W. Bush show Russia his gratitude for the relatively easy victory in that war and for saving American lives? The list is long and it is not very pretty. Abrogation of the ABM Treaty without so much as consulting Russia, decision to place components of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, recognition of Kosovo's independence, NATO expansion to Russia's backyard, support for "colored" revolutions -- which, incidentally, turned out to be a huge waste of money and effort, if one looks at the "democracy" circus in Ukraine and Georgia. Not to mention the pipeline policy of encouraging every country in the Caspian region and Central Asia to send their oil and gas to the West bypassing Russia, and thus depriving it of hard currency earnings.
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. Let us assume that America is defeated in Afghanistan, and that the Yanks go home like they did in Vietnam. This would mean that Russia will be left one on one with the Taliban and al-Qaida on its southern border. Arguably, this would hold the potential for some 20 simultaneous Chechnya-like conflicts on its territory. Will Russia manage them all by itself?
On the other hand, if Russia does help the United States and NATO now, one may safely predict that the anti-Russia lobby in Washington will have to shut up and all those Cold War warriors who keep pushing for NATO expansion and European Missile Defense without Russia's consent will be ignored by the American public and the Obama Administration.
Large-scale cooperation in Afghanistan will be the first step in "resetting the button," after which other important issues could be addressed in a much improved atmosphere.
Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow. This article originally appeared in the Middle East Times and is republished with the author's permission.