The Interfax news agency quoted Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin as telling national lawmakers in Moscow that if NATO does not respond to Russia’s concerns about missile defense, “We will have to link them with other matters … this could include Afghanistan.”
The timing of the implied threat could hardly be worse for the United States, given Pakistan’s decision this week to suspend supplies to NATO forces in response a lethal Nov. 26 airstrike along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, now under NATO and U.S. investigation.
“The war effort [in Afghanistan] continues,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters. “Everyone realizes we have an enemy to engage in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military is prepared to carry on.”
Little said he did not have information to share on how long coalition forces could continue to operate without the supply lines through Pakistan.
A northern supply route across Russia and Central Asia opened in mid-2010, after several years of negotiations prompted by NATO worries about the security of cargo moving through Pakistan, where supply convoys have periodically come under Taliban attack. (Before the northern route opened, about 80 percent of the supplies and 40 percent of fuel for the coalition mission were going through Pakistan.)
Rogozin, an outspoken nationalist, is seen as a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. His appointment by Putin – then president – to the Brussels-based diplomatic post in early 2008 was seen as part of a shift towards a more assertive stance towards the West.
His warning Monday about Afghanistan came several days after President Dmitry Medvedev announced that in response to NATO’s missile defense plans Russia may deploy “advanced offensive weapon systems” near its borders with Europe. This could include the positioning of Iskander short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordering Poland – a threat Moscow has made on and off since 2008.
Medvedev also said Russia would consider withdrawing from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the U.S. if its concerns about the missile defense system were not resolved.
The dispute first began when the Bush administration a decade ago proposed a ballistic missile defense umbrella to defend it and its allies from the threat of missiles fired by hostile states, primarily Iran. Agreements were later reached with Poland and the Czech Republic to station facilities in the two former Warsaw Pact countries, but the proposals ran into strong opposition from Moscow.
The Pentagon repeatedly insisted that the system aimed to deter and protect against “rogue states,” and would not weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent. The Kremlin, however, maintained that it would harm its security, and threatened retaliation.
As part of his initiative to “reset” strained relations with Russia, President Obama after a lengthy review announced he was scrapping the original plan, in favor of a “phased adaptive approach,” designed to protect first south-eastern Europe, and eventually all of Europe, against short- and medium-range missiles. Elements would be deployed in Turkey, Poland and Romania.
Russia was invited to participate in what would now be a NATO project, and at a summit in Portugal a year ago tentatively agreed. But differences quickly emerged over how cooperation would work and negotiations got bogged down.
On Monday, Rogozin told the Russian parliament he plans to visit China and Iran in January to discuss the missile defense controversy, the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency reported.
It quoted him as saying he would meet with foreign ministry and military officials in China, and with the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
Because of possible future implications for north-east Asia, China has also been leery about U.S. missile defense proposals. Last July it put its name to a statement by the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization criticizing the U.S. plans, which it said “could harm strategic stability and international security.”
As the country overtly targeted by the planned shield, Iran evidently is strongly opposed too. It has threatened to target the NATO early warning radar station which Turkey last September agreed to host as part of the missile defense system.