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CIS: Obama wins Russian support on Afghanistan

By Alexander Osipovich
Tue Jul 7 03:37:03 EST 2009

MOSCOW, July 6 AFP - US president Barack Obama has won Russian support for the war in Afghanistan with a breakthrough agreement allowing a dozen flights a day to transit US troops and weapons over Russian territory.

"This is a substantial contribution by Russia to our international effort," Obama said on Monday at a joint press conference at the Kremlin with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

Underscoring the deal's strategic value for Russia, Medvedev said: "We value the efforts by the United States and other countries to deal with the terrorist threat that came from and continues to come from Afghan soil."

The deal marks a victory for Obama as he seeks to intensify the faltering campaign against the Taliban and "reset" US-Russian relations that were badly strained under his predecessor, George W Bush.

It allows the use of Russian airspace for the transit of US troops and weapons. Previously Russia had allowed the United States to ship only non-lethal military supplies across its territory by train.

The need to diversify transit routes into Afghanistan has become more acute in recent months because of instability in Pakistan, which currently serves as the main transit route into the war-torn country.

The agreement was signed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US undersecretary of state William Burns, who was standing in for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she recuperated from an elbow injury.

A senior US official said the deal permits up to 4,500 military flights per year -- or about 12 per day -- which can be loaded with troops, firearms, ammunition, military vehicles and spare parts.

The US official said the military flights would not be charged overflight fees and that they would not stop on Russian territory.

The agreement takes effect 60 days from its signing and is good for one year and then may be renewed automatically by mutual consent, the official said.

The official added that the agreement would bring Washington annual savings of $US133 million ($A167 million) thanks to quicker transit.

Cooperation on Afghanistan proves Russia and the United States can get along on some issues despite bitter disputes in recent years, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

"This is an issue with which the Americans and the Russians have found a way to improve their relations. It is one of the rare problem where their interests are very close -- indeed, identical," Lukyanov said.

Moscow, which has grim memories of its own war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, views the US military presence there as protecting its southern flank, said independent Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

"Russia is not really a friend of the Taliban. It already has problems with the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, and the big risk is that the Islamist menace will infect Central Asia as well," Felgenhauer said.