Russia gave America a Forth of July gift by allowing weapons and possibly troops to cross its airspace into Afghanistan. The transport agreement relieves pressure from the Khyber pass in Pakistan, currently under bombardment from Taliban militants, and is billed as resetting relations between the two states.
Sounds too good to be true.
Russia’s decision isn’t so surprising after President Obama prodded Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on his way to Moscow. Obama took a risky approach by speaking out before meeting Putin, who doesn’t back down and enjoys a fight. Analysts have no doubt that Putin‘s influence weighed heavily on approving the weapons shipments. This was him pulling his foot out of the past, his way of hitting back. From Russia, with love.
President Obama hopefully knows better. Russia has many games in play and it clearly wants to create leverage that it can later use against America. The agreement is a bargaining chip and also pressure on America to reciprocate. But Obama isn’t budging from a missile shield in Poland or from influence on Russia’s former satellites.
As Putin hosts Obama, Vice President Joe Biden will swing by Georgia to let President Mikheil Saakashvili know he’s not forgotten. Biden’s trip is another swipe at Russia, while the missile shield is destined to get uglier. Diplomatic wrestling is already intense and the mood will explode if construction begins. But Russia’s goodwill is unlikely to influence either issue. Obama would rather trade an arms reduction instead, even if Russia disagrees.
President Obama wants to bury the Cold War forever, and with good reason. While threats were real, the Cold War was often based on irrational fear and extreme ideology. Unfortunately these ill roots of conflict remain, as do legitimate sources of contention.
"It's not, in our view, a zero-sum game," claims Michael McFaul, Obama's Russian adviser, "that if it's two points for Russia it's negative two for us, but there are ways that we can cooperate to advance our interests and, at the same time, do things with the Russians that are good for them, as well." As if McFaul would ever admit otherwise. Between America and Russia lies supremacy of Europe and Asia, ownership of global energy reserves, influence over China, Iran, Israel, Venezuela, and former East bloc states. Geopolitically what’s good for one is usually bad for the other.
"The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game," Obama said, trying to spin repetition into reality. "There is the 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. These assumptions are wrong."
He's right, destiny has nothing to do with it. Antagonism stems from land, energy, history, ideology, hegemony. A missile shield threatens and weakens Putin even if it's honestly not intended for Moscow. Good intentions go awry in areas of conflict. Russia may no longer wish to pose an existential threat, but it still has every reason to wear America down.
Why agree now to allow weapons over Russia when it has rejected the request for so long? Why would Russia want to help America with no guarantee of any return? Does it expect a favor, or wish to dangle its assistance as punishment or reward? And why would Russia want America to expand its operations in Afghanistan, inside its sphere of influence?
Something deeper is bubbling. The ghosts of Ronald Reagan and Charlie Wilson, the images of Jimmy Carter adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and CIA officer Michael G. Vickers, of a fledgling Taliban and a young Osama bin Laden begin to swirl. Modern conflict in Afghanistan began with Soviet influence and occupation. History spins full circle.
America tried to bog Russia down in Kabul as long as possible and funded every jihadist necessary. It looks like Russia is finally returning the favor. Putin may have come to the conclusion that Afghanistan can’t be won in the near future, or possibly at all. America needs guns for its incoming reinforcements, but guns aren’t the answer. Putin knows this. Time to flood Afghanistan with additional weapons, the more the merrier.
Then cut the cord and watch America waste?
America desperately needs alternative supply routes into Afghanistan. Militant attacks haven’t come close to permanently severing the chain through Khyber, but losing supplies daily is still a drain on American resources. Nor should America risk transporting an infusion of weapons through Khyber if they can enter through non-hostile Russia. President Obama claims the agreement will save America $133 million per year, but first it must spend additional hundreds of billions.
They say not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what about a Trojan horse? Afghanistan is creating parallel dimensions - America and Russia are like twins with a slightly different shade of hair. America should look in the mirror, into the past. America was so eager to trap Russia in its own Vietnam. Russia is trying to sink America into another Vietnam.
Perhaps Putin is just being nice to Obama, but you can almost catch the glint of, as an ancient Chinese proverb warns, a dagger behind his smile.