God bless the American soldiers in Afghanistan.
This message of good cheer came from an unexpected corner this week: Russia Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, addressing the entire Duma in Moscow.
First, he set the deputies up by denouncing NATO as “a relic of the Cold War.”
Then, before the clapping could fade, he quickly added that, sometimes, just sometimes, NATO plays a “stabilizing role in world affair, such as in Afghanistan.”
“We understand what is happening in Afghanistan – right?” Russia’s educator-in-chief lectured the Duma. “We are interested in things there being under control, right? And we do not want our soldiers to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border, right?”
“It’s in our national interests to help maintain stability in Afghanistan,” he continued. “Well, NATO and the Western community are present there. God bless them! Let them do their work.”
As Vladimir Putin embarks on his second decade running Russia, as he approaches his 60th birthday, the long serving KGB officer is not going soft on the USA.
Instead, he is living out the Biblical admonition: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
For years, Putin has fanned anti-NATO sentiment. As recently as two months ago, he was using it to rally voters around his candidacy for president. Over the last 15 years, Russian TV viewers have consumed hundreds of hours of anti-NATO “documentaries,” each complete with spooky music and a kooky story line.
No matter that the Central European plain has been wiped largely clean of American battle tanks. Of the 12,500 American tanks in Western Europe in 1982, about 5 percent, or 684 remain today – slightly more than the number maintained by Spain. No matter only 2 percent of American respondents to a recent opinion poll singled out Russia as the primary military threat to the United States.
For Russian politicians, hammering on and on about the NATO threat is cost free and far safer than to talk of the geostrategic threat that dares not speak its name in Moscow: the 3 million active duty and reservists of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
But now, as Putin acknowledges, Russia needs NATO in Afghanistan.
As American taxpayers say “Time’s Up” on our Afghanistan decade, the Kremlin now realizes that it had the best of both worlds: American troops containing in remote Afghanistan a radical Islamic threat to former Soviet Central Asia — and the luxury of complaining about it.
As Washington moves to wrap up its fighting role in Afghanistan over the next 18 months, Russia’s foreign minister and the nation’s top drug enforcement officer responded last week with a classically American approach: they threatened to sue.
They are threatening to sue NATO, or the U.S. government, for not fulfilling U.N. Security Council resolutions mandating the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to stabilize Afghanistan. They argue that NATO troops have to stay in Afghanistan until Afghanistan is stable.
While this could mean a bonanza for New York law firms, it is unlikely that American taxpayers will fund a war to comply with a court order.
(On the financial side, it could be attractive: instead of spending $1 billion a week fighting in Afghanistan, American tax payers can spend $1 million a week fighting in New York courts.)
Putin’s NATO comments are part of different strategy — and directed at a different audience, the Russian people.
Last month, within days of the end of the Russian presidential elections, Kremlin officials started floating trial balloons that an underused airport in Ulyanovsk, a southern city on the Volga, would be used as a cargo hub to move NATO supplies in and out of Afghanistan.
Prior to this, Ulyanovsk’s main claim to fame was that it was re-named after its most famous son, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin.
Ulyanovsk’s Communists immediately demonstrated, chanting: “NATO Nyet!”
A “NATO base” they said, will never be built in the birthplace of Lenin.
Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, told the faithful that “the NATO base” near Ulyanovsk was “a gift from Putin to the USA for recognizing the elections.”
On April 7, a column of 1,000 protesters, largely communists and nationalists, marched through central Ulyanovsk, chanting “Russia Without NATO,” and waving signs reading: “No Russian Land For NATO,” and, in English: “NATO Go Home.”
The night before Prime Minister Putin climbed the podium in the Duma to defend the NATO cargo transit deal, police in Ulyanovsk broke up a tent encampment where communists had started a hunger strike.
After Putin gave the signal with his nationally televised address, Russian officials swung into high gear to defend the deal.
Unmoved, Eduard Limonov, a radical poet, led his Other Russia group to the Stalin-era high-rise that houses Russia’s Foreign Ministry. There, they set off orange flares and held up a banner reading: “Foreign Ministry: Traitors’ Den.”
Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister in charge of defense industries, has had the hardest job. As Russia’s ambassador to NATO for four years until last December, he specialized in publicly lampooning NATO.
Now he is tweeting overtime, defending the Ulyanovsk deal – and his own nationalist credentials.
“There is no NATO base in Ulyanovsk,” he tweeted. “There is none, and there won’t be any. Those who spread the ‘news’ about NATO bases in Russia are either saboteurs or idiots. Consider this as an official statement.”
In another tweet, he said the cargo jets would carry nonlethal cargo, like “NATO toilet paper.”
In response, protesters last week delivered rolls of toilet paper to government offices.
In Ulyanovsk, Sergei Morozov, the governor, is billing the project as a boost for regional development. He says Volga-Dnepr Airlines, a Russian cargo company based in Ulyanovsk, will profit handsomely from NATO contracts. (The Moscow Times estimates that NATO will try to move out of Afghanistan 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 containers.)
The governor says the deal will pay for upgrading the international airport’s rundown terminal and its 5-kilometer air strip, the world’s third longest public access runway.
Then he holds out this juicy teaser: for each takeoff or landing of an Antonov An-124, the airport would receive a $5,000 fee.
Mmm, yum-yum, presumably salivate the international jet set of Ulyanovsk, a depressed industrial city with population of 615,000.
Once again, the communists are unmoved. Many of them are pensioners who have been unable to afford an airplane ticket since the collapse of communism 20 years ago. At a recent protest, they waved signs referring to their Governor: “Morozov — Doorman for NATO.”
And on the Russian internet, conspiracy videos are going viral.
The spectacular, fatal explosions at Ulyanovsk’s military arsenal in 2009? Obviously steps to clear the way for NATO.
Just a coincidence that NATO chose Ulyanovsk, a city endowed with a rare railroad bridge over the Volga? How naïve! NATO troops will roll east and west, jumping out of railway containers and sowing chaos, from Central Russia to Siberia, just like the Czechoslovak Legionnaires did in 1918-1919.
Maybe it is time for the Kremlin to talk straight to the Russian public.
From Cold War levels, 95 percent of American battle tanks in Western Europe have gone home.
Only 2 percent of Americans now see Russia as the primary military enemy.
If you take away the assets, if you take away the intent, all you have left is the hysteria.