Russia is open to the possibility of letting the United States and NATO ship weaponry across its territory to Afghanistan if the broader relationship between Moscow and the West improves, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday.
Lavrov spoke the day after U.S. diplomats met with Russian officials in Moscow to work out logistical details for Western military supplies to cross Russia. Moscow has previously allowed non-lethal cargo from European nations to cross its territory and said last week it would let the U.S. do the same.
Asked at a news conference whether Russia could also agree to transit of weapons, Lavrov said "additional steps are also possible."
"Last April and May we discussed the possibility of using Russian military cargo planes to deliver supplies to coalition forces with our NATO colleagues," he said. "Any other agreements are also possible."
He added that broader cooperation on Afghanistan would be contingent on improvement of Russia-NATO ties, which were frozen after last summer's Russia-Georgia war.
"The most important thing is to normalize Russia-NATO relations," Lavrov said, adding that the alliance must view Russia as an equal partner and respect its security interests.
He also welcomed the new U.S. administration's stated intention to reset relations with Russia.
"There are too many problems in the world which we must solve together, there are too many common threats Russia, the United States and Europe all face," he said. "The situation in Afghanistan is one of these problems."
A delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Moon on Wednesday wrapped up two days of talks in Moscow on details of Afghanistan-bound shipments via Russia and other issues related to the war effort.
"Noting the importance of bringing stability to Afghanistan, the two sides agreed to continue cooperation and discussions in the future," the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said after the talks ended.
With Taliban and al-Qaida violence rising in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama plans to send as many as 30,000 additional forces this year. Taliban fighters, carrying assault rifles and wearing suicide vests stormed the Justice Ministry and another government building in Afghanistan's capital Wednesday in the latest deadly attack.
Supplying allied forces has become increasingly tenuous as insurgents intensify attacks on supply lines through Pakistan — the primary route for U.S. supplies. Transit routes through Russia and the possibly through the Central Asia nations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would serve as key alternatives to Pakistan routes.
Adding to the uncertainty is the decision last week by another Central Asian nation, Kyrgyzstan, to evict U.S. forces from an air base that is important to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials suspect that Moscow, which promised billions in aid and loans for impoverished Kyrgyzstan, was behind the decision to close the Manas base.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev insisted Wednesday that he made the move for purely economic reasons after repeated appeals to the United States to pay more for rental of the base went unheeded. He said the United States promised $150 million in annual rent in 2006, but that Washington failed to keep its word. The United States now pays $63 million a year.
A parliamentary vote on approving the closure was expected this week, but the bill has been delayed, leading some analysts to suggest that negotiations on a settlement may continue.
Russia's relations with Washington worsened steadily during George W. Bush's presidency, with Washington's plans to deploy missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic a key irritant. A day after Obama's election, Russia threatened to deploy short-range missiles near Poland in an apparent attempt to push the new administration into dumping the plan.
Lavrov said Wednesday that Russia would move the missiles to the Kaliningrad region if the U.S. puts the missile defense sites in place.
"It will only be necessary if the missile defense facilities are physically created," he said.