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 United States do the same.
Asked at a news conference whether Russia could also agree to transit of weapons, Lavrov said "additional steps are also possible."
"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. Russia-NATO ties were frozen after last summer's Russia-Georgia war.
In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai welcomed Lavrov's comments, noting that several member countries already had concluded bilateral agreements with Russia for the transport of lethal military supplies.
"This is an indication of Russia's continuing support for the operation in Afghanistan," he said.
Appathurai also said NATO had been negotiating for some time to use Russian air force transports to fly military cargoes to support alliance operations in Afghanistan. NATO currently leases civilian transport planes and helicopters from Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers.
"If the Russian federation wishes to make that offer to NATO, I'm sure it wold be looked at very carefully," Appathurai said.
A Russian route gained importance after the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan said last week that it was evicting U.S. forces from an air base vital to Afghan operations.
U.S. officials have said they suspect that Moscow, which promised billions in aid and loans for Kyrgyzstan, was behind the decision.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev insisted Wednesday that he was ejecting U.S. forces for purely economic reasons after repeated appeals for more rent 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.
The Russian daily Kommersant cited Kyrgyz parliament spokesman Emil Niyazov Wednesday as saying lawmakers would await the results of high-level Russian-American talks before voting — suggesting Moscow holds sway over its fate. Russia denied that.
"The issue of the air base at Manas is an internal affair of the sovereign and independent state of Kyrgyzstan," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on its Web site.
Lavrov was quoted last month in the Russian media as saying he had agreed with his American counterpart Hilary Clinton on a face-to-face meeting before the G-20 summit in London on April 2.
Niyazov and other Kyrgyz officials did not return repeated calls to their offices.
Supplying allied forces
State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters that the U.S. team led by Deputy Assistant Secretary Pat Moon spoke with Russian officials on a wide range of matters concerning Afghanistan including a transit agreement supported by Moscow.
"That's basically allowing us to transport non-lethal supplies to ISAF forces through Russian territory into Afghanistan," Wood said, providing no other details.
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.
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.