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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2010

Beware of Russia's renewed interest in Afghanistan

Russia is back … in Afghanistan.

This is supposed to be the good news.

The bad news is that the Kremlin expects Washington to grant it carte blanche in the former Soviet provinces as compensation for Russia playing along in Afghanistan and Iran.

In Afghanistan, Russia took part in a massive drug raid last month and agreed to sell helicopters and train helicopter crews. In Iran, it backed a stringent U.N. embargo and cancelled the delivery of advanced air-defense missiles.

However, the Kremlin has self-serving reasons for those actions.

After the disastrous Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even today's bellicose Russian leadership wouldn't have conceived of a military involvement in Afghanistan had it not been for a problem fueled largely by drug traffic from Afghanistan.

The war loss is widely credited with hastening the breakup of the Soviet Union and the economic devastation that followed. Now, more than two decades after pulling its troops from Afghanistan, Russia is the world's biggest consumer of opium, about 20 percent of which comes from Afghanistan.

Last month's drug raid furthered the Kremlin's media campaign of pounding the United States and its NATO allies for failing to curb poppy farming in Afghanistan. If the Kremlin were serious about combating the drug problem, it would address the police corruption at home that perpetuates it. But so far, the Kremlin has made only perfunctory moves in that area.

In regard to Iran, the prospect of having a nuclear-armed extremist Muslim state close to its borders is no more attractive to Moscow than it is to Washington.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin is trying to put a price tag on its assumed cooperation: Georgia, a tiny independent country south of Russia and northwest of Afghanistan .

The Kremlin likes to hate this U.S.-supported former Soviet province-turned-democracy for constituting a perceived threat to its effort to bring former Soviet provinces in the oil-rich region back into the fold. Russia reinstated its control over Georgia's secessionist ethnic provinces in a 2008 blitzkrieg and maintains a military presence there.

The Kremlin wants the West to accept this fact and move on. But the West shouldn't.

First, such a move on America's part would discourage its allies, including those precious few that are in largely-Muslim parts of the world, such as Turkey and Israel. Second, there is no telling what Russia would do next to recast itself as an empire.

Georgia may soon become a victim to Russian empire-rebuilding, with Ukraine to follow, which would jeopardize European security and necessitate a boost to the U.S. involvement in NATO at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

The United States and its NATO allies don't owe Russia a thing.

Russia benefits from the U.S. and NATO military campaign in Afghanistan more than any other country. A Taliban-run state on its southern borders is the last thing it wants. The Kremlin's excesses in the Muslim province of Chechnya and the neighboring Muslim provinces have long made Russian cities terrorism targets.

So far, it is the United States that has done all the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, paying a toll in troops and treasure. It is the job of the White House to constantly remind its Russian counterparts of this fact and to keep Moscow's imperial aspirations in check.

Mike Sigov, a former Moscow journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com or 419-724-6089.

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