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US-Russian Agreement on Military Overflights Falls Apart

When Presidents Obama and Medvedev met last July, it was to discuss several complex issues: how to proceed from the expiring START nuclear–arms treaty, the missile defense shield, and other contentions military treaties and issues. There was one thing that both sides seemed to agree upon, a simple issue that was heralded as an agreement that would jump start a reengagment between the two countries—a relationship that had soured over the last two years.

During the meeting last year, Russia agreed to let the US use Russian airspace to fly cargo into Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that there would be a significant number of flights, over 4,000 per year. But six months later, there is still no finalized agreement.

It was supposed to be a simple agreement, but it only serves to highlight the complexity of US/Russian relations. The flights were not a priority for military planners and negotiators. There were happy to have an alternate route, one that would not bring them over Pakistani airspace, but the flights were a low–priority issue. Russia politicians view the Afghan war in terms of a larger, regional relationship, and are worried that they will be giving away too much without getting enough in return. In addition, as Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhaue explains, many in Russia see the NATO mission in Afghanistan as a mirror of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and thus deem the NATO mission as doomed to fail. An no one is rushing in to support a doomed mission. Whatever the broader implications, the failure of this agreement to produce viable results shows that agreement on more complex and contentious issues will be very difficult indeed.


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