A Return Engagement for Russia

To this day, many Russians can only wish they had never heard of Afghanistan. But two decades after the Soviet Union's humiliating pullout, NATO is working to get Russia back into the country. The plan, championed by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, would have Moscow provide helicopters to Afghan and NATO forces, train Afghan national-security forces, and assist in counternarcotics programs and border security.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expects to sign the deal at a NATO summit in Lisbon later this month. With that, both Moscow and NATO hope to end their longtime feud. "The summit can mark a new start," says Rasmussen. But this new start comes at a hefty price: Moscow stands to gain far more than the West. In return for its help, Moscow wants restrictions on deployment of any NATO force larger than a 3,000-strong brigade anywhere in the former Soviet bloc. There would also be limits on aircraft deployments in Eastern Europe, and, most controversially, Russia has demanded veto power on any large additional Western military deployments anywhere in Central Europe, the Balkans, or the Baltics. Taken together, NATO's concessions would constitute a significant shoring up by Medvedev of Russia's "near abroad."

Granted, it's unlikely that Medvedev will get everything he wants. But even if he settles for less, what's really in it for NATO? Although the deal would be an important symbolic step, it ultimately won't do much good on the ground, aside from deterring Moscow from obstructing NATO logistics in Central Asia. Nevertheless, Rasmussen is eager to end the bickering that divides pro-Russia Germany from France and many newer NATO members whose pasts have left them deeply suspicious of Moscow.

The Kremlin is keen to make new friends in Kabul, in hopes of lucrative development and mineral-extraction deals after U.S. and coalition forces withdraw. And Moscow desperately wants to stem the flood of Afghan heroin into the country. Surely, a real reset of relations between Russia and NATO would be a welcome change. But if it hobbles NATO's ability to defend its most vulnerable members, they may well ask: what's the point of being in NATO at all?