A new deal allowing the United States and its NATO allies to use a Russian air base for transit of troops and military cargo to Afghanistan would help ensure Russia's own security, Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday.
Sergey Lavrov said a plan to permit the U.S. and other NATO nations to use the base in the city of Ulyanovsk on the Volga River will soon be considered by the Russian Cabinet. If approved, the deal could help repair Russian ties with the United States, which have become increasingly strained over Washington's missile defense plans in Europe and the Syrian crisis.
Moscow has provided the U.S. and other NATO member states with air corridors and railway routes for carrying supplies to and from Afghanistan. The new agreement would for the first time allow alliance members to set up a logistics facility for troops and cargo on Russian territory.
Lavrov strongly defended such a deal, saying the success of NATO's mission is essential for fending off the spread of terrorism and illegal drugs from Afghanistan into ex-Soviet Central Asian nations and Russia.
"It's in our interests that the coalition achieves a success before withdrawing and makes sure that the Afghans are capable of defending their country and ensuring an acceptable level of security," Lavrov told the lower house of Russia's legislature. Some lawmakers argued that the U.S. military's use of the Ulyanovsk facility could threaten Russia by allowing foreign troops on its soil.
"We want those who are fending off threats directed at Russia to efficiently fulfill their tasks," Lavrov said. "We are helping the coalition to proceed from our own interests."
In Belgium, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said boosting cooperation on the Afghan transit would benefit both the alliance and Russia.
"Clearly we welcome the cooperation we have with Russia already on transit from and to Afghanistan," she said. "We look forward to reinforcing that agreement because ... NATO and Russia have a joint interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan."
Lavrov said the deal to be considered by the Cabinet would allow the transit of NATO troops but that they wouldn't be allowed to stay there.
"They aren't going to live there. They will only be moving from one transportation means to another," Lavrov said. He sought to assuage the lawmakers' concern by saying that Russia would reserve the right to check the cargo, but provide specifics about the deal.
Earlier this week, Russia's daily Izvestia published excerpts from an official letter sent to parliament by Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, which said that the Ulyanovsk facility would be overseen by the civilian authorities and include customs control.
The proposal comes amid shrinking supply options to coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Kyrgyzstan's leaders to stress that America needs the continued use of the U.S. air base there beyond the end of its contract in 2014, largely as a transit center to bring troops home from Afghanistan.
The supply routes across the former Soviet Union also have become vital after Pakistan shut down its ground supply routes following the U.S. airstrikes in November that killed a number of Pakistani troops. The high-speed rail route through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan handles the bulk of the ground supplies.
Izvestia quoted Kremlin-linked analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, who said the deal on the Russian air base would allow Russia to ask for U.S. favors in return.
"By providing a transit hub, Russia will get the chance to make its demands," Nikonov said. "It will be a very good foreign policy argument."
U.S.-Russian ties have been strained recently over Moscow's support of the Syrian regime and U.S. missile defense plans in Europe.
Washington said the missile shield is intended to fend off the Iranian missile threat, but the Kremlin has seen it as a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent and urged Washington to provide security guarantees.
"If the U.S. doesn't want to change anything in its plans, it should provide reliable guarantees that their missile defense sites around Europe aren't directed against our strategic nuclear forces," Lavrov said Wednesday. "If our partners continue to ignore our legitimate interests, Russia will have to take retaliatory security measures."
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.