MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday endorsed a proposal to allow NATO use of a southern Russian air base as a hub for transport of supplies to Afghanistan and suggested it was premature to withdraw troops from the war-torn country.
Sergei Lavrov said the proposal to lease NATO an air base in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk for non-lethal NATO supply transits to Afghanistan via Central Asia must get formal government approval but is in Russia's "national interest."
It would be the first deal allowing U.S.-led coalition forces a logistical base on Russian territory rather than simply a corridor for Afghan supply transports.
The proposal to use the base for a "combined" air, road and rail traffic to Afghanistan came originally from NATO in May 2011. It requires the Russian cabinet's go-ahead but no date for a meeting on the issue has been set.
Lavrov called the deal "a means to assist those who are eradicating the threats of terrorism and drug trafficking in Afghanistan.
"We are helping the coalition... primarily out of our own national interest," Lavrov told lawmakers in a speech to Russia's lower house of parliament.
He also voiced concern that a premature troop withdrawal would lead to a security vacuum near Russia's border in Afghanistan, where Moscow fought a disastrous 1979-89 war which still haunts Russian and killed 15,000 Soviet troops.
"We are not happy with the artificial deadlines announced as a reference point for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan," he said. "First, it is necessary to achieve a basic level of order maintained by Afghan security forces."
Russia has allowed Afghan-bound NATO transports through its territory since 2009 as an alternative supply route to convoys through Pakistan that have been pry to militant attacks.
But it has stopped short of allowing weapons transports.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Ulyanovsk would serve as a base for NATO to transfer cargos of "mineral water, napkins and other military cargoes" onto planes.
"The Russian budget will get money from it," he said in support of the plan, posting on his Twitter feed on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Mark Heinrich)