Russia’s offer of bases for Afghan strikes puts spotlight on Ukraine tensions

The Biden administration indicated Tuesday that it is weighing an offer from Moscow to use Russian military bases in Central Asia for future counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan and the region, even as U.S.-Russia tensions soar on other fronts — most notably in Ukraine.

The extent to which the two matters are connected remains to be seen, although there are signs Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to link them, if only to undercut President Biden’s efforts to back Ukraine.

The Putin government on Monday issued fresh warnings about U.S.-backed NATO activity in Ukraine, asserting that any expansion of NATO military infrastructure in the country would cross “red lines.”

The warning came as The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon is weighing offer from Mr. Putin for U.S. forces to use Russian bases Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for operations in Afghanistan. According to The Journal, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley discussed the issue in a meeting last week with Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov at the request of the White House.

The U.S. has insisted that even after the Afghanistan withdrawal, American drones can strike terrorist targets from “over the horizon,” though military leaders have acknowledged such missions are much more logistically challenging. Permanent American bases near Afghanistan would make the task far easier, but the U.S. so far has not secured an agreement with a nearby nation to house American personnel, planes or vehicles.

Republicans are bristling at the prospect that the Biden administration may put American forces in a position of dependence on Russian military bases, a prospect GOP lawmakers say is unacceptable because of the Kremlin’s military aggression in Ukraine.

“We are deeply troubled to learn from press reports that your administration is in discussions with the Russian Federation to secure access to Russian military installations in Central Asian countries and potentially engage in some form of military cooperation on counterterrorism with the Russians,” a group of top congressional Republicans wrote Monday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“Inviting Russia into discussions will not further vital U.S. counterterrorism goals, nor is it the path to the ‘stable and predictable’ relationship with Russia the Biden administration claims it wants,” stated the letter, whose signers included the four ranking Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

Asked about the talks Tuesday, Mr. Austin told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that Gen. Milley merely sought “clarification” about the base offer from his Russian counterpart last week.

Mr. Austin stressed the U.S. isn’t seeking Russia’s approval for counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, although he acknowledged the two nations now have a dialogue about sharing resources in the region. “I can assure you we are not seeking Russia’s permission to do anything, but I believe … [Gen. Milley] asked for clarification what that offer was,” the defense secretary said.

Republicans say such cooperation with Moscow is evidence of the difficult spot the U.S. now finds itself in due to the Biden administration’s total military withdrawal from Afghanistan. “They’ve really left us in a terrible position that we have to ask the Russians to be able to protect the United States from terrorists, and we have to ask them to use their installations,” Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican, said Tuesday.

The administration’s policy goals in Ukraine may be at risk. Mr. Biden rolled out a new humanitarian and military package for Kyiv in early September, featuring some $60 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles and other aid.

The package outraged the Putin government, which has backed pro-Russian separatist forces inside Ukraine since annexing the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and briefly massed troops on the Ukrainian border earlier this year.

Ukraine is not a NATO member, but has spent recent years aligning with the U.S. and NATO. Ukrainian forces recently engaged in joint drills with U.S. and other NATO member troops. The drills occurred at the same time that Russia and nearby Belarus were hold their own joint exercises.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, close ally of Mr. Putin, has accused the U.S. of setting up training centers in Ukraine that he says amount to military bases. Mr. Lukashenko was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying he has discussed the issue with Mr. Putin and the two “agreed that we need to take some kind of measures in response.”

A Reuters report on the Belarusian president’s comments said that when asked what joint actions Mr. Lukashenko was referring to, the Kremlin responded: “These are actions that ensure the security of the two of our states.”

“President Putin has repeatedly noted the issue of the potential broadening of NATO infrastructure on Ukrainian territory, and [he] has said this would cross those red lines that he has spoken about before,” the Kremlin said, the news agency reported.

Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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