Gazeta Wyborcza reported that at the recent meeting with German Chancelor Angela Merkel Russian president Putin offered to send Russian troops to Afghanistan to help NATO allies. In return, allegedly, Putin asked not to invite Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. The paper states, that NATO will most naturally turn this offer down. I must say this is not the first time the rumour about Russia sending troops to Afghanistan appeared, this rumour was even endorsed by the West a few times.
It is truly sensational news if it is going to be confirmed. There are certain reservations though I have to make before believing this sensation, first of all sending troops to Afghanistan is not going to be received well among Russian public, at least for two reasons, Russians are too exhilarated over every failure that NATO or US have in Iraq and Afghanistan (or indeed almost anywhere else) so it would be a very illogical U-turn and also for Russians going back to Afghanistan where soviets suffered humiliating defeat would be a painful and sort of hair-raising experience. Another reason why this could be not entirely truthful is that it is obviously a short time decision, NATO can accept Russia’s help, but then after couple of years (or after Putin at least formally steps down from presidency) change its mind and invite Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.
There are reasons to believe it is true as well, though. First of all it would be a good way for Russia to improve its relations with the West, most notably with the US and at the very least to split NATO over acceptance Ukraine and Georgia in a nice, non-confrontational way. Ukrainians and Georgians would certainly feel betrayed by the West and also could be moved to readjust their policies in order to be more friendly to Russia. Ukraine in fact might eventually even experience another period of political instability as a result of this move.
In the beginning of April at NATO summit in Bukharest both Georgia and Ukraine might be offered (Membership Accession Plan). If this happens, it is absolutely certain that for Russia it is going to be a major source of irritation, to put it mildly. At the same time for the West (much less so for NATO) it is probably more profitable to win over Ukraine and Georgia, than to have Russian troops sent to Afghanistan. However, Russians mentioned the possibility of removing ground transportation corridor for NATO supplies in Afghanistan. Eg. Putin stated at the meeting with Merkel, that NATO as transatlantic organisation has nothing to do with Afghanistan.
NATO enlargement issue is extremely hot topic in Russian politics, to me it is mainly not the question of national security (i.e. few people expect NATO to militarily attack Russia at any point), but the question of national pride (i.e. “Russian backyard” is slipping away from its owner). In any event it is very interesting time for observation.