MOSCOW: Russia wants to know more about the scale and scope of NATO's post-2014 mission in Afghanistan before deciding whether to keep cooperating with the Western alliance, an envoy for President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday.
Moscow, NATO's Cold War-era foe and still a frequent critic, fears instability in Afghanistan after the pullout of most foreign troops by the end of 2014 may spill over into ex-Soviet Central Asia and threaten Russia's own southern borders.
The former Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979 and withdrew its forces by early 1989 after a disastrous war.
Moscow supported the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks and has allowed transit of supplies for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), including through a new hub in the city of Ulyanovsk.
But Zamir Kabulov, Putin's special envoy for Afghanistan, told Reuters that Russia wanted "full clarity" on the combat capabilities of the post-2014 mission and reiterated a threat to withdraw cooperation unless the alliance receives approval from the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow holds veto power.
"At the end of the day NATO is a military bloc. If a military-political group appears in the neighbourhood of Russian territory, without our consent and with tasks unknown to us, this is problematic. A mandate is indispensable," Kabulov said.
"Our current cooperation with NATO is based on the current NATO mandate from the U.N. Security Council. And we will only cooperate with such missions as have a mandate for which we have also voted," he told Reuters in an interview.
NATO aims to hand security responsibility to Afghans in 2014 and revamp its mission into a training and advisory one.
Russia's acting ambassador to NATO said this month that Russia would stop cooperating over Afghanistan post-2014 if no Security Council resolution authorising the new mission is secured. A NATO official said it would be helpful but stopped short of saying it was essential.
Kabulov, a former ambassador to Kabul, said Moscow wanted more information about foreign forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
"The Americans say various things. Generally they say it will be a training mission, but then it becomes clear that there will be special forces, combat groups that will engage in combat in case of necessity," he said.
"We need full clarity on the capacities they will have, what that is supposed to be. Because such a strong network of foreign military bases in the region provokes questions."
NATO has not yet given details on how many troops it wants to deploy in Afghanistan post-2014 but Kabulov questioned the ability of a limited force to ensure stability when tens of thousands of ISAF troops have not managed to do that.
"And if they are not there for this purpose, then what for? This is our question and we are asking for a clear answer," he said. "Imagine several thousand instructors sitting in a base and suddenly being attacked by the Taliban. What will they say, 'Don't shoot, we are instructors'?"
He added any final decision on cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan was in the hands of Putin, whose term ends in 2018.
After the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russia ruled out sending soldiers to aid the United States and NATO this time around.
Kabulov said Moscow was ready to supply Kabul with arms, including air-defence systems, any time.
" NATO itself does nothing without air coverage in Afghanistan. Why should the Afghan army not have that? No modern army can do without it ... We are ready for this, but there have been no detailed talks about it yet," he said.
Kabulov said he saw the overall situation in Afghanistan deteriorating and said NATO failed to meet its goals there, but admitted things were better now than before ISAF was launched.
"If destabilisation becomes a regional phenomenon, which has already happened in practice in many ways, then obviously Russia will have to redirect large resources from domestic development to safeguard its national interests and security. We would not like that," he said in his office at Russia's Foreign Ministry.
On Oct. 5 Putin secured a new 30-year lease on a military base in Tajikistan, Russia's main line of defence against radical Islamists and drug trafficking from Afghanistan.
"We are ready to cooperate with NATO on Afghanistan not because we like NATO, not at all, but because it corresponds with our own interests. This is a very pragmatic approach, nothing personal," he said.