US to start regular Afghan airlifts via Russia

The United States will begin regular flights over Russian airspace within weeks to supply US forces in Afghanistan, a US defense official said yesterday, quashing speculation about cost-related snags.
The agreement struck in July on transit of troops, supplies and weapons for the US campaign in Afghanistan was viewed as the first achievement by President Barack Obama in his efforts to thaw chilly relations between Moscow and Washington.

But analysts had warned the proposed airlift route could be excessively expensive and the Kremlin disclosed that the United States has so far sent only one shipment of supplies through Russian airspace to Afghanistan.

Alexander Vershbow, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, said full implementation of the accord would come soon. It needed to be “vetted through the Russian government,” he said.
“Routine flights are just a few weeks away. So this is a good news story, no new problems have arisen,” he told reporters at a defense writer’s breakfast.

Vershbow said the first shipment, which the Kremlin said occurred in early August, was done to show the agreement was viable.

The White House has said the deal would allow up to 4500 flights a year and save up to $133 million (R982 million) annually.

President Dmitry Medvedev has said Russia fully backs US-led efforts to crush Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan, although it would not send its own soldiers to fight in the country where Moscow lost a 10-year war in the 1980s.

Russia views instability in Afghanistan as a major security threat to itself and its southern, predominantly Muslim neighbours as well as a source of growing drug traffic. 

Pic: US Airforce insignia