Putin signals support for NATO Afghan supply hub
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President-elect Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called NATO a relic of the Cold War but said he supported letting the alliance use a Russian airport as a supply hub in support of its mission in Afghanistan.
Moscow is studying a request from NATO for use of facilities at an airport in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk as a transit point for shipments of non-lethal supplies to and from Afghanistan by air, rail and road.
Russia has allowed Afghan-bound NATO transport through its territory since 2009 as an alternative to convoys through Pakistan, which have been subject to militant attacks, but no permanent facility was involved.
"I consider NATO ... a throwback to the Cold War era. It was created at a time when there was a bipolar system of international relations," said Putin, who has frequently criticized the alliance and its eastward expansion.
But, in his last address to parliament as prime minister before his return to the Kremlin next month, Putin dismissed fears that NATO's use of the Ulyanovsk facility could represent a threat in Russia's heartland.
"There will be no NATO base there," he said, but only "a hop over pad" for military cargo transit.
"Therefore I assure you that nothing unusual, not corresponding to our national interests, is happening there. On the contrary, everything that is being done in this sphere fully corresponds to the national interests of our people," he told parliament's lower house.
In remarks that suggested Russia does not intend to decrease cooperation in Afghanistan, Putin said "in some cases NATO is playing the role of a stabiliser in global affairs" and included the Afghan mission among such cases.
Moscow's support is crucial to the United States and NATO ahead of the pullout of most combat troops by the end of 2014.
Putin has used vocal anti-Western rhetoric in his presidential campaign, criticizing NATO over its operation in Libya last year and accusing the United States of fomenting protests against his rule. He employed some of that rhetoric on Wednesday, saying that NATO "often sticks its nose where it is not necessary and oversteps its authority".
Russia says it opposes a long-term Western military presence in Afghanistan, but has also expressed fears that the spread of drugs and Islamist militancy toward its borders could worsen if NATO forces leave without first ensuring stability.
"We don't want our soldiers to fight on Tajik-Afghan border," Putin said.
The Soviet Union fought a disastrous war in Afghanistan and Russia ruled out sending troops to aid the U.S.-led invasion after the September 11, 2001, attacks, but Putin - president at the time - offered the use of Russian airspace and other support.
(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)