Russia prods Afghan, Japanese wounds By M K Bhadrakumar Any Russian babushka sitting in a city park would admonish that picking scabs is a bad thing and if the scabs feel tight or itchy, find distraction in a book or puzzle. Yet Moscow twice within a week picked at its war wounds - a relatively new scab from the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and a much older one left over from World War II. They were neither tight nor itchy, yet Moscow scratched them. The Russian decision to participate in a commando operation led by United States forces against drug traffickers in Afghanistan last Thursday and the first-ever visit by a Russian head of state to the Kurile islands on Monday were precipitate moves that risked unpleasant consequences. Russian servicemen stepping on Afghan soil from where they departed in unhappy circumstances on February 15, 1989, or ratcheting up tensions with Japan over a simmering 65-year-old territorial dispute suffused with strong emotions and national pride is always risky. The Russian move needs to be seen against a geopolitical backdrop that is perhaps as tumultuous in Russia's diplomatic history as the 1945 Yalta summit: the Kremlin maneuvering to take Russia to a nascent partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), something unthinkable a few months ago. After some initial confusion, Kabul and Tokyo grasped the Kremlin's complex motivations. And they let the dust settle down. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had reacted angrily and warned of serious consequences, but quickly realized that Moscow meant no harm to him or to the Afghan nation. Karzai telephoned Medvedev on Wednesday and not only supported Russia's participation in the recent anti-drugs operation but also called for "further expanding joint efforts in this area and increasing coordination levels ... [and] for further intensification of cooperation with Russia and increasing its role in resolving problems in Afghanistan, as well as the region as a whole." Japan's reaction has been strikingly similar. An eruption of anger over Medvedev's visit to the disputed territory and the recall its envoy in Moscow. Then Tokyo calmly reconfirmed the scheduled meeting between Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Medvedev on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific (APEC) summit meeting at Yokohama on November 13-14. Interestingly, Kan instructed the Japanese ambassador in Moscow to "increase his gathering of information and analysis of the development of the situation in Russia". In Tokyo's perception, the Kremlin was grandstanding. Medvedev wrote to Kan on Thursday that he intended to "actively participate'' in the main theme of Japan's APEC presidency, Change and Action, and expressed confidence that the Yokohama summit would provide "an optimal model of ... development ... with an emphasis on economic and social securityâ€¦ [and] make a tangible contribution to sustainable growth in the economies of participating in the forum." Russian participation in the commando raid in Afghanistan took place when the troubled Afghan-Russian relationship was fast mending. Medvedev successfully hosted a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in August to discuss Afghanistan, which Karzai attended. The discussions even focused on Russian-Afghan trade and economic ties. Kabul was willing to leave the bitter memories of Soviet occupation behind and see Russia as a benefactor and a factor of stability. Medvedev won Karzai's friendship. As regards the second "scab", Moscow provoked Japan by scheduling Medvedev's visit when the two countries were focusing on strengthening their economic ties, with Japan stepping up its imports of oil, natural gas and other resources from Russia and the latter importing Japanese cars and other products. Moscow precipitated the tensions hardly 10 days ahead of the APEC summit, which Russia is attending for the first time. Soviet troops seized the 1,300-kilometer volcanic archipelago of the Kurile Islands and merged it with Russia's Sakhalin region in the final stages of World War II after Japan had sued for peace with the Allies. Japan calls the islands its "Northern Territories", rejects Russia's claim and has refused to conclude a peace treaty with Russia even 65 years after the war ended. Medvedev's visit to the Kuriles changed nothing about the territorial dispute. In sum, Russia acted toward Afghanistan and Japan with a deliberateness that betrays deeper policy calculations. Russian motives are transparent in Afghanistan. The commando operation targeted drug traffickers, but its backdrop is Russia and NATO getting ready for improved relations. Russia and NATO are expected to sign a clutch of agreements relating to Afghanistan in the coming period relating to the transportation of NATO's military cargo to Afghanistan via Russian territory by air, road and rail; supply of Russian helicopters to Afghanistan; and providing training of Afghan pilots, special forces and military as well as counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic units by Russian instructors. Russia is pitching hard that the US and NATO have much to gain out of involving Russia in the war. The narrative is that "the situation in Afghanistan will be even worse if Russia and NATO do not work together. What's more, it's in their mutual interests to join forces ... Moscow has no choice but to support NATO. Even a partial withdrawal of NATO troops before local forces are fully trained ... would spell catastrophe for Russia." The Afghan anti-narcotic operation involving Russian agents couldn't have been timed better - three weeks ahead of the NATO summit in Lisbon where the war and Russia's role figure on the agenda. Moscow tried to use the drug-trafficking problem to catapult itself from the margins to the center stage of NATO's debates over Afghanistan. It helped define Russia's place and role on the issue of Afghanistan. Keeping the scabs moist Moscow's relations with NATO are improving, but it so far has kept a safe distance from the alliance's Afghan agenda and instead tried to be a "balancer" or "alternative" to NATO - a trapeze act that Moscow handled astutely. Karzai grasps the surge in Russian aspirations aiming to revive its influence in Afghanistan even as the war is exhausting the US and NATO and the search for a political settlement quickens. On the other hand, Moscow uses its developing cooperation with NATO over Afghanistan to crowbar its way on the far more vital question of participation in the alliance's missile defense system (which is proposed to be linked to the US's system). The flurry of diplomatic activity this week has been breathtaking. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen arrived in Moscow on Tuesday to present the proposal for Russia's participation in the alliance's missile defense system. Rasmussen had just visited Berlin to consult German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was fresh from a trilateral summit in October with Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that focused on European security and Russia's role in it. Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and NATO's supreme commander in Europe US Admiral James Stavridis also arrived in Moscow, while on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet in Hanoi last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was hosted in the Pentagon for the first time, in September. The Russian news agency said there was "an 'all-hands-on-deck' kind of atmosphere in Moscow" this week. Expectations run high that a momentous phase in Russia's ties with the West is probably commencing. This is where the Kremlin feels the compulsion to balance its ties with Beijing. At a time when Moscow has all the need for Japanese money for modernization, when its foreign policy priority is to integrate Russia into the global community and when Silicon Valley apparently holds the key to Russia's "innovation" comes this manifestly provocative act to pressure and humiliate one of the US's key allies. But then, China is also currently locked in a row with Japan over territorial claims. Perhaps there isn't any Russian-Chinese conspiracy as such to needle Japan and to keep the Japan-US alliance in check and thereby undermine US influence in the Asia-Pacific. But Moscow's jab at the scab of its territorial dispute with Japan pleases Beijing. Moscow showed up Japanese foreign policy as being in disarray and that with its economy in deep stagnation, Tokyo is too weak to do anything other than complain. Russia asserted its status as an Asian power but Moscow also signaled to Beijing that the potential surge in its NATO ties by no means comes at the expense of Sino-Russian strategic partnership. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called the Russian-Japanese row a "bilateral issue" (ie, Washington should stay clear of it) which should be solved through "a friendly dialogue". Moscow has strengthened Beijing's hand in any upcoming negotiations with Japan over the East China Sea. The Global Times daily quoted a Chinese scholar as saying, "Japan cannot afford to have tensions with China and Russia at the same time. It's time for Japanese politicians to reflect on their diplomacy and sort out a solution." Besides, by highlighting its territorial dispute with Japan, Moscow may also have underscored that involvement of Tokyo in the alliance's missile defense system would be contrary to the spirit of Russia-NATO ties and the reset of US-Russia ties. All-in-all, therefore, while the Afghan anti-drug operation underscored the Russian capacity and readiness to be seen as a useful ally for NATO, by highlighting its territorial dispute with Tokyo, Moscow reaffirmed that strategic cooperation with China would nonetheless remain a core vector of its foreign policy. In short, Moscow intends to keep its Afghan and Japanese scabs moist. The babushka will advise that a little skin massage and a bit of moisturizer rubbed into the scab is always good to help blood circulation so that the wound heals properly. Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.