Russia has agreed to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan. The agreement gives the United States the right to fly over Russian territory as it transports military equipment and personnel to support American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The White House says the accord will permit 4,500 flights per year, saving the U.S. government $133 million annually in fuel, maintenance and other transportation costs. In addition, the Russians have waived any air navigation charges.
During a Moscow news conference on July 6 following talks with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the agreement.
"This is a substantial contribution by Russia to our international effort, and it will save the United States time and resources in giving our troops the support they need," he said.
Up until now, Russia has allowed only non-military - or what is described as 'non-lethal' - materiel to transit through its airspace on its way to Afghanistan.
Executive Director Daryll Kimball, of the private research firm the Arms Control Association, says the new agreement is a very significant step.
"This is quite a remarkable development if you consider the history of the United States and Russia. For the United States, this is very important because as we ramp up the military effort in Afghanistan, we need to ship more personnel and supplies and equipment in. And if anybody looks at the map, Russian airspace makes that a lot easier," said Kimball. "So I think Russia is signaling that they want to help the United States in that effort in Afghanistan. They recognize that the Taliban is a threat to both the United States and to Russia. This is a very concrete action on the part of Russia that I think would not have happened, did not happen, a year ago," he added.
Marshall Goldman of Harvard University also sees Moscow's action as a positive step, but done not without self-interest.
"It is in their interest to have the Americans commit themselves to Afghanistan, because if the Americans do not do it, sooner or later the bill is going to come up against the Russians - and they will have to deal with it," he said. "So that the extent that the Russians have said we will let you do this, is not only helpful for us because of the problems of bringing in supplies through Pakistan - but I think it also allows the Russians to say we are helping you and we hope, we wish you success - all the success. Because I think if push comes to shove, the Russians would rather have Americans there than the Taliban," said Goldman.
The agreement for the use of Russian airspace came shortly after the United States signed a new accord with Kyrgyzstan to lease the Manas airbase located in the northern part of the country.
That air base is critical for the U.S. and NATO war effort in Afghanistan.
Last year, more than 11,000 aircraft were refueled over the skies of Afghanistan by tankers based at Manas. More than 170,000 soldiers have transited in and out of Afghanistan through the airbase - and more than 5,000 tons of cargo have made their way to that country through Manas.
Last February, the Kyrghiz government decided to evict the Americans who have been leasing Manas since 2001. Many experts said Russia pressured the Kyrghiz government to force the Americans out.
But last month, Kyrghyzstan reversed that decision after the United States agreed to more than triple the yearly lease - from $17.5-million to $60-million. Other economic incentives were also added.
Former senior State Department official David Kramer, who is now with the German Marshall Fund in the United States, says the new Manas lease and Russia's decision to allow military overflights are key developments.
"But it does represent sort of a schizophrenic approach at times that we have seen from Russian officials, where on the one hand they do recognize the interest in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan - that is important for Russia," he said. "But on the other hand, they also have an interest in driving us out of the region. And they have to decide which is more important to them - and at least as of now, they seem to have come down on the side of working together and stabilizing Afghanistan," said Kramer.
Many analysts say Russia's decision to help the United States in Afghanistan is a sign that President Obama's strategy to "reset" relations between Washington and Moscow is on the right track.