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Why is Richard Holbrooke going to Russia? (Updated)

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is headed to Russia soon, just as a U.S. government team is also on its way there to deal with problems surrounding a new U.S.-Russian agreement to transit lethal materials through Russian space to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The controversial Holbrooke has had ...

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US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke addresses media next to a painting of Herat and its minarets during his visit to the western city of Herat on August 22, 2009. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is headed to Russia soon, just as a U.S. government team is also on its way there to deal with problems surrounding a new U.S.-Russian agreement to transit lethal materials through Russian space to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The controversial Holbrooke has had an ever-growing portfolio since taking on the Afghanistan/Pakistan mission, not to mention a staff that's grown from an initial 15 to more than 30 people. There are conflicting accounts of whether Holbrooke would deal with the Russians on the problems implementing the transit agreement. An interagency technical team is also on the way to Moscow to deal with the same issue, two administration officials confirmed.

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is headed to Russia soon, just as a U.S. government team is also on its way there to deal with problems surrounding a new U.S.-Russian agreement to transit lethal materials through Russian space to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The controversial Holbrooke has had an ever-growing portfolio since taking on the Afghanistan/Pakistan mission, not to mention a staff that’s grown from an initial 15 to more than 30 people. There are conflicting accounts of whether Holbrooke would deal with the Russians on the problems implementing the transit agreement. An interagency technical team is also on the way to Moscow to deal with the same issue, two administration officials confirmed.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told The Cable that Holbrooke is going to Russia “for meetings with his special representative counterpart and to discuss U.S.-Russia cooperation regarding Afghanistan,” but said he couldn’t be more specific.

“He doesn’t do Russia,” said one administration official who was surprised to hear Holbrooke was on the way there. Several sources said that Holbrooke’s famously aggressive style and lack of history in dealing with the complicated and difficult Russians made him a particularly surprising choice to send there. “He’s probably the worst personality that could be picked for something like this,” said another experienced Russia hand.

The State Department could not confirm the specific date, but the trip is expected soon; a senior official described Holbrooke’s mission in veiled terms only as discussing “political issues at a high level.”

Speculating on Holbrooke’s international standing throughout the region is somewhat of a parlor game for the diplomatic community. Despite his AfPak job, Holbrooke has not been to Afghanistan since before the disputed presidential elections in August; his lack of appearances there recently prompted many to think he was not welcome, in light of a reported feud with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Indians have also made it clear they are not interested in being included in Holbrooke’s sphere of policy influence. Holbrooke maintains he has just been hard at work in Washington dealing with the administration’s Afghanistan strategy review.

Nevertheless, there are increasing signs Holbrooke’s reach is widening. A team from Holbrooke’s office is currently in Beijing for discussions with Chinese officials on both Pakistan and Afghanistan, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, multiple sources tell The Cable that there are problems with the U.S.-Russian agreement to allow lethal military materials pass through Russian space on the way to Afghanistan. The deal, agreed to in July during Obama’s trip there, is the one tangible example of progress in the administration’s effort to “reset’ U.S.-Russian relations.

“We’re trying to build a more constructive relationship with Russia,” said Kelly. “Two of the best examples of our cooperation are the lethal transit agreement and cooperative counternarcotics training.”

But the Russians are now attempting to place new conditions on the supply routes, the sources said. For example, Russia is demanding to know exactly what items are in each shipment before allowing them to go through, a condition the U.S. military is not about to meet.

The U.S. government is receiving different messages from different segments of the Russian government, the sources said, complicating the matters. Another part of the Russian government demanded a tariff be paid on U.S. shipments entering Russia on their way to Afghanistan, a complete surprise to the U.S. side.

Update:  Holbrooke is also headed back to Afghanistan, his first trip there since August, at the end of his whirlwind trip around Europe, his spokesman said.

Holbrooke is currently en route to Berlin, after which he will travel to Paris, then Munich, then Moscow, before heading to Kabul. The trip is part of his regular diplomacy to consult with allies and partners on the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review currently ongoing, the spokesman said.

Holbrooke’s trip to Russia is not primarily to deal with the lethal transit agreement between the U.S. and Russia, the spokesman explained. An interagency task force is in Moscow to iron out implementation issues with that agreement, but that is a coincidence, the spokesman said.

Holbrooke has a long history of dealing with the Russians, including a personal relationship with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the spokesman explained.

The spokesman could not give details about who exactly Holbrooke would meet with either in Moscow or Kabul.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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