NATO and Russia are working on an agreement to set up a multi-modal transport hub in Ulyanovsk, in Russia's Volga region, to assist the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian diplomats. Via Johnson's Russia List:
Talks on establishing a NATO logistics base in central Russia started one-and-a-half years ago. A source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States proposed a Russian city where "cargo from Afghanistan could be airlifted and then forwarded by rail to Latvia or Estonia." After discussing several locations, both parties agreed to set up the hub in Ulyanovsk because its airport is best suited to the task in that region due to the proximity of railway lines.
Russian Railways and Volga-Dnieper Airlines, which are already involved in delivering NATO cargo from Afghanistan to Europe, are expected to benefit, as the project will increase cargo traffic considerably.
The report adds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will soon sign an agreement on the proposal.
Intriguingly, one of the reasons that the facility at Ulyanovsk will be needed is because Uzbekistan is wary of the reverse transit, specifically about the possibility of drugs or arms being smuggled in along with it:
[The Ulyanovsk hub] is also important because of Uzbekistan, whose territory is currently used for the supply of goods to Afghanistan, does not want to allow them in the opposite direction.
"The Uzbeks are afraid of the importation of drugs and weapons. It's not so easy to check whole trainloads of military equipment," says the diplomat.
Assuming all this is accurate, it would be interesting to see a calculation of how much more it costs to fly something to Ulyanovsk and then ship it by rail from there, as opposed to shipping it via rail from Afghanistan. (On a railroad, it should be noted, that the Uzbekistan state rail company was paid by the Asian Development Bank to build.) But is Uzbekistan really worried enough about drugs and weapons entering the country to forego the substantial transit fees that this sort of thing must offer? And is it refusing to allow reverse transit? Deirdre Tynan recently reported otherwise:
US officials are said to have obtained the consent of relevant Central Asian governments to use the NDN for “retro cargo.” Russia is also onboard. Written agreements to that effect are due to be signed in the near future with only Kazakhstan reportedly still haggling over the exact terms and conditions. Uzbek authorities consented “almost straight away” once the United States committed to using Tashkent’s suggested route, which is “the most expensive one,” a well-placed source said....
A November 14 sources-sought notice posted on the US government’s Federal Business Opportunities website indicates that the German-run Camp Marmal near Mazar-i-Sharif will be substantially enlarged to facilitate a “Northern Distribution Network hub” at a cost earmarked to be between $10 million and $25 million.
Separately, NATO officials are said to be favoring the rapid removal of advanced weaponry, communications and intelligence systems from Afghanistan. Sensitive items would likely be flown out via the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, a US government source suggested.
Very curious. A good bet: something is happening in Ulyanovsk, but not because Uzbekistan is refusing reverse transit. Will be worth looking into in more detail...