Russia has confirmed that it is planning to help NATO set up a transportation hub in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk, confirming its willingness to cooperate with U.S. goals in Central Asia and setting off a mild political controversy among Russians uncomfortable about working with NATO.
As first reported a month ago by the newspaper Kommersant, NATO is looking at using the Ulyanovsk facility to fly in equipment that it is moving out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. The equipment will then be sent onward to Europe via train.
The first official confirmation of the plan was made this week by Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Moscow's ambassador to NATO and now deputy prime minister dealing with defense industry. In his inimitable way, he addressed a controversy that had been brewing on Russian online fora, writing on his facebook page (and reported by RIA Novosti):
Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying. Let me explain: we are talking about a so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargos to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan.
In Ulyanovsk, mineral water, napkins, tents and other non-military cargos will be reloaded from trains onto planes and then moved to Afghanistan.
This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland.
The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the NATO-Russia deal, which he said had not yet been formally approved:
"This draft agreement… has not entered force yet, it has not yet been considered by the government,” Lavrov told State Duma members...
"We are interested in having those who counter issues facing Russia inside Afghanistan do their job efficiently,” Lavrov said.
Rogozin's justification didn't sit well with some Russians. One commenter at RIA Novosti wrote:
It is like allowing the transport of food, drinking water, warm clothes, and personal heaters to the German soldiers taking part in the battle of Stalingrad. Non-lethal items, aren't they?
Then, the question is why did the Soviet army burn and destroy all crops and cattle, while retreating eastward, after the Nazis invaded Soviet Union in 1941? Why Russian partisans were destroying Nazi supply lines to the Eastern Front?
It must have been logistically important, it must have impacted the fighting ability of the German army.
C'mon, this is a no-brainer.
The analogy may be imperfect, but the discontent is real, and led to demonstrations in Ulyanovsk, reported the Christian Science Monitor. It turns out that voters believed Vladimir Putin's anti-western rhetoric, ignoring the real contribution that Russia is making to the U.S./NATO effort behind the scenes:
"The anti-NATO demonstrations in Ulyanovsk were, kind of ironically, organized by United Russia [Putin's party]," says Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "It seems people took Putin too literally. There is a contradiction between the things Putin says about US imperialism, and the need to take practical decisions for cooperation. It's clear all that anti-American rhetoric was mostly an electoral tool."
Much has been made of how Putin is losing his mojo among educated, middle-class Russians, but is this a sign that he could be losing nationalists, too?
A senior NATO official said Russia had not formally approved use of the airfield and that it was too soon to say much about it. Yet there were indications that Russia’s overture was coinciding with renewed willingness by the Pakistani government to allow overland shipments — though at a much steeper financial cost than before.
Another question is, why does NATO need this facility? It will be more expensive to fly goods from Afghanistan to Russia than to use the railroad from Mazar-e-Sharif through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The original Kommersant report suggested the reason was that Uzbekistan was not allowing U.S. "reverse transit" (equipment being taken from Afghanistan back to Europe and the U.S.), but they have recently agreed to such transit. However, they're reportedly being difficult about it. Just as the Northern Distribution Network is a hedge against Pakistan, might this Ulyanovsk facility be a hedge against Uzbekistan? I asked the Pentagon press office for comment, but they declined.
UPDATE: The Pentagon did respond, with this statement:
- A more secure Afghanistan is in the interest of both the U.S. and Russia, and we appreciate Russian efforts to support our operations there, as well as their cooperation on other issues of mutual concern.
- As a component of the overall reset in U.S.-Russia relations, the bilateral relationship has seen many areas of recent cooperation on Afghanistan, including greater overland and air access through Russia.
- Russia significantly expanded the Northern Distribution Network, allowing us to further diversify our supply routes, and has also agreed to expand the types of cargo that can pass through its territory.
- NATO has had a reverse transit agreement with Russia since Jan 1, 2011, a factor that will become particularly important when transition begins.
- NATO-Russia cooperation on Afghanistan was one of the areas that the Secretary General discussed with president-elect Putin in their recent phone call.