The slow start for NATO's logistics hub in Russia may be due to cost and fears of Russian meddling, according to a senior NATO-member diplomat, speaking to The Moscow Times. While France just signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to use a facility at Shymkent to facilitate withdrawal, "no alliance member has announced that it will use [Ulyanovsk] for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan," The Times writes. "The only cargo that has been sent through Ulyanovsk so far is a number of containers for the British contingent that were sent from Camp Bastion in Afghanistan to Britain in December. That shipment has been described as a 'trial' by both NATO and Russian officials."
A NATO-country diplomat speaking to the Times reporter offered some intriguing explanations for that state of affairs.
A senior diplomat from a NATO country told the panel that the route was considered too expensive. Experts from his defense ministry have calculated that shipping a container from Afghanistan through Ulyanovsk costs 50,000 euros, while sending it via the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan costs only 30,000 euros, the diplomat told The Moscow Times, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But Yury Gorlach, a deputy director in the Foreign Ministry's European department, argued that Ulyanovsk was worth the extra cost because it was safer. "When you send valuable cargo from Afghanistan, Ulyanovsk is an option," he said.
The senior NATO member diplomat suggested that alliance countries are reluctant not just because of financial reasons. "They do not like the idea that Russian intelligence can take a close look at what they send back from Afghanistan," he said.
It's long seemed like this Ulyanovsk facility wasn't the most economically sensible way to get things out of Afghanistan, and that it might be a strategic hedge against uncertainty surrounding transit routes through Pakistan and Uzbekistan. (And by the same token, it may also have been useful as a bargaining tool in negotiations with those countries.) And now that things are going relatively well in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, Ulyanovsk isn't really necessary. It would be faintly ironic if the Russian government stuck its neck out with the unpopular, pro-Western move to set up Ulyanovsk -- probably the most concrete example of genuine U.S.-Russian cooperation -- and then no one used it.