The logistics center that Russia set up in Ulyanovsk for NATO to use for transporting military equipment out of Afghanistan is not being used because it's too expensive, a senior NATO official has said. Alexander Vershbow, the alliance's deputy secretary general, gave a long interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant and discussed a variety of issues involving Russia-NATO relations. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation was about missile defense, but there was also some interesting discussion on Ulyanovsk:
Kommersant: What is happening with the transit center at Ulyanovsk? As far as I know, there has been only one test flight with NATO cargo from Afghanistan. When will the transit center start working in full?
Vershbow: Everything is agreed on there and ready for use not just by NATO countries but by all other partners in ISAF who want to transport cargo to or from Afghanistan. The issue is the commercial aspect. NATO countries are studying the most advantageous transportation networks from the financial point of view. So, for example, transit routes through Pakistan, closed not long ago, now are fully open and that is the most inexpensive route.
Kommersant: The Russian proposal is less advantageous?
Vershbow: It's costlier. NATO governments are looking for the best proposal for the least amount of money. We're talking about a very large quantity of cargo -- tens of thousands of containers. Correspondingly, the prices have to be competitive, this is business.
Kommersant: Not long ago Russia announced it was ready to use one of its ports for these transport networks.
Vershbow: Yes, on the Baltic Sea. That was one of the variants discussed, but everything will depend on how commercially advantageous it is in comparison with the other available routes. If Russia makes a better proposal, that could gain them a greater share of this business (laughs).
This more or less confirms previous speculation that cost was behind the slow start to operations at Ulyanovsk. This may not be anyone's fault in particular -- NATO officials tried to set up a whole network of redundant routes so that if one failed, others would be able to easily fill in. But now that Pakistan is back on board, Uzbekistan is still proving a reliable partner (at least on this front) there is no real need for Ulyanovsk. Remember, to use Russia's facility coalition members would first have to fly their equipment from Afghanistan to Ulyanovsk, and the longer you fly the more expensive the route is. That's why fully overland routes via Pakistan or Uzbekistan, or routes involving shorter flights, for example to Navoi (Uzbekistan) or Shymkent (Kazakhstan) are more attractive.
Still, it's worth remembering how much political flack was taken by some generally very anti-NATO Russian politicians, like Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Rogozin, for sticking their necks out in favor of setting up the Ulyanovsk center. The even-more-anti-NATO Russian public responded poorly to the news that NATO would be setting up shop in Russia, and Putin and Rogozin were put in the unfamiliar position of arguing that NATO was not -- in this case, anyway -- a menacing force singlemindedly focused on Russia's destruction. One wonder what those guys are thinking now that Ulyanovsk is looking like a bust for Russia. Do they blame Volga-Dniepr company (the commercial freight giant behind Ulyanovsk) for overcharging, or NATO for wooing and then abandoning them?