In both the U.S. and Russia there has been a fair amount of talk about the possibility that as U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate, Russia could block the U.S.'s transportation of supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. But experts in Russia tell The Bug Pit that there is little incentive for the Kremlin to take such a step.
U.S. military planners say they have already been making contingency plans in case Russia shuts off the Afghanistan transit routes, known collectively as the Northern Distribution Network. In an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow was asked about the possibility of Russia shutting down the NDN. "We hope that Russia, which has an interest in the long-term stability of Afghanistan, will continue cooperation on transit." And jingoistic Russians are licking their chops. "They understand this in the Kremlin: the agreement over the 'Northern Distribution Network' at NATO's disposal is one of the strongest trumps that Russia has in its conflict with the West," the website Military Review recently wrote.
But Russia military experts surveyed by The Bug Pit said that Russia was unlikely to play that trump unless things get much worse. "I think it is highly unlikely [that] Russia will do anything like that unless the Ukrainian situation completely gets out of control (new round of ethnic unrest, attacks on Russian diplomats or property, something like that), said Vasiilly Kashin, an expert at the Moscow-based military think tank Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, an an email interview with The Bug Pit. "Basically, after securing Crimea, Russia is interested in de-escalating the crisis since the main objectives are already achieved. There's no need to provoke the U.S. any more. I think Obama will meet EU leaders in Hague, they will permanently exclude us from G8, maybe declare some additional NATO deployments in Europe, further cut military and military technical cooperation (Mistral, probably)and that will basically be over."
Mikhail Troitskiy, a Moscow-based expert on relations with the U.S., agreed: "Barring a clash over Eastern Ukraine or further severe sanctions by [the U.S. government], the Russian side will likely not be curtailing NDN transit, among other things, for commercial reasons. Also, I think it is clear that NDN transit is not there forever and that there are alternative options available to the U.S. should push come to shove. Overall, there is little sense for Russia, from my perspective, to create problems for NDN unless Moscow faces more unpleasant sanctions by Washington."
But if there were problems with the NDN, they might not be announced publicly, said Colby Howard, another expert at CAST. "I think the story is the silence on NDN relations; no one wants to bring it up," Howard told The Bug Pit. "I think everyone involved, to include Russia, would just as soon leave NDN off the agenda and let it proceed as an 'independent' side issue. However, if things degrade and NDN moves to the main stage, the first indication will be logistical problems along the line... shipments will hit red tape problems along the trunk line, specifically at inspection points."
So keep your eyes out for any reports of unexpected delays in Afghanistan cargo.