Map of NDN routes, including those through Russia. (photo: U.S. Transportation Command)
Russia does not intend to block U.S. and NATO military transit routes to Afghanistan, President Vladimir Putin said, in spite of the recent spike in tensions with the West.
The U.S.'s Northern Distribution Network has been the quiet success of U.S.-Russia relations over the past several years; as of last year 100,000 containers of U.S. and NATO had been shipped to and from Afghanistan through Russia (and Central Asia and the Baltic states). The U.S. set up the route so as to not be dependent on its volatile relations with Pakistan, a decision that was vindicated in 2011 when Pakistan -- shut down its territory to U.S. and NATO military cargo. And even while NATO and Russia have suspended nearly all cooperation, the NDN keeps operating.
Putin spoke last week in Yalta and took questions from members of the Duma. And one was an implicit criticism of the Russian government's decision to continue cooperating with the U.S. and NATO on transit to Afghanistan.Leonid Kalashnikov of the Communist Party, asked Putin why Russia wasn't responding like Pakistan did: "When the U.S. military accidentally bombed a [Pakistani] checkpoint a few years ago ... they [Pakistan] immediately shut down the transit of U.S. forces and equipment," Kalashnikov said. "We have the same sort of transit with respect to members of NATO, which we entered into on a bilateral basis. Maybe it's time to also suspend this transit, as it doesn't serve our interests. In 2014, when the Americans leave there [Afghanistan], will will get one more flashpoint -- which is their fault -- in the south."
In his answer, Putin defended the agreement with the U.S., but also made a curious defense of his policy of letting NATO set up a transit facility in the city of Ulyanovsk in 2012, a decision that exposed him to some nationalist criticism. Putin essentially says, 'it wasn't a bad decision because no one ended up using it.'
But from a substantive perspective, Putin also acknowledged that the U.S. war in Afghanistan is in Russia's interests, and so Moscow shouldn't interfere:
Regarding the Afghan transit. Should we denounce corresponding agreements with the United States? As you may know, there was a lot of talk about the possible use of the airfield in Ulyanovsk, wasn’t there? I know that your party, the Communist Party was strongly opposed to this. However, nothing happened and it is not used. Zero use. This is one thing.
The other is that we should never follow the principle of harming ourselves simply out of spite. We are interested in stability in Afghanistan. So, if some countries, say the NATO states, or the United States are investing resources, including money into this – it is their choice, but it does not run counter to our interests. So why should we stop them?
Do you want us to get into war there again? No, I do not believe anybody wants this. Therefore, if we see any unlawful actions regarding this country, we consider them and look for ways to respond. However, our response should not harm us; it should only be beneficial for us.
The NDN has become an increasingly insignificant part of the U.S. and NATO's transit as the effort shifts from getting things out of Afghanistan rather than into it. But that has more to do with Uzbekistan than with Russia. Both American and Russian officials appear loath to wreck this one remaining bright spot in their relations; earlier this year the top U.S. military logistics official gave an interview to the Russian press in which he expressed the U.S.'s gratitude to Russia for the transit agreement, even if it wasn't being used much.