Amid deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia, one project has stood out as a remarkable example of cooperation: Russia’s help in transiting U.S. and NATO non-lethal military goods to and from Afghanistan. Russia is a key part of the “Northern Distribution Network,” the system of transit routes that coalition countries in Afghanistan, led by the U.S., have set up to facilitate the supply of their forces in Afghanistan. And a year ago, Russia did what had been nearly unthinkable: it allowed NATO to set up a transit facility in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk.
While the facility was to be operated only by civilians, and no NATO troops would be stationed in Russia, it was nevertheless a remarkable move for a Kremlin, which has made much political hay of its opposition to Washington and Brussels. The move led to a backlash by nationalist Russians, and provided the spectacle of Dmitry Rogozin – who, as Russia’s combative ambassador to NATO, played an analogous role to that of John Bolton at the United Nations – defending cooperation with the alliance that had been his full-time job to disdain.
“Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying,” he wrote on his Facebook page, as reported by RIA Novosti. “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.”
But many Russians remained suspicious. As one commenter on the RIA Novosti story put it: “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?”
With the establishment of the base in Ulyanovsk, the Kremlin’s perception of its national interest was at odds with its political rhetoric. “The anti-NATO demonstrations in Ulyanovsk were, kind of ironically, organized by United Russia [President Putin’s party],” Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told the Christian Science Monitor. “It seems people took Putin too literally. There is a contradiction between the things Putin says about U.S. imperialism, and the need to take practical decisions for cooperation. It’s clear all that anti-American rhetoric was mostly an electoral tool.”
It turns out that the Kremlin spent its political capital for nothing: A year after the facility opened, it remains unused. Russia has not signed a single contract with a NATO member military to actually use the facility, reports a story in the Russian newspaper Kommersant (in Russian, with an English-language summary in The Moscow Times.)
The idea was for coalition members to fly goods from Afghanistan to Ulyanovsk, from where they could be shipped by rail onward to Europe. While Britain and Germany have carried out successful test runs using Ulyanovsk, no one has agreed to use it in full. While there have been intimations of security worries, the real reason appears to be a more prosaic one: cost. One unnamed diplomat told Kommersant that, while shipping a container via Ulyanovsk would cost about 50,000 Euros, using a comparable facility in Termez, Uzbekistan, costs only 30,000 Euros.
And coalition members have plenty of choices. When the Ulyanovsk facility was being set up, Pakistan had closed its border to NATO cargo, and the Central Asian states seemed to be dragging their feet in signing agreements to allow retrograde transit (i.e., transit out of Afghanistan rather than into). That made Russia a potentially crucial alternative for coalition members. But since then, the situation has gotten much more advantageous for coalition members. Pakistan has reopened its borders and a number of other ex-Soviet states are vying for a share of the lucrative transit business. In that environment, Russia has been unable to compete.
Russia had a number of reasons for offering Ulyanovsk to NATO. Business for Russian companies was an obvious one, but it also suited Russia’s complex policy toward the Western mission in Afghanistan: while it wants to keep Islamist extremism at bay – and is happy that the West is spending its blood and treasure to do so, rather than its own – Russia is deeply suspicious about the geopolitical foothold that the mission has given the U.S. in its traditional sphere of influence of Central Asia. Ulyanovsk would have allowed Russia to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, allowed its businesses to profit, while along the way diminishing the U.S. military presence in Central Asia.
Anonymous Russian officials complained to Kommersant that the U.S., while negotiating with Russia, was carrying on parallel talks with Central Asian governments and that the latter – after the agreement with Russia was reached – then undercut Russia’s prices. But they expressed optimism that the facility would eventually be used: “if not by NATO, then by the United Nations or someone else.”