The recent NATO summit in Chicago failed to produce a U.S.–Pakistan transit agreement. The agreement sought would have allowed U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to transport supplies via Pakistan safely and cost effectively, and it would have guaranteed that in 2013–2014, Pakistan would be the safe route for withdrawal of American and other Western forces from Afghanistan.
Now the chances increase that the bulk of NATO forces and equipment will exit Afghanistan north through Eurasia. Moscow is offering to allow use of a huge logistics base in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk to help phase out the Afghan military mission. Back in February, citing sources within the Russian foreign ministry, the Kommersant newspaper reported that negotiations regarding the use of a Russian transport hub commenced a year and a half ago, around the time when Pakistan closed the border with Afghanistan for the first time and denied passage to NATO convoys.
The choice of location fell on Ulyanovsk—ironically, the founder of the Soviet state Vladimir Lenin’s birthplace, located 500 km southeast of Moscow. Ulyanovsk is a hub of the national rail network, and its military air base has a 5 km landing strip that was supposed to become an alternative landing site for the never-operational Soviet space shuttles. Such a landing strip is perfect for heavy-transport airplanes ferrying troops and material from Afghanistan.
NATO troops could fly cargo and personnel directly from Afghanistan and then ship cargo by rail. Troops will be able to fly nonstop to the United States. NATO soldiers and supplies are already allowed to pass via Russian railroad network and airspace according to the existing transit agreements, but not to disembark on Russian territory. If the new agreement is reached, for the first time in recent history, a Russian city would witness a mass of Western military personnel.
Despite communists’ and nationalists’ outcry over NATO’s “infiltration,” top Kremlin leaders have defended the potential deal. In April, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—who calls NATO “a throwback to the Cold War” and regularly lambasts NATO missile defense deployment plans as somehow aimed at Russia’s second-strike capability—described NATO’s global influence as “stabilizing,” saying that assisting the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan would serve Russian interests.
Behind Russian cooperation are both geopolitical and economic calculations.
From a geopolitical standpoint, Russia has two conflicting goals: U.S. departure from the heart of Eurasia, as well as stability and security in Afghanistan after the U.S. military’s exit.
Russia wants the perception that it contributes to the Afghan mission without paying the price in blood or treasure. Equally important is Russia’s desire to secure Washington’s help in the future to manage the extremist threat in the region it claims as its own backyard—a “zone of privileged interests.” Moscow recognizes that it may not be able to hold the Islamist tide in Central Asia alone, and its worst nightmare is uncontrolled extremists flocking to the heart of Eurasia, possibly toppling some of the weak regimes there, and also affecting the volatile North Caucasus, which is within Russian borders.
NATO supply and withdrawal are also good business: Transit fees already generate some $1 billion per year for Russian freight companies. Optimistic estimates indicate that NATO’s Ulyanovsk operation could bring in annual revenues of $1 billion (€745 million) to local air cargo companies and $250 million to the state railroad, according to Spiegel.
For Washington, the most pressing regional challenge right now is to ensure a safe withdrawal of some 129,000 military and civilian personnel, at least 70,000 vehicles, and 120,000 containers of U.S. equipment worth $49 billion. Dealing with Russia is easier than dealing with unstable Pakistan.
Russia’s assistance in the Afghan endgame would be helpful but should not be viewed as a favor or magnanimity. The fact is that both states are deeply concerned about violent extremism and must work together to reduce the strategic threat, notwithstanding foreign policy disagreements in other areas.