The Kremlin's intention to allow NATO to set up a hub for Afghan transit operations in the Volga region city of Ulyanovsk has triggered protests amid claims the deal would undermine Russia's national interests and security.
Analysts contacted by RIA Novosti have dismissed those fears as Cold War-era rhetoric, describing the prospective deal as a “pragmatic" step that would benefit both the Western alliance and Russia.
Under a plan announced last week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Moscow is preparing to allow NATO to use an airport in Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, to transit soldiers and military cargo to and from Afghanistan. The deal comes as NATO is preparing for a pullout that would end its costly war in Afghanistan, which has continued for more than a decade.
Ironically, it is the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, well known for his deep-seated suspicion of the U.S.-led alliance, that has actually been making the case in favor of the deal.
"We are helping the coalition... primarily out of our own national interest," Lavrov told Russian lawmakers last week, describing the deal as "a means to assist those who are eradicating the threats of terrorism and drug trafficking in Afghanistan."
The Russian authorities insist that the so-called NATO "base" would be nothing more than a transit hub, where cargos from Afghanistan would be reloaded from planes onto trains and then moved to Europe.
But Russia’s Communists - the country's second most powerful political party - seem unconvinced. On Tuesday, they issued a statement declaring the deal a “threat” to Russia’s “national security.”
“The Communist Party decisively condemns the intention to ensure a permanent foreign military presence in the heart of Russia and demands that the Russian leadership stop the implementation of this idea,” the statement reads, adding: “For the first time in the history of the Russian Empire, the U.S.S.R. and the Russian Federation, a foreign military base would appear on our soil… a base of a military bloc that the majority of our population view as hostile.”
“Hysteria” surrounding the deal is no surprise given the anti-Western public campaign carried out by the Kremlin, Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis, said.
“The Kremlin is now facing the consequences of its own propaganda intended exclusively for domestic consumption,” the analyst said.
In practice, the Russian leadership “realizes that the NATO operation in Afghanistan is in Russia’s interests even more than it is in the interests of NATO itself” because “Afghanistan threatens Russia – not to mention the Central Asian republics – much more than it threatens NATO countries,” Khramchikhin said.
Every year, dozens of tons of Afghan heroin flow into Russia from Afghanistan via the former Soviet Central Asian states, killing an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Russians annually. Opium poppy production remains a major source of revenues for the Taliban, whom the United States and its NATO allies have been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001.
Despite disagreements between Russia and NATO on how to deal with Afghan drug production, Russia has supported the international operation there from the very beginning, Alexei Arbatov from the Moscow Carnegie Center said.
“That we cooperate with the Americans on this issue is absolutely right,” he said, adding that this was the case when “absolutely different countries, which are unhappy with each other on many issues, cooperate effectively in their common interests.”
‘The Cold War is over’
Russia has allowed Afghan-bound NATO transport through its territory since 2009 as an alternative to transit routes through Pakistan where NATO convoys have frequently come under militant attacks.
But now that Washington’s relations with Pakistan have been strained and that Kyrgyzstan has signaled that it will not extend the U.S. lease of its Manas air base, Russia’s cooperation has become increasingly important for the United States and its NATO allies, analysts say. The creation of a new transit hub in Ulyanovsk is designed to ensure that NATO meets the 2014 deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan, they say.
Lavrov said last week Russia was “not happy with the artificial deadlines” set for the Afghanistan troop pullout. First, he said, “it is necessary to achieve a basic level of order maintained by Afghan security forces.”
Arbatov said he believed it would be better for Russia if international troops stayed in Afghanistan. But since they decided to withdraw, Moscow has no other option but to ensure that they don’t face difficulties on their way home, he said.
Besides the geopolitical payback, Russia would also gain commercial benefits from the new transit deal, analysts and officials say. The first deputy head of the State Duma defense committee, Sergei Zhigarev, has said the Ulyanovsk hub may bring the Russian budget “tens of millions of dollars.”
“There is no reason to talk about any threat to national security, about the invasion of the Urals and so on,” political analyst Sergei Oznobishchev, who heads the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Assessments, said. “The Cold War has long been over.”
During his successful presidential campaign, Vladimir Putin accused the United States of backing the unprecedented protests against his rule, causing analysts to speculate that his return to the Kremlin in May could signal the end of the much-triumphed “reset” in bilateral ties. However, once he won the presidential race on March 4, his loud rhetoric “vanished into thin air,” while “objective interests” of both Russia and the United States remain in place, Oznobishchev said.
Commenting on U.S. President Barack Obama’s phone conversation with Putin a few days after the elections, Putin aide Yuri Ushakov said the two leaders agreed that that criticism of each other made in the heat of election campaigns should not be allowed to become an obstacle to bilateral relations.
“Putin said openly: let’s turn over a new leaf,” Oznobishchev said. “As a forward-looking person, he understands the benefits of cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan, that’s why he takes such steps.”
Moreover, the analyst said, Russia is “lucky” that NATO and the United States “decided to intervene in Afghanistan” – otherwise, Moscow would have to “take serious steps” to protect its southern borders.
In the face of mounting protests over the deal, Lavrov told State Duma deputies last week that the government has not yet given the green light to the Ulyanovsk hub deal and that it was still under consideration.
Oznobishchev said he believed the agreement would eventually be approved, despite the current vocal Communist opposition.
"That's the good thing about a managed democracy," he said.
Drug dealers 'don't need NATO's help'
Opponents of the prospective transit hub have expressed fears that drugs may be smuggled into Russia together with NATO cargos. On Monday, about 80 Ulyanovsk residents staged a demonstration in protest against the government plan, saying in a statement that they were “deeply shocked” at the authorities’ actions and they would “open a drug-trafficking route into our country.”
Arbatov said those fears were not baseless.
“It’s no secret that both our soldiers who served in Afghanistan and troops who are currently serving there were sometimes involved in illegal drug trafficking,” he said.
However, if NATO military planes do bring drugs to Ulyanovsk, it’s just a matter of proper controls to guarantee that they are not moved beyond the airport territory, he said.
The Ulyanovsk hub should be “isolated from the rest of Russia,” and NATO is just as interested in preventing any leaks of its cargos, which may contain sensitive military technology, the analyst said.
Russian specialists may also be involved in checking Ulyanovsk-bound cargoes before they are loaded onto planes in Afghanistan, Oznobishchev suggested.
Meanwhile, other analysts said it was unlikely that drug traffickers would seek to infiltrate the Ulyanovsk hub.
“Unfortunately, the drug mafia has enough transit routes throughout our country, and it does not need to seek assistance from NATO,” retired Major General Vagif Guseinov, who heads the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis, said.
Oznobishchev said the Ulyuanovsk hub deal underlines what he called a “contradiction” between the Kremlin’s military doctrine, which views NATO as the top threat for Russia, and reality, in which Moscow and the alliance have “more common interests” than “disagreements.”
NATO’s plans to build elements of its European missile shield close to Russia’s western borders remain a major sticking point in its relations with Russia. Arbatov warned, however, that any attempt by Russia to use the Ulyanovsk hub as a tool to blackmail the United States over its missile shield plans could have unpleasant implications for both countries.
“If we say: 'We will shut down the base if you don’t provide written guarantees that your missile shield is not directed against Russia' – this would simply lead to a conflict of interests and come to no good for both us and them,” he said. “They would never make such concessions – just as we wouldn’t make them if we were in their shoes.”
At the same time, if sealed and honored, the deal may become an “important stabilizing element” in Russia’s relations with the United States and its NATO allies, Oznobishchev said.
“Whatever arguments we will have, we will know that we all share common interests and we can’t just tear strips off each other and drift apart,” he said.