On Afghan Transit, NATO And Russia Part Ways -- This Time, Amicably
Russia announced this week that it has formally cut off the transit of NATO military cargo through Russian territory. But in theory, Moscow remains open to cooperation on Afghanistan: it annulled the agreement only after NATO quietly allowed the agreement to lapse after the formal combat mission in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2014. And the comparable military transit agreement with the United States remains in effect, though the Pentagon isn't currently using Russian territory for its Afghan transit.
On May 18, the Russian government announced that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had signed a decree annulling the NATO transit agreement. Russia has allowed NATO countries to transport equipment to Afghanistan since 2008, and even allowed NATO to set up a controversial logistics facility in Ulyanovsk in 2012, though the latter, in the end, was rarely used.
In general, the transit routes through the former Soviet Union -- collectively known as the Northern Distribution Network -- have declined in significance over the last few years. The main reason is that Pakistan, which offers a much closer route to the sea from Afghanistan, has become a more reliable partner, making it a much more economical option and Russia and the rest of the NDN effectively a backup.
Economics aside, the collapse in relations between Russia and NATO has had relatively little effect on the military cooperation on Afghanistan, and Russian officials seemed determined to maintain that relationship. Last year, a Russian official replied to criticisms of the Ulyanovsk facility by arguing: "We ourselves were interested in their fighting the Taliban. If the latter had begun to spill over into Central Asia, the Central Asians would not have been able to stop them. Anyway, the transit center in Ulyanovsk is basically inoperable. So I see no point in canceling what isn't in effect. It would be like shooting sparrows with a cannon. Who would that intimidate? It wouldn't have any noticeable effect on our Western opponents. For Russia such approaches aren't serious."
And Putin himself last year defended letting the U.S. military use Russian territory for Afghanistan transit: "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?"
After Russia announced the annulment of the NATO agreement this week, a NATO official told the Russian news service Sputnik that the alliance had unilaterally let the agreement lapse at the end of last year. "According to the NATO source, both parties operated under the assumption that the agreement was due to expire with the end of the security mission and, unless specifically extended, would not require formal notification," Sputnik reported.
The agreement between the U.S. and Russia allowing American military transit through Russia was signed in 2011 and is still in effect; it's automatically renewed every year unless one party annuls it.
Nevertheless, the U.S. no longer uses Russian territory, a Department of Defense spokesperson told The Bug Pit. "In support of our operations in Afghanistan, we continue to maintain multiple transportation options in case some routes are no longer available. We are confident in our ability to sustain U.S. forces as required to maintain their operations," the spokesperson said. "We are not currently moving cargo through Russia. We do maintain small shipments on the NDN (through the Caucasus) to keep those routes in a 'warm' status."
So it may seem like an obvious conclusion that the annulment of the agreement is the result of the crisis over Ukraine and the resumption of the Cold War between NATO and Russia. But in the end it probably has to do more with the end of the formal combat mission in Afghanistan and the fact that the Russia route never made the most economic sense.