Russia Criticizes NATO Facilities In Georgia, Defends NATO Facilities In Russia
The Russian government has criticized a NATO plan to construct military training facilities in Georgia, while coming under fire itself for hosting a NATO facility on Russian soil.
When NATO announced last month that it would set up a range of expanded cooperation programs with Georgia, including joint training facilities, the reaction from Moscow was inevitable. On October 8, Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “concern in connection to the Georgian media reports about plans to deploy military infrastructure on the territory of Georgia in the interests of NATO.... Such actions would create threat to emerging stability in the Transcaucasus region."
Left unmentioned was the increasingly uncomfortable fact that Russia itself hosts a NATO cargo transit facility in Ulyanovsk. It was set up in 2012 to help NATO forces get equipment to and from Afghanistan, and even then it was somewhat contrary to Russia's consistent anti-NATO rhetoric. Then-Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin -- one of the leading producers of that anti-NATO rhetoric -- was put in the unlikely position of defending the facility, saying it would only involve harmless items like toilet paper and Mars bars.
NATO has barely used the transit center, as it proved significantly more expensive than options via Uzbekistan and Pakistan. But on paper, at least, there is still a NATO facility on Russian soil, and it is rankling some Russians. Also on October 8, the head of the state Duma's defense committee said that Russia should cancel the agreement. Via RT: “In my view, the Russian law on the status of NATO forces on our territory should have been repealed a long time ago,” MP Vladimir Komoyedov of the Communist Party told the Interfax AVN news agency. “Unfortunately, this law is still in force, despite the sanctions policy stepped up by the West in connection with the conflict in Ukraine."
A commentary published October 12 on the Ulyanovsk news website mosaic.ru raised some alarming ramifications of the base's presence. It noted that while the original agreement called for only "non-lethal" goods to be transited via Ulyanovsk, "nevertheless later the media reported that the list of 'non-lethal' equipment gradually filled up with fully lethal weaponry, including heavy weapons. That means than peaceful stocks of candy bars in the blink of an eye can turn into a real military base with all the consquences that flow from that. And if at some moment -- like now -- relations with the West worsen? Then there you have a foothold for the conquest of Russia!"
Those sorts of concerns are overblown, wrote Sergey Ordzhonikidze, a high-ranking Russian diplomat now representing the quasi-official Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. In a response to Komoyedov's statement, he argued that in allowing NATO to set up in Ulyanovsk, "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."
Here the Russian government benefits somewhat from an alarmist rhetoric (that it helped to create) around military bases as special threats (see: the objection to the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, along with the establishment of basically symbolic facilities like Kant). While Ulyanovsk isn't used, the U.S. still ships equipment across Russia to and from Afghanistan, and President Vladimir Putin has promised to keep doing so. Still, it's interesting that the Russian government continues to defend the presence of Ulyanovsk.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO seem to be stepping up their presence around Russia's borders; just in the last several days the U.S. took control of a missile defense base in Romania, NATO carried out exercises in Poland, a U.S. naval guide-missile destroyer entered the Black Sea, and U.S. armor rolled into Estonia. In that environment, one can expect the atmosphere in Russia around its remaining military cooperation with the U.S. and NATO to get more and more difficult.