Russian NATO Transit Route Remains Unused, Raising Suspicions
NATO says its logistics hub in Russia will become operational soon, reports the Moscow Times:
General Knud Bartels, who chairs the alliance's military committee, told reporters Friday that containers are being shipped from Afghanistan to Britain via that route.
"A live trial along the northern distribution route is running since Dec. 3," the Danish general said after meetings with Russia's top military brass in Moscow.
Russia signed an agreement with NATO in June to allow the alliance to use Ulyanovsk, on the Volga River, as a multimodal transit hub for getting military cargo in and out of Afghanistan. But in all those intervening months, NATO has still not used the route. There has been some reporting in the Russian press that there are commercial disputes holding up the transit. Again, the Moscow Times:
National media have speculated that money is an issue and that Volga-Dnepr, the freight company that would handle the flights from the Volga Federal District hub, is demanding more payment than NATO countries are willing to spend.
But a senior representative of the alliance said Tuesday that although to his knowledge no shipping contract had been signed, both sides were testing how the hub could work in practice.
"A dry run has been completed, and a real test to ship containers from Latvia to Afghanistan and back via Ulyanovsk is expected for the next days," said Robert Pszczel, head of NATO's Information Office in Moscow.
Pszczel would not comment on why it was taking so long for the agreement to lead to actual results. He merely said "mundane commercial considerations" play a role.
Volga-Dnepr said that reports about its overcharging NATO were "taken out of context." And General Bartels, at his Moscow press conference, "dismissed reports that cast doubts on the route's workability."
"I'm optimistic. We will see the route being used in the future," he said.
Reading between the lines, "I'm optimistic" is not the same as "This is all entirely routine." So is there more trouble behind the scenes than NATO and Russia are willing to admit?
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.