Russia May Let NATO Use Airfield as Afghan Hub, The New York Times



March 14, 2012

The New York Times

MOSCOW The Kremlin expressed willingness on Wednesday to allow NATO to use an airfield in the heart of European Russia, in a city best known as Lenins birthplace, as a transit center for moving troops and nonlethal cargo into Afghanistan.

The decision, which requires formal approval by the Russian government, would provide a much-needed logistics hub at a time when overland supply routes through Pakistan have been closed off. But it would also increase American and NATO dependence on Russia amid serious foreign policy disagreements between Washington and Moscow, particularly over Syria.

Use of the airfield, on the banks of the Volga River in Ulyanovsk, stands to increase Russias leverage at a time when the White House is thinking about speeding up its withdrawal from Afghanistan a move Russia opposes.

Russias foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, while voicing support for granting NATO access to the airfield, said Wednesday that the Kremlin opposed a swift exit of troops from Afghanistan because of concerns about security, including drug trafficking.

This coalition should ensure the ability of the people of Afghanistan to defend their country and maintain an acceptable level of security before leaving there, he told Parliament. He also called on American and NATO forces to destroy poppy crops in Afghanistan to fight the opium trafficking that has led to rising drug use and H.I.V. rates in Russia.

Pentagon officials are scrambling to reopen the overland routes through Pakistan that were shut down by the Pakistani government in November in retaliation for NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Since then, NATO has relied largely on the northern distribution network overland routes beginning at ports in Latvia or Georgia that require the cooperation of Russia and several Central Asian nations. With the focus at the White House and the Pentagon shifting from resupplying troops in Afghanistan to getting troops and equipment out, new efforts have been under way to turn the northern distribution network into a two-way conduit.

Gen. William M. Fraser III, the commander of the United States Transportation Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that securing agreements in Central Asia to allow shipments out of Afghanistan was among his top priorities.

We now have a two-way approval to move equipment back out of Afghanistan, he said, through Tajikistan, Kurdistan and Kazakhstan. Also, Russia has approved this and Uzbekistan recently approved this. He said that the agreement covered nonlethal supplies and wheeled-armor vehicles.

The volume of cargo moving through Russia is providing Russian freight companies with more than $1 billion a year in business, according to some estimates.

But experts have long warned that Russias interest in cooperating with NATO is geopolitical as well as financial. In an ideal world, I would like to be less dependent on Russia, said Andrew C. Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But what are our options with getting things into or out of Afghanistan? Its a pretty formidable challenge.

He said that while Russia was unlikely to be able to dictate the terms of NATOs withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would use its position to reassert a greater hegemonic role in Eurasia.

President-elect Vladimir V. Putin has long indicated that he believes that Russia should have a greater role on the world stage.

Mr. Kuchins also said that Moscow was likely to continue to raise concerns about an early withdrawal given that Afghanistan had long posed risks for Russias security. It is still unclear what we are going to leave behind there, he said.

Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO headquarters in Brussels, said the relationship with Moscow was mutually beneficial. Russian cooperating on transiting equipment to and from Afghanistan has never been a problem, because stability in Afghanistan is in both of our interests, Ms. Lungescu said.

In addition to the overland freight routes, Moscow now allows the United States to fly troops into Afghanistan through Russian airspace. The Kremlin offered that assistance even before Washington requested it.

But while the American military has become increasingly dependent on the northern distribution network, tensions have flared between Russia and the United States on numerous issues, particularly Syria.

Russia has blocked efforts by the United States and other nations to intervene in a way that could lead to the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, who is an old ally and a major purchaser of Russian-manufactured weapons.

Russia also has strong objections to Washingtons plans for Europe-based missile defense system.

A senior NATO official said Russia had not formally approved use of the airfield and that it was too soon to say much about it. Yet there were indications that Russias overture was coinciding with renewed willingness by the Pakistani government to allow overland shipments though at a much steeper financial cost than before.

In his Senate testimony, General Fraser said withdrawal from Afghanistan would be impossible without reopening the Pakistani routes, which are dangerous even under the best circumstances.

As for withdrawal in general, General Fraser said, Its a daunting task. I will admit that.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.