For the last three years, Moscow has allowed NATO to ship military supplies to Afghanistan through Russia by rail. Now, this Northern Distribution Network may use an airport in Russia.
Russia’s foreign minister says the Kremlin is preparing to allow NATO to use an airport in central Russia as a transit center for soldiers and military cargo going to and from Afghanistan.
Under this plan, military aircraft would take off from Kabul, and fly almost 3,000 kilometers over Central Asia, to Ulyanovsk, a city on the banks of the Volga River.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia’s Duma Wednesday that use of the airport would meet Russian interests by allowing NATO to make an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan by its December 2014 deadline.
The announcement comes a day after authorities in Kyrgyzstan told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that they would not extend the American lease on a local transit center beyond its expiration date in July 2014. Manas Transit Center, near Bishkek, has become the main point of entry and exit for NATO troops from Afghanistan.
Joshua Kucera, a Washington-based writer on Central Asia security affairs, says the Kyrgyz position may simply signal the start of rent talks by Kyrgyzstan’s new president, Almazbek Atambayev.
"Most people in Bishkek and Washington assume that is a bargaining tool, that he will accept a U.S. presence for something longer than that, as long as the U.S. is willing to pay for it," said Kucera.
Kucera says Ulyanovsk would be a back-up to Manas, and Manas is a back-up to Pakistan.
Last November, Pakistan closed a southern supply route to Afghanistan in protest against NATO air attacks on two Pakistani military border posts.
For Russia, the NATO deal comes after three months of anti-American rhetoric as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin assailed the U.S. in a bid to win domestic support for his ultimately successful bid to win the March 4 presidential elections.
Now, with the election over, Russian officials seems to be tamping down anti-Americanism. Kucera says now officials have to confront:
"The Russian political domestic angle - it seems people are pretty riled up by this," he said.
On Tuesday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin wrote on his Facebook page, "Stop panicking."
Rogozin, who was once Russia’s envoy to NATO, added, "I’m sick of reading about a U.S. base near Ulyanovsk."
He said Ulyanovsk will be a transit center, where nonlethal cargo will be shipped between cargo planes and railroad cars. He wrote, "I don’t think transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia constitutes betrayal of the Motherland."
Rogozin and other officials are saying the transit base will give an economic boost to a midsize city that is seeing hard times. Home to troubled aircraft and car manufacturing plants, Ulyanovsk is gradually losing population.
It has already lost most of its tourism business. In 1924, the city was renamed after its famous native son, Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin.
During the communist era, the birthplace of Lenin became a pilgrimage site for millions of school children. Two decades ago, when communism collapsed, this tourism went with it.