Russia, which battled mujahedeen guerillas in Afghanistan three decades ago, is once again playing a key role in the country, this time helping the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
Not a single Russian soldier is among 130,000 foreign troops serving in Afghanistan these days - all of them are from NATO member nations and 90,000 of them are Americans. But experts on the region say that even though Russian doesn’t have a military presence there, it is helping the NATO allies because it too has an interest in an Afghanistan that is stable and at peace.
Many Afghans remember the 10-year war Moscow waged against the mujahedeen - a conflict that ended with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989.
Because of that war, Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan with the RAND Corporation, says Russia is deeply hated in Afghanistan.
“Most Afghans I speak to regularly in Afghanistan have very strong recollections of the Soviet war in the 1980s,” Jones said. “It’s probably best for the moment, that Russia does not have a major role, certainly in combat operations in the country, just because of the memory.”
While not having “boots on the ground,” Jones said Moscow has supported the NATO war effort in Afghanistan, because it believes a Taliban victory or all-out civil war would not be in Russia’s interest.
“The idea of an increasing radical Islam creeping up toward the Russia border is of notable concern to Moscow,” Jones said. “That’s what has motivated the Russians to allow for logistics to come through its territory by air, rail and truck and then through Central Asia.
Russia / NATO accord
The latest logistics agreement between Washington and Moscow involves NATO's use of a Russian military base in Ulyanovsk - roughly 900 kilometers southeast of Moscow and about 300 kilometers northwest of the border with Kazakhstan. Ulyanovsk, formerly Simbirsk, is the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union and is now a hub for Russian airborne troops.
“It’s the first time that NATO will have a facility on Russian territory,” said Alexander Cooley, a Central Asian expert at Barnard College, explaining that the base will be used to bring materiel out of Afghanistan.
Cooley said there have been protests against the NATO presence there, “but in reality, the base is going to have quite a significant commercial value.
“Russian officials and bureaucracies will collect hundreds of millions of dollars in transit fees,” Cooley said. “So it might actually turn out to be a good commercial deal for Russia.”
Ulyanovsk Logistics hub
But Stephen Blank, a national security affairs expert at the U.S. Army War College, said the issue of how to describe Ulyanovsk and its purpose is a sensitive matter.
“NATO does not want to call it an air base, because that really angers Russian public opinion as well as the government, he said. “It is basically going to be a logistics hub, essentially, by which we can then air lift materiel out of Afghanistan as we withdraw, and then bring it back to Europe or the United States. There won’t be any kind of military operations or forces stationed there.”
But in the final analysis, Blank said Russia has an ambivalent policy toward Afghanistan.
“On the one hand, they certainly understand that the United States is defending their interests by fighting the Taliban and the terrorist organizations,” he said. “On the other hand, they want us out of Central Asia.
“They cannot resolve that contradiction,” Blank continued. “If they want us out of Central Asia, the Ulyanovsk logistics hub is a way to help, because it’s a way to get things out of there faster.”
Many experts say ironically, NATO and the United States will use the border crossing at Termez between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan - the so-called “Friendship Bridge” - as one of their transit points out of Afghanistan - the same road used by Soviet troops when they withdrew from that country in February 1989.