U.S. and Russia Still Cooperating On Afghanistan Transit

Central Eurasia

While relations between the United States and Russia have collapsed in almost every sphere, one element of military cooperation has quietly continued, uninterrupted: the transit of U.S. military cargo to and from Afghanistan across Russia and Central Asia.


In 2009, as one of the fruits of the “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow, Russia agreed to let the United States ship military equipment and personnel via Russia, both over its airspace and using its rail network, to Afghanistan. The agreement “illustrates that Russia is a valuable member of the international coalition supporting the security, stability, and reconstruction of Afghanistan,” the White House said at the time.

Russia thus has made up the largest part of the “Northern Distribution Network,” the series of transportation routes that the United States established through the former Soviet Union to ship materiel between the theater of war in Afghanistan and home bases in Europe and the United States.


Since the NDN is longer than going south from Afghanistan via Pakistan to the sea, U.S. military logisticians have favored the southern route with the NDN acting as a backup. But it has been a crucial backup, especially when Pakistan cut off U.S. and NATO transit in retaliation for a NATO air strike from Afghanistan that accidentally killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers. By the end of 2011, about were being shipped via the NDN. In 2012, Russia even set up a transit hub in the city of Ulyanovsk for NATO to use in Afghanistan transit, though the center ended up being prohibitively expensive and was never extensively used.


But since then, as the mission has shifted away from shipping equipment to Afghanistan toward getting things out the NDN has declined in significance. In December 2013, the then-head of U.S. Transportation Command said that less than one percent of cargo exiting Afghanistan was going via the NDN. (That, however, was largely thanks to Uzbekistan, which has thrown up a variety of barriers to shipments coming from Afghanistan.)


Even as U.S.-Russia relations have collapsed as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, however, both the United States and Russia seem committed to maintaining their cooperation on the NDN. In March, TRANSCOM officials said they were working on contingency plans in case Russia cut off the transit. But Russian analysts have said that Moscow has little interest in stopping the transit, both for strategic reasons – Russia perceives a benefit from the U.S. fighting Islamists on its southern flank – and commercial, as Russian shippers get business from the transit.


The issue was raised again this month, when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea and took questions from representatives of parliament. One member of the Communist Party criticized Putin for allowing the transit to continue in the face of U.S. and European sanctions. “When the U.S. military accidentally bombed a [Pakistani] checkpoint a few years ago ... they [Pakistan] immediately shut down the transit of U.S. forces and equipment,” said the MP, Leonid Kalashnokov. “We have the same sort of transit with respect to members of NATO, which we entered into on a bilateral basis. Maybe it's time to also suspend this transit, as it doesn't serve our interests. In 2014, when the Americans leave there [Afghanistan], will we get one more flashpoint -- which is their fault -- in the south.”


Putin replied that it wouldn't be in Russia's interests to cut off cooperation on Afghanistan:


Regarding the Afghan transit. Should we denounce corresponding agreements with the United States? As you may know, there was a lot of talk about the possible use of the airfield in Ulyanovsk, wasn’t there? I know that your party, the Communist Party was strongly opposed to this. However, nothing happened and it is not used. Zero use. This is one thing.


The other is that we should never follow the principle of harming ourselves simply out of spite. We are interested in stability in Afghanistan. So, if some countries, say the NATO states, or the United States are investing resources, including money into this – it is their choice, but it does not run counter to our interests. So why should we stop them?


Do you want us to get into war there again? No, I do not believe anybody wants this. Therefore, if we see any unlawful actions regarding this country, we consider them and look for ways to respond. However, our response should not harm us; it should only be beneficial for us.


Nevertheless, U.S. officials continue to pursue Afghanistan transit options that don't involve Russia. One branch of the NDN avoids Russia, going through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, then through Georgia and on to Europe. Because of the multiple modes of transportation it isn't the ideal route, but TRANSCOM's chief General Paul Selva visited Georgia in July to discuss Afghanistan transit issues. And on August 21, General Selva visited Azerbaijan. It seems safe to assume that TRANSCOM is looking at further reducing its reliance on Russia in favor of the friendlier countries of the Caucasus.