How Russia Plays the Great Game
Image Credit: Office of the Russian President

How Russia Plays the Great Game


In keeping with their post-Soviet realpolitik, Russian officials consistently voice support for NATO’s Afghanistan mission. After all, they don’twant NATO forces to withdraw from Afghanistan too soon for fear that the Afghan War burden will be dumped on them.  But should the alliance’s stabilization effort succeed, Russians will be the first to demand the departure of Western troops. And in the meantime, Russian officials are determined to constrain NATO’s military presence in Eurasia by making it dependent on Moscow’s goodwill.

Until recently, most NATO non-lethal supplies bound for Afghanistan were routed through Karachi. But with the closure of the Pakistani route since late November 2011, almost all NATO supplies now enter Afghanistan via the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The NDN, which is used primarily for non-lethal supplies and equipment, connects Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. This 5,000 kilometer transportation network involves the delivery of supplies to European ports, where they are loaded onto railway carriages or airplanes and sent through Russia to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. From there, the cargo is placed on trucks or trains for shipment into Afghanistan.

Only the most important items are sent by air to Afghanistan, such as weapons, ammunition, critical equipment, and U.S. soldiers, who enter and leave Afghanistan via the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. Although not formally part of the NDN, almost all NATO forces in Afghanistan transit through this air base, which also provides aerial refueling, emergency evacuation, and other essential services.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta travelled to Kyrgyzstan this month to emphasize to the new Kyrgyz government the importance of the base for the Afghan war effort, which the Pentagon has used to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since late 2001. Its importance grew after the Pentagon was expelled from Uzbekistan in 2005, following a dispute over the Uzbek government’s human rights policies.

The Pentagon currently pays some $60 million each year for use of the facility, up from the $17 million before the lease was renewed in 2009. The 1,500 American troops and private contractors also buy goods and services from the local economy. Lacking the oil and gas resources found in other Central Asian countries, this landlocked former Soviet republic of 5.5 million people has few other sources of income. Kyrgyz officials have therefore indicated that, even if the U.S. can no longer use the facility for military operations, they could still use it to move non-lethal supplies.

Crucially, though, the NDN can’t function without access to Russian territory or in the face of Russian opposition given Moscow’s decisive influence in the former Soviet republics. Moscow has therefore found itself in a pivotal position from the perspective of meeting NATO’s logistical needs in Eurasia. Although Russia wants NATO forces to remain in Afghanistan for the time being, it also wants to keep Iran alienated from the United States, deepen Central Asian fears about supporting an enduring U.S. military presence in their region, and remind Washington that the Kremlin still considers the former Soviet Union as a zone where Moscow should exercise strategic primacy.

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