Russia has done this at some political risk. After years of rhetorically demonizing NATO to gain points with nationalist Russians, the Kremlin is now in the uncomfortable position of having to defend its cooperation with the Western alliance. Government officials have taken great pains to explain that the facility under discussion is not a “base” and that no NATO personnel will be based there, but Russian online reaction to the news has been withering, and there have been small Communist- and nationalist-led protests against the plan. Ironically, it’s been Dmitry Rogozin – who as Russia’s ambassador to NATO became famous for his colorful, undiplomatic jibes against the alliance – who has led the PR effort defending Moscow’s cooperation with Brussels. “This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
As Rogozin said, Russia is not setting up the Ulyanovsk hub as a favor to a friend, but because it is in its interest to do so. In addition to the commercial interest, Russia also has a strategic interest in helping the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin in a recent speech called NATO a “relic of the Cold War,” but added: “We understand what is happening in Afghanistan – right? We are interested in things there being under control – right? And we do not want our soldiers to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border…Well, NATO and the Western community is present there (sic). God give them good health. Let them work.”
Allowing a NATO presence in Ulyanovsk also gains Russia something else: a decrease in the amount the U.S. needs Central Asia. While Russia wants the U.S. to succeed in Afghanistan, it’s still wary of the Americans becoming too comfortable in the region. Russia hasn’t muted its calls for the U.S. to leave its airbase in Kyrgyzstan, and has recently tried to thwart a new U.S.-led counterdrug program in Central Asia.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
While the U.S. needs Uzbekistan for transit to and from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan wants the United States to provide a strategic counterweight to Russia. Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, mistrusts Moscow, and is using his country’s growing ties with the U.S. to show Russia that he has other options for big power allies. Taking business away from Uzbekistan helps weaken that link – while earning a little money on toilet paper duties, to boot.