The battles raging in Ukraine, Syria and other politically sensitive parts of the globe are making the NATO transit facility at Ulyanovsk a sidelined issue fading in comparison with other hot topics. Two years ago the idea evoked hot discussions before the facility came into operation. The issue has almost died away as other events distracted attention. The transit center appears to be an example of Russia-NATO cooperation. Now NATO Secretary General openly says Russia is «rather an adversary than a partner». It calls for having a brief look at the recent history…
The military transit through the territory of Russia is regulated by the decrees N306 of 04.08.2000 and N973-r of 07.14.2000 issued by the government of the Russian Federation. The documents make the Federal Customs Service responsible for giving transit permissions. The decision is to be coordinated with other state agencies, like, for instance, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce etc. These documents created the legal basis for the decision taken in 2001 to let US cargo destined for Afghanistan pass through the Russian territory. In 2003 NATO took the command of ISAF operation in Afghanistan. On March, 28th, 2008 the Government of the Russian Federation adopted the Decree № 219. According to this document, a simplified procedure of land transit for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) cargo going to Afghanistan was established. No separate permission of the Federal Customs Service for every cargo shipment to be transported was required anymore. The procedure was changed because it became too cumbersome to get a separate permission for each and every cargo as the operation in Afghanistan intensified and the sheer amount of shipments greatly increased. That’s what it was like at the moment of establishing the facility in Ulyanovsk. It became clear at the time that the NATO operation in Afghanistan was to wind up soon. The United States faced awesome financial crisis, the Taliban was still very much up and coming, the European allied were reluctant to continue combat and the US public opinion gave little support to the Afghanistan war. At the time there was more cargo to be transported out of Afghanistan than to it.
In May 2011, the NATO leadership inquired about a possibility of combining air transit and railway transit of their cargos, instead of either by air or by railway exclusively. This inquiry was given substantial consideration by all relevant Russian agencies. The cargo was to come to Ulyanovsk by air to be further transported by railway to the ports of the Baltic States. The same route was to be used for getting cargo to Afghanistan. The United States had its relations with Pakistan at low ebb. There were casualties among civilians as a result of US drone strikes delivered while protecting ISAF transportation routes going through the Pakistani territory. An alternative route became a burning issue. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan refused to let their territories be used for the purpose. Russia offered to use Ulyanovsk. A NATO group came to see the place and was satisfied with the results. The talks went on. The first reports about it emerged in Russian media in February 2012. Vigorous debates ensued. To confirm the positive decision on the issue on June 25, 2012 the government of Russian Federation adopted the decree N637 "On the amendments to the Decree № 219 of the Government of the Russian Federation adopted on March, 28th, 2008". According to the document, the simplified procedure for the transit of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) cargo going to Afghanistan through the Russian territory is extended to the combined transit – railway, automobile and air transport. The document introduces the notion of the "combined transit" into the regulatory and legal framework of Russia. It refers to additional possibilities of transporting ISAF cargo by multimodal methods of delivery, a common practice nowadays. It means that various types of transport are used on the route depending on the development of infrastructure, economic factors and other specific conditions. The corresponding obligations of Russia are specified by the Decree №1386 of the UN Security Council. According to it, all UN member states shall render ISAF «such necessary help, which may be required, including granting flight and transit permissions». No document mentions Ulyanovsk; this particular place has not been on paper. The corresponding agreements were to be reached between NATO, airport authorities and logistics operators. No international agreements regarding the issue have been concluded.
Only one shipment including ten containers has been transported through Ulyanovsk in the recent two years. It was a probe conducted in the interests of British forces in December 2012.
About a month ago Nikolai Bordyuzha, the head of CSTO, openly said at the press-conference that Ulyanovsk transit facility has remained idle and never became what it was expected to be – a cargo transportation hub. There are a number of reasons for that. First, Pakistan softened its tough stance and allowed the transition of NATO cargo through its territory. Second, NATO concluded agreements with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to expand the opportunities for NATO. Third, according to NATO, Russian logistics providers raise prices too high. One container going through Ulyanovsk is to cost 50 thousand euros while the price is 30 thousand in case of Termez facility in Uzbekistan. Of course NATO was reluctant to use Russian territory to avoid creating a Russian leverage over the alliance. No matter all the changes, the railway transit route is effectively used.
Now the relationship between Russia and NATO has deteriorated and the issue comes to the fore. It’s not about Ulyanovsk only; the question is if there should be any Russia – NATO cooperation on Afghanistan at all, including ground routes. That’s what Bordyuzha stressed at the press-conference. By cooperating Russia lends a helping hand in finding solutions to a host of problems facing NATO. Why should it do it? There were times Brzezinski was happy about the Russia’s involvement in the Afghan war. Now he is happy about the continuation of armed insurgency in the south-eastern Ukraine. Perhaps it the time to stop giving him the reasons to rejoice. The transit from Afghanistan is fraught with dangers and threats of all kinds. Some weapons may disappear in Russia, a country with huge territory, and ultimately get into wrong hands. There are giant flows of drugs coming to Russia from Afghanistan. Fighting arms smuggling and drugs trafficking requires elimination of traffic channels and the NATO transit facility is the prime target.
The air transit is not so much in focus, the railway route is much more important. It’s a good thing that NATO is not interested in Ulyanovsk facility. If the attitude changes, then Russia’s state agencies will not even have to lift a finger making the issue closed once and for all. It could be done at the level of airport administration and logistics providers.
The time is ripe to put an end to the use of ground routes. Let Americans rack their brains over the problem of withdrawal from Afghanistan instead of transporting private military companies’ mercenaries to Ukraine.