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Dec 2, 2009 | 20:34 GMT

5 mins read

Russia: An Opportunistic Helping Hand in Afghanistan

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Summary
U.S. and NATO officials are working on a new deal with Russia to transport more supplies for troops in Afghanistan through Russian territory, according to STRATFOR sources in the Russian government. Moscow is likely to agree to such a deal, but not for selfless reasons.
Officials from the United States and NATO have held myriad meetings with Russian government and security officials to work out a new deal on the transport of supplies to troops in Afghanistan that will accommodate the upcoming troop surge. According to STRATFOR sources in the Russian government, under the proposed new deal, the United States would send as many as 100 containers per day through Russia (By comparison, as many as 140 containers transit Pakistan to Afghanistan each day.) Moscow likely will approve the new deal, but not for selfless reasons. Russia was already supplying the majority of the specialized containers — albeit a fraction of all containers — needed for transport in and out of Afghanistan. The Russian firm Baltcontainer, located in St. Petersburg, created all the morgue containers, containers with reinforced walls and storage containers with extra insulation to protect the cargo from extreme heat and sandstorms. Around 2005, the commercial firms providing shipping by sea for the Pentagon began considering simply shipping goods to St. Petersburg, where they could send through Russia to Afghanistan. But any such arrangement would require permission from Moscow. NATO and the United States had, up to that point, dealt directly with Baltcontainer and the St. Petersburg port authorities, circumventing the Russian government. This decision came back to haunt Washington, as the Kremlin felt somewhat betrayed and reduced its support for the Afghan war effort after 2007. The United States initially insisted it could strike deals to get supplies transported to Afghanistan without going through Russia. Washington began negotiating with Romania and Ukraine for a Black Sea supply route, but that route would have been more expensive and less sound than the Karachi route. The United States faced further difficulties when the former Soviet Union states it talked to required Russia's permission. This made the Baltic route an attractive option. St. Petersburg and the Latvian capital, Riga, were chosen as transit points since they could handle any cargo from around the globe and were easily accessible from a feeder route in Bremerhaven, Germany. From 2007-2009, Russia allowed NATO to test the route's suitability. NATO and the United States found that shipping via this route was easier and cheaper than moving supplies over land from Karachi to Afghanistan. Whereas NATO and the United States spent $8,700-$9,700 per 12-meter container (not counting insurance payments and workforce casualties suffered along the route) on the Pakistan route, the Riga-Russia route to Khairaton, Afghanistan, costs about $6,700 per 12-meter container. Even while saving the United States and NATO money, Russia will make a profit from this venture. According to STRATFOR's Russian government sources, the ports of Riga and St. Petersburg will each make $200,000 a week, not including insurance and extras. When transit, insurance, security and logistics are factored in, Russia will make nearly $1 million per 25-container shipment. Seventy percent of this will go to Russian Railways and Kremlin fees directly. Furthermore, the United States will have to invest in Russian rail and port infrastructure for it to work. Besides profit, Russia has other reasons to agree. Moscow began taking the negotiations seriously when the United States gave in on the ballistic missile defense issue. It was not a large concession, but it was a very public concession for the United States. In exchange, Russia decided to seriously consider the transport deal — which is not something Moscow minds doing, since it has been helping with the war effort off and on since 2001. The deal will also improve Russia's image among the Europeans, who enjoy seeing Moscow and Washington work together. This comes as Russia works to strengthen its ties with Germany and France. Helping the United States stay focused on Afghanistan longer will give Russia more time to woo Paris and Berlin with business and political deals. While it will improve Russia's standing in Europe, the deal will also increase NATO and Washington's dependence on Moscow for the next three years. It would be easy for Russia to cancel the deal — a fact Moscow is sure to use as leverage. Finally, Russia has a vested security interest in helping the United States get supplies to forces in Afghanistan. Russia is contemplating a strategy in which it would lock down the borders of Central Asian countries to keep the militants contained in Afghanistan. This would be a huge undertaking — one Russia is not sure it can do, and one that likely will need to be a joint project for Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Uzbekistan. The theory is that when U.S. troops surge into Afghanistan, many militants will flee northward and return when needed. If Russia blocks their movement, they will be trapped in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Russia will not be able to carry out this plan unless the United States has the tools it needs to fight in Afghanistan.

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