Trucks laden with supplies and fuel for the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan continued to stack up on the Pakistani side of the border Monday after Islamabad closed the border in protest following the deaths of 24 Pakistani servicemen in a cross-border incident early Saturday morning. While the breach in U.S.-Pakistani relations caused by the incident is of serious and profound significance, the closure of the border itself does not have the same on-the-ground impact it once did. The balance of American and allied logistical reliance for the war in Afghanistan has already shifted to the alternative Russia-controlled Northern Distribution Network (NDN), though the port of Karachi and Pakistani refineries are still needed to fully supply the war effort.
So it was no coincidence that Russia’s ambassador to NATO chose Monday to raise the prospect of closing the NDN. He explicitly tied his threat to the ongoing American effort to place ballistic missile defenses (BMD) in Europe. The threat is part of Russia's long-standing effort to undercut U.S. efforts to enlarge its military footprint in the former Soviet periphery. Talks on BMD between Washington and Moscow, ahead of the December NATO-Russian Foreign Ministers conference, have borne little progress. In fact, relations between the two powers have declined, with Washington ceasing to share data in accordance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (from which Russia suspended observance in 2007) and Russia once again threatening to park Iskander short-range ballistic missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad.
The recent apparent calm between the United States and Russia reflects more a mutual agreement to focus attention elsewhere than it does any sort of "reset" or substantive change in underlying tensions. Moscow has been frustrated by the way Washington has pushed forward with its new "phased, adaptive approach" to BMD in Europe without addressing Russian objections. Russia, much as the Soviet Union before it, has long excelled at linking disparate issues to obtain maximum leverage. Now Moscow is presented with this convergence of recent events: the abrupt acceleration of the deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani relations, the ongoing but stalled U.S.-Russian negotiations on BMD and the upcoming meeting of Russian and NATO Foreign Ministers. Russia is reminding the United States that to supply the war effort in Afghanistan, Washington relies on Russian cooperation, and it is signaling that it expects more deference from Washington on the matter of BMD in Europe.
Russia's Moment of Opportunity
Russia is in fact brandishing its true trump card — the biggest means of leverage it has in Washington's regard. But the problem with the trump card is that once played, it loses its value — in this case, ceasing to play its political role.
In addition, the looming American drawdown means that the logistical burden of the forces that remain will decline with increasing rapidity in the years ahead. At this moment, the United States' logistical vulnerability — and thus the leverage that Moscow might extract from it — is still heightened.
It will inexorably lessen in the years ahead. In truth, Moscow is very uneasy about the looming American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whereas the United States and its allies can go home, Russia shares a border with Central Asia; what problems NATO leaves unaddressed in the wake of its withdrawal will quickly become Russia’s own. Russia has an interest in doing enough to ensure the maximum American and allied commitment in Afghanistan, especially one that does not result in the emergence of permanent U.S. bases in the region. Washington and its allies manage and serve as a magnet for militant activity in Afghanistan and the wider region, while the war effort creates additional means of leverage for Russia (specifically, through the NDN) and maximizes the window of opportunity created by American focus on Afghanistan.
The United States is not simply fighting a land war in Asia, it is fighting a land war in Central Asia without direct access to the ocean. Washington incurs significant costs just to move troops there, and more costs to sustain them. The most direct supply route runs from the port of Karachi. This route, however, has proven so unwieldy and problematic that Washington has sought even longer lines of supply — stretching through much of the former Soviet Union as far as the Baltic Sea — at considerable additional expense in order to reduce its reliance on the cheaper, shorter Pakistani route. That financial calculus also reflects the political calculus — how much time, focus and effort Washington is willing to devote to facilitating its efforts in Afghanistan.
Ultimately Russia wants the United States in Afghanistan and wants to facilitate American engagement there. The real point is that the United States burned through considerable political capital and made a considerable investment in getting Russia to open up its airspace and territory — and to acquiesce to the opening of the territory of various Central Asia nations — in the first place. Now, just as the NDN begins in earnest to serve as the war effort's primary supply route, Russia is signaling that it intends to use the NDN's existence as leverage, same as it used the route's creation before that. Russia does not want to close the NDN — it wants to maximize the concessions it can extract from it. In other words, Moscow aims to strike a balance – doing just enough to keep the Americans in Afghanistan, while working to make Washington's commitment as costly as possible.