In an unprecedented sign of the growing anti-terrorist alliance between the United States and Russia, MSNBC.com learned Thursday that Moscow gave its consent for American ammunition and other war supplies to pass through Russia by rail en route to the war in Afghanistan.
Military documents obtained by MSNBC.com indicate that for months now, huge shipments of American war materiel have been passing through Russian territory by rail, from northern European ports in Murmansk and Helsinki, and from the Russian Far Eastern port of Vladivostok. Not since World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union allied to fight Hitler’s Germany, has the American military had such a presence on Russian soil.
The documents, including PowerPoint maps from the U.S. military’s Central Command that show main resupply routes for the Afghan campaign, indicate Russian railroads have been used extensively to keep troops supplied. The supplies appear to be destined for U.S. bases in former Soviet parts of Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The documents indicate that the shipments include ammunition, and probably food, medical supplies and other equipment needed to sustain the 7,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan and several thousand more in neighboring Central Asian states.
Other main supply routes run through the Persian Gulf state of Oman, through Pakistan and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
The shipments, until now undisclosed by either government, also shed new light on the complex horse-trading under way over the Iraq resolution at the Security Council, where issues of international law and nuclear proliferation are mingling with oil interests, national pride and the desire of some Council members to exercise a check on unilateral American action.
Asked to comment on the shipments, Sgt. Charles Portman, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said, “We leave it up to coalition countries to discuss any participation” in the U.S.-led Afghan campaign. He referred calls to the Russian Embassy, where several calls for comment went unanswered.
Dick Melanson, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C., said that if Russia has been helping ship American war supplies to the battle zone, “that takes the relationship to another level.”
Ties between Russia and the United States, former Cold War enemies, warmed considerably in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Russian President Vladimir Putin helped clear the way for U.S. forces to use former Soviet bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and he used his influence after the war to persuade the Russian-backed factions within the Afghan Northern Alliance to support Hamid Karzai as their new president.
It was widely believed, however, that most of the Russian assistance took place behind the scenes.
“Apparently the Russian authorities don’t want to emphasize it,” said Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who noted that Russian nationalists would seize upon the shipments in political attacks on the Kremlin.
Experts also suggested that this kind of cooperation would be considered an important Russian “chit” in the complex negotiations over a new U.N. resolution on Iraq.
“I think that probably makes the Bush administration’s efforts to get a new Iraq resolution with teeth that much more difficult,” said Melanson, who stressed that his was his own view and not that of the military. “In some ways, the administration is paying the price for not deciding whether the priority is defeating global terrorism, or unseating Saddam Hussein. I can see where the Russians could exploit that.”
An Arab diplomat attached to his nation’s U.N. delegation confirmed this: “There is more going on than meets the eye between them,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Oil, geopolitical considerations, and especially their mutual interest in fighting what they call terrorism.”
Felgenhauer described the Afghan campaign as an area of particular agreement: “The Russians are apparently ready to help, because the al-Qaida and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan remain common enemy,” he said.
Russia, along with France, has been reluctant to allow approval of a new resolution on Iraq that would allow the United States to use military force against Baghdad without further consultation at the Security Council should Baghdad fail to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. The United States accuses Iraq’s regime of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons and stockpiling chemical and biological weapons in defiance of pledges it made at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 and U.N. resolutions passed since then.
Securing Russia’s cooperation ahead of last October’s conflict in landlocked Afghanistan was considered a major breakthrough by the Bush administration, which prior to Sept. 11, 2001, had been on shaky footing with Moscow.
Locating reliable supply lines for American troops operating in northern Afghanistan, in particular, had been a major concern of American military planners. Operations in the southern part of the country are supplied largely through Pakistan. But in the mountainous north, air supply would be prohibitively expensive.
“It’s cheaper to use rail than to take it all by air, so it makes sense,” said Felgenhauer, the Russian military analyst. “Russia can offer a united rail network, left over from the Soviet Union,” that still joins far-flung ports in Vladivostok and Murmansk to the now independent states of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which have become important garrisons for American operations inside Afghanistan.
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall in London contributed to this report.