Where the U.S. and Russia Still Cooperate

by Daniel Pitcairn

Can the U.S. and Russian normalize relations in the wake of the Ukraine crisis? Continued cooperation on a supply route for the dwindling war effort in Afghanistan suggests there is still hope.

The past nine months have borne witness to the worst U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War. Much has been made of the renewed chill between the two countries since the Ukraine crisis began, but in one key area, the United States and Russia are still working together for their mutual benefit: a supply route for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan that runs through Russia.

This rare bright spot in the countries’ relationship points to a potentially fruitful model for cooperation moving forward.

Since 2009, the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that runs through Central Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe to the Baltic Sea has been an important supply route for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It is one of the cheapest transit routes in and out of Afghanistan because it does not require airlift assets; only the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication (PAKGLOC) is  less expensive.

Moreover, the NDN is more reliable than PAKGLOC, which the Pakistani government has shut down for extended periods of time on more than occasion due to frustrations with U.S. actions in its border areas. The NDN route through Russia remains important as U.S. and NATO forces work to withdraw troops and equipment from Afghanistan by their December 2014 deadline. This drawdown of personnel and cargo has been deemed “the biggest single military logistical undertaking ever,” with an expected cost of more than $5.5 billion.

Soon after the U.S. and Europe began levying sanctions against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea, some feared Russia would retaliate by closing the NDN. Pointing out this significant vulnerability to Russia, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said in March, “I worry more about disruption in our use of the NDN [than other forms of retaliation].”

But President Vladimir Putin has not and does not intend to block U.S. and NATO military transit routes to and from Afghanistan. Even though NATO and Russia have halted virtually all other cooperation, the NDN continues to function.

The reason why is very simple: Putin sees the ISAF’s operation in Afghanistan as being in Russia’s interests.

Responding to a question from a Duma member in August about why Russia has not used its leverage with the NDN to retaliate against the U.S. and NATO, Putin emphasized that “[Russia] should never follow the principle of harming ourselves simply out of spite. We are interested in stability in Afghanistan. So, if some countries, say the NATO states, or the United States are investing resources, including money into this – it is their choice, but it does not run counter to our interests. So why should we stop them?”

This rationale runs counter to the conventional wisdom that Putin has reverted to an entirely zero-sum mentality when it comes to Russia’s relations with the U.S. and NATO. It suggests that, despite the current conflict in Ukraine, the potential exists for a constructive U.S.-Russia relationship in the future. This is significant because a prolonged adversarial, if not hostile, relationship between the two large, nuclear powers would threaten international security and stability.

The U.S. need not treat Russia as an ally, but it must identify what a constructive modus vivendi entails in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. At its core, this involves coming to grips with Russia’s primary interests and where those align or diverge with U.S. interests. In cases of alignment, such as Afghan stability and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the U.S. should actively pursue a cooperative relationship.

In cases of divergence, the U.S. should be prepared to compromise and play the long game where the balance of power clearly favors Russia. Otherwise, the U.S. risks entrenching a confrontational relationship without achieving its strategic objectives.

Daniel Pitcairn is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs.