Russia’s ongoing standoff with the United States could move Moscow to disrupt critical supply lines to Afghanistan and interfere with U.S. plans to establish drone bases in Central Asia, according to regional experts.
A trade pipeline known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN)—which runs through Russia, several Russian-allied nations, and down to Afghanistan—has carried 52 percent of all supplies to coalition forces in the war torn country, many of which are bound for U.S. forces.
The United States will need to rely heavily on this network as it winds down its military presence in Afghanistan, raising concerns that Russia could disrupt the shipping line, according to Boris Zilberman, deputy director of congressional relations for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
"Much of the network relies on rail and truck transportation through Russia," according to a recent brief by Zilberman. This leaves Russian President Vladimir Putin with the ability to significantly disrupt the supply line as a means to interfere with the U.S. drawdown.
"Putin has not indicated that he would throw a wrench into the resupplying of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but as the United States and Russia recalibrate their relations, contingency plans for maintaining U.S. national security interests in Central and Southeast Asia should be expedited," Zilberman told the Washington Free Beacon.
The NDN has facilitated the shipment of more than 2 million tons of equipment via Baltic ports since 2009, according to the policy brief.
"With the U.S. winding down its military presence in Afghanistan, it will still need this distribution network the rest of the year," Zilberman wrote. "Ultimately, some supplies will also need to be shipped back through these same routes."
While Putin has generally supported U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, the NDN gives him a great amount of leverage over the U.S. war effort.
Zilberman warned that "as the situation between the West and Russia escalates, Putin may recalibrate" his support of the supply line. "Should he deprive the U.S. of the NDN, he could challenge U.S. national security interests in Southeast Asia through the end of 2014."
The United States could be forced to seek alternate shipping routes through Georgia and Azerbaijan, according to military leaders.
Putin could also interfere with U.S. plans to build new drone bases in Central Asian countries, many of which are allied with Moscow.
The Obama administration has sought to establish these bases as a means to combat al Qaeda in Pakistan. This could be one of the few methods to combat these terrorist forces if Afghanistan decides to force a full withdraw of U.S. forces from the country.
Without cooperation from these Central Asian countries, the United States could experience a security gap in the region and lose its ability to adequately monitor al Qaeda.