NATO did move eastward, signing up Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltics — the West says Gorbachev misunderstood its intentions. Now NATO’s plans for a missile-defense system in Europe have aroused that long-simmering anger. Russians say they can’t believe NATO assurances that the missiles would not be aimed here. They have been deceived before, they say.
Despite the threat it feels, Russia has resolutely supported the NATO presence in Afghanistan. “We both have an interest in Afghanistan being a stable country that doesn’t export terrorism,” said Robert Pszczel, director of the NATO Information Center in Moscow.
Russian authorities typically portray NATO as menacing, without confusing the issue by mentioning their support for the fight in Afghanistan. Little is said about the Northern Distribution Network, which allows supplies to flow on Russian rail lines and in Russia airspace to Afghanistan, unnoticed, without any distribution points on Russian territory.
Now, as NATO prepares to withdraw its troops by the end of 2014, it faces a logistical nightmare in removing all the tents, armored equipment and other support material it has sent in since the war began. Russia has offered Ulyanovsk as a transit point, where all that heavy equipment could be flown in, then transferred to rail lines and on to Europe.
Local officials, here in the city where Lenin was born, like the idea — it will bring in badly needed revenue and jobs — but many people are very much opposed. They are convinced that NATO will turn this foothold into a permanent base, a stake in the heart of Russia.
“Let’s start with this principle,” said Alexander Kruglikov, sitting at a small table in the Communist Party’s little wooden headquarters house. “No matter where NATO and America go, they will never leave freely.”
Just look at Okinawa, he said, where American troops have remained for 67 years despite citizen protest and crimes including rapes and murders. “There’s no threat there, but they haven’t left,” he said.
Let government officials repeat all they want that the NATO presence will be temporary and it will be relying on local cargo and logistics companies — the Communists are convinced that NATO will establish a base, Western soldiers will swagger through their streets and life will get worse than it already is in this shrinking city of 600,000.
They organized a protest in April that brought a well-known leftist leader from Moscow, Sergei Udaltsov, giving the authorities a high-profile target. He was accused of beating up a 20-year-old woman at the rally who belongs to a pro-Kremlin youth group. Wednesday, with scant evidence presented, Udaltsov was found guilty and sentenced to 240 hours of community service.