ULYANOVSK, Russia — The people of Ulyanovsk, a poverty-stricken city sitting high on the banks of the mighty Volga River, are having a hard time accepting the idea that NATO is their friend and that they should help the alliance extricate itself from Afghanistan.
Russia is officially anti-NATO. Most Russians fear it. They say the West betrayed them: Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev let the Iron Curtain fall along with the Berlin Wall on his understanding that the military alliance would not move eastward.
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.
Unlikely NATO defenders have also emerged, such as Dmitry Rogozin, who until last year was the very anti-NATO Russian ambassador to NATO.
“This is commercial transit, meaning that Russia will be getting money for it,” he wrote in a tweet. “I don’t think transit of NATO toilet paper via Russia should be qualified as treason.”
But Kruglikov, a Communist for 39 of his 60 years, remembers well Western assurances to Gorbachev that NATO would not encroach if the Soviet Union acquiesced to the reunification of Germany. Western officials say they never made written promises and perhaps what they said wasn’t clear. But NATO expanded as the Soviet version, known as the Warsaw Pact, dissolved.
“We left those places,” Kruglikov said. “NATO moved in.”
His comrade Vyacheslav Alekseichik — both are Communist leaders and members of the regional parliament — said the United States has hundreds of bases all over the world while Russia has only one modest operation at the Syrian port of Tartus. What’s not to fear? he asked.
Ulyanovsk, home to a battered aviation industry, shrinking population and high unemployment, desperately needs the work. The arrangement, which has been proposed by the Russian government but not yet formally approved, could bring in $1 billion a year. No date has yet been set for it to begin.
Until now, anti-NATO rhetoric has come from the very top.
Dmitry Medvedev, now Russia’s prime minister and until May its president, has warned several times that Russia would retaliate against NATO if it did not get legally binding assurances that NATO missiles are not aimed at Russia.
Despite all the fighting words, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States that led to the war. “I want to say to the American people, we are with you,” he repeated later.
At the Group of 20 meeting in Mexico last week, the United States remarked on the help Russia has provided by allowing air and rail shipments into Afghanistan — 2,200 flights, more than 379,000 military personnel and more than 45,000 containers.
Putin, once again Russia’s president, has called NATO an unpleasant relic of the Cold War, but after the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Russia has no desire to send its troops to Afghanistan and fears the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
“It’s in our national interests to help maintain stability in Afghanistan,” he told Russian parliament recently. “NATO and the Western community are present there. God bless them. Let them do their work.”
Kruglikov and his allies remain unpersuaded.
“We don’t like the Taliban either,” he said, “but when they were in power in Kabul, heroin production in Afghanistan went way down. Now, huge amounts of it flow through Russia, killing our people. More would come here with NATO.”
NATO, which has concluded transportation agreements with three Central Asian countries and is trying to restore one with Pakistan, says the huge scale of the redeployment means it needs as many routes out as possible. Ulyanovsk has the lure of a big cargo-handling company and Vostochny Airport, built for the aircraft factory on the other side of the Volga from the main part of the city. The airport has an unusually long runway, nearly 4 miles.
The Communists say such resources should be used to rebuild Russia’s aviation industry instead of hosting NATO. Recently, they put up a huge billboard of Stalin, dressed in full military regalia, on a main road here. “Welcome NATO,” it says.
The local authorities were furious, but Kruglikov gleefully said there was nothing they could do.
“We live in a market economy,” he said primly. “We paid for it.”