Ulyanovsk, and the image of the west as an “enemy” amongst Russians.

The Cold War ended more than twenty years ago. Yet to hear some politicians in the United States talk about Russia you would think that it is still in full swing. The problem is however on both sides. The suggestion that NATO may be about to set up a logistics hub in support of its operation in Afghanistan in the city of Ulyanovsk on the Volga River, 893 kilometers east of Moscow, has created severe disquiet amongst some sections of the local population.

The City with a population of 613,793 is the birthplace of Lenin, and for many Russia communists a sort of holy ground. In early February, the Russian daily Kommersant quoted Defense Ministry sources as saying that Moscow was in talks with NATO on a new transit agreement under which non-lethal cargoes from Afghanistan would be flown to Ulyanovsk, and then transferred to Europe by train. The news was taken by Ulyanovsk residents as Russia’s permission for opening a NATO military base in their city and resulted in mass protests. On Sunday, Communists in Ulyanovsk went on a hunger strike for an indefinite period.

The incident highlights how much still has to be done in order to destroy the stereotype images that were reinforced in both east and west during forty years of cold war. Whilst governments have had to adapt quickly to the new post-1990s realities, many others who do not have to deal with the issues on a daily basis are still caught in the rhetoric of the past.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, not known to be “soft” where Russian interests are concerned, on Tuesday called speculations about a possible NATO military base in Ulyanovsk a “provocation.” “Hunger strike is a very serious matter. It is a sign of an extreme desperation… There has been no and will never be a NATO military base in Ulyanovsk. Someone staged a provocation and pushed naïve people into making a silly mistake,” Rogozin wrote in his Twitter account. “Those spreading the so-called ‘news’ about ‘NATO bases in Russia’ are either provocateurs or idiots. Consider it an official statement,” said Rogozin, who had served as Russia’s envoy to NATO until December 2011.

The Russian Defense Ministry said earlier that goods transported through the territory of Russia will be checked by customs and that the transit hub would neither be a NATO nor a U.S. military base. Rogozin also said last month that Russia plans to open the so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargoes to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one area where Russian and NATO interests coincide. Russia has provided its territory for NATO’s Afghanistan-bound cargoes since 2009. Last year, Moscow also agreed to allow the cargoes to cross Russia’s territory in the opposite direction as the alliance is preparing to pull out its troops from Afghanistan.

The Kremlin has however over the years found it useful to play on nationalist sentiments in its dealings with NATO, and this may have fuelled anti western sentiment amongst a population that had been conditioned to see westerners as enemies. The problem seems to be less in places like Moscow and St Petersburg, where people have daily contacts with westerners but outside the main centres it remains an issue.

There is a lesson here for politicians in both the United States and Russia about the risk of letting these cold war perceptions fester, or worse exploit them. Russia and the west have their differences, and they are many, but the truth is that many oc the current challenges facing the world need to be faced together and the public on both sides needs to informed of the new realities.

source: LINKS analysis with RIA Novosti

photo: Aerial view of the City of Ulyanovsk (archive picture)