Twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a U.S. war effort to rely exclusively on Russia and its allies for one of America's most sought-after resources. In 2013, it is a reality.
Almost every drop of fuel used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan comes from Russia and other former Soviet countries, most of which Russia still has considerable sway. The U.S. purchased roughly 22 million gallons of fuel for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in June alone, which officials say was an average month.
Since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, the Russian government invaded neighboring Georgia, endured a string of domestic terrorist attacks, helped investigate Chechen links to the alleged Boston bombers, and chose to provide asylum to the source of one of America's greatest breaches in intelligence. Amid all of this, the gas kept coming.
"Even in the wake of the Georgian War in August 2008, when the U.S.-Russian relationship was virtually frozen, so many levels of cooperation froze and/or broke down," says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But a couple things that remained were the Russian role in supplying fuel for our troops in Afghanistan, as well as the heavy lift capabilities that Russian and Ukrainian air cargo companies provided."
Kuchins points to the herculean efforts of the largest plane in the world, the Antonov An-225 Mriya, which among other Russian airpower, helps transport some of America's heavier machinery in an out of Afghanistan.
"If either of those things fell to the wayside, it would have a very, very serious effect in short order on the capacity of our troops to perform," he says.
The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency is responsible for overseeing all fuel purchases in Afghanistan. It contracts the job out to private suppliers who decide, in keeping with Pentagon regulations, where to buy the fuel. These companies purchased 5.3 million gallons from Russia in June.
This accounted for about a quarter of the 22 million gallon overall requirement for U.S. war machinery, says Defense spokesman Mark Wright. Half of the fuel comes from Central Asian nations, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and the remainder flows from Belarus and countries in the Caucuses and the Baltic region. Experts on the region say Russia still has considerable control over many of these countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The U.S. Air Force counts itself among the thirstiest of all fuel consumers worldwide. Bagram Air Field in eastern Afghanistan is the busiest airstrip on the entire Department of Defense roster, and also requires roughly 10 million gallons of fuel per month -- just less than half of the total Afghanistan supply.
Subcontractors for this fuel re-examine their agreements every one or two years, says Wright, adding DLA Energy monitors these contracts to ensure they don't break international statues and trade regulations.
The U.S. and Russia enjoy two separate and disparate relationships as they parry back and forth between highly publicized incidents as well as closed-door diplomacy.
The two nations are completely codependent on the other for resources such as fuel and the assurances that each security infrastructure can offer the other. This cooperation is contrasted against highly political spats between leaders, stemming from incidents like the 2008 Georgian War when Russia invaded the former Soviet country, bringing U.S.-Russia relations to a grinding halt. Or, more recently, when President Barack Obama decided to cancel his invitation from President Vladimir Putin for a one-on-one confab largely because Russia hurt America's feelings by granting Edward Snowden asylum.
But despite these disputes, the gas keeps coming.
"DLA Energy is not aware of any Russian fuel interruptions," says Wright when asked if any of these international incidents has stemmed or stopped the flow of gas. Each U.S. contractor must set up the infrastructure to accommodate any shifts in supply or price, he says. However, that has not yet been necessary.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Dallas English stands next to testing equipment in the fuels laboratory at Bagram Airfield in eastern Afghanistan. This measures the quality of the fuel they purchase and use for U.S. military planes. Any irregularities in fuel samples could ground an entire air wing if they can’t determine the cause of the problem.
General cooperation between the two nations largely depends on the issue. Russia and the U.S. are closely allied on the premise of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, which routed Soviet forces more than 20 years ago.
"We were basically doing something the Russians wanted to do but didn't have the capacity to," says CSIS' Kuchins.
It wasn't America's first desire to become so reliant on the Russians, or any one country for that matter. However, the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan has prompted that country to cut off America's use of its land for supply lines. Russia's ability to exert control over its former Soviet empire, Kuchins says, allows the U.S. to turn to the "Northern Distribution Network" and lean on allies to get in and out of landlocked Afghanistan to the north.
Yet incidents like the Georgian invasion have brought that relationship to the brink of collapse.
"It was a huge blow. The U.S.-Russia relationship had been declining for several years," says Kuchins. "Thank god cooler heads prevailed."