After the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the USSR’s subsequent disintegration, Russia seemed neither interested in nor capable of securing a pro-Moscow regime in Kabul as was seen during the Cold War. In a move aimed at safeguarding its strategic back yard (Central Asia) from the rising menaces of drug trafficking and Islamic fundamentalism (non-conventional threats) emerging from Afghanistan, Russia accepted the American presence (a conventional threat) in the region post-9/11. However, any academic pursuit at understanding the Russian role in Afghanistan in perspective must incorporate efforts at grasping Moscow’s threat perceptions to its strategic interests emanating from Kabul.
How Interests in Central Asia Shaped Moscow’s Afghan Concerns and Role
Russia has had both geopolitical and geo-economic interests in Central Asia. It considers Central Asia its strategic back yard and has a monopoly over pipeline diplomacy as it continued to supply the Central Asian natural resources through the pipelines existing since Soviet times. Russian role in Afghanistan has been shaped primarily by the threats to the region emanating from and facilitated by the latter. Post 9/11, the Russian policy has been evidently geared towards containing the American penetration into the region as well as preventing the Central Asian Republics from radical Islamic influences and drugs generating from Afghanistan. The American objective of laying down alternative pipeline routes for transfer of Central Asian resources to the world market through Afghanistan threatened Russia’s interests.
It is noteworthy that the American strategy gravitated towards the Eurasian region not only with an aim to develop continental strategies to contain the regional influence of Russia, Iran and China given their geographical contiguity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian region, the natural resource potential also attracted the American attention. These objectives became the prime movers of US policy towards the region apart from the immediacy of the threat of terrorism which rose to prominence as being a national security threat. It is worth recalling that In a move to reach out to the Central Asian region, the US Congress started passing bills that called for diversification of energy supplies from the Central Asian and Caspian region starting from late 1990s. The Bush Administration soon after it formed the government released an energy policy report indicating that the exploitation of Caspian energy resources could not only benefit the economies of the region, but also help mitigate possible world supply disruptions which was considered a major US security goal.
Russian lingering concerns remained that the flight of many Soviet Muslims during Stalin’s brutal collectivization campaign and nationalist purges created a permanent Soviet exile population in Afghanistan. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the resultant weakening of its control over the Islamic republics, Russia believed that a radical Islamic regime in Afghanistan would push these people towards the north. Secondly, the regime through its Islamic influences would use the exiled population to destabilize the newly independent Central Asian Republics. Rise of Islamic opposition groups in different Central Asian states strengthened such Russian belief. This apart, the collapse of the Soviet-era economies and the elimination of Soviet-policed borders led to a quick surge in the production and trafficking of drugs in the Central Asian region.
Russia perceived substantial threat when the Taliban rose to prominence in Afghanistan. For instance, Sergie Ivanov, the head of Russian Security Council, threatened to lunch missile and air strikes against Afghanistan after accusing the Taliban government of assisting the Chechen resistance. Moscow further accused the Taliban of giving sanctuary to Islamists from some of the Central Asian states and allowing them to train for guerrilla warfare to destabilise the states. During the Afghan civil war, Russia kept pouring weapons and money in support of Uzbek and Tajik warlords. When the civil war entered a decisive phase, Russia in order to push the Taliban out of Tajik and Uzbek areas threw its weight behind Ahmad Shah Massoud who had bases in Tajikistan.
However, many scholars viewed threat perceptions from all these sources were although relevant but deliberately exaggerated by the Russian authorities with an aim to exercise firm control over the former Soviet republics. The developments in Chechnya, Central Asia (civil war in Tajikistan) and Afghanistan were seen as part of a larger plot hatched by a secretive network of Islamic activists and terrorists whose main goal, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service has been to create a Great Islamic caliphate. However, scholars like Rasul Bakhsh Rais argue that the link between the Taliban and the Islamic movements in Central Asia was questionable. According to him all these movements have indigenous roots and Russia and the ruling elites in Central Asia exaggerate the transnational links among the Islamic movements to divert attention from their own political failures.
Russian Afghan Concerns post-9/11 and Aspirations for a Larger Role
After September 11, 2001, Russian leader Vladimir Putin not only described the terrorist attacks on the US by al-Qaeda as “barbaric” in a TV broadcast but also ensured Moscow’s cooperation, ranging from providing all the information at its disposal about terrorist bases to assuring Russian secret services’ cooperation with the West. Russia’s support for the US-led “war on terror” in response to 9/11 was evidently driven by its national interests apart from the despicable nature of the terrorist acts themselves.
The Russian perspective on and support for the US-led Afghan war efforts were influenced by Moscow’s desire to cultivate international support for its concerns stemming from the uprising of radical Islamic forces in Chechnya. Second, Moscow believed that by cooperating with the US-led war efforts, it could overcome challenges posed by such destabilizing forces as the rise of Islamic opposition movements and drug trafficking in its Central Asian back yard.
Third, in its support for the Afghan war, Russia saw an enhanced prospect for the Northern Alliance group coming to power in Afghanistan, and fourth, a relatively economically and militarily weaker Russia could not completely insulate itself from the US call for a “war on terror,” as it was trying to reset its relations with the West after the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
Moscow had supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in terms of arms and economic aid during the Afghan civil war, and to ensure the Northern Alliance group’s rise to power, it provided key support to the alliance during the “war on terror.” For instance, the Russian provision of 60 T-55 battle tanks, 12 T-62 K command tanks and 30 infantry fighting vehicles to Northern Alliance during the war bears testimony to this fact.
However, Russian support for the American-led Afghan war was far from being full-fledged and unconditional. As the US and its NATO allies were drawing close to the areas of Moscow’s strategic interests, suspicions over US geopolitical objectives became visible at the same time, immediately after the American declaration of the war, when then-defense minister Sergei Ivanov ruled out any presence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the region and the Chief of the General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, remarked that Russia had no plans to participate in a military operation against Afghanistan.
Russian suspicions remained as to the intensity of the US engagement with the Central Asian states in the guise of taking on terrorism within the framework of “Operation Enduring Freedom.” In order to secure a firm foothold in Central Asia, the US not only secured temporary forward basing in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, strategic engagement in the region was also fostered through access to airspace and restricted use of bases in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
There were frequent instances of US official visits to Central Asia, intelligence sharing and improved coordination within the US Central Command. Further, American interest to revive the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project in 2002 in an attempt to end Russian monopoly over supply routes to transfer Central Asian resources, which was undergoing uncertainties due to the turbulence perpetrated by the Taliban, corroborated Russian suspicions over US geopolitical interests.
As the American entrenchment in the Central Asian region deepened, the countries of the region were asked to fulfill their bilateral and other obligations to Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, during his stint as a Russian envoy to NATO between 2008 and 2011 took efforts to make it clear that Russia wanted to help the US and Afghanistan as part of the international community but on its own terms.
Around the same time, Russia although did not object to in principle but viewed skeptically several new transit corridors laid down by the US to deliver goods to its forces in Afghanistan (the routes are collectively termed the Northern Distribution Network), and emphasized that these must not be used to transfer lethal goods. On the other side, many US officials were envisaging the network being transformed into a Modern Silk Route.
In response to the US military bases in different parts of Central Asia, Russia established its own bases, but their direct contacts were surprisingly limited. In response to the greater role of the US in the region, Russia called for a larger role of regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in securing security and stability in Afghanistan.
Perhaps because of Russia’s overriding influence due to its monopoly over oil supplies, the Central Asian states agreed to strengthen CSTO as an alternative to NATO. In one of the top-level summit meetings, in 2011, the CSTO leaders unanimously agreed that countries outside the regional security bloc would only be able to establish military bases on the territory of a member state with the consent of all member states.
Responding to the evolving Afghan scenario, Russia not only made efforts at diplomatically engaging successive Afghan governments, it attempted to establish itself as a major stakeholder in the Afghan peace process too. Being excluded from the Quadrilateral Coordination Group to broker peace of which the US, China, Pakistan and Afghan government are members, Moscow opened up its channels to play its part in the Afghan peace process taking other regional countries and the Taliban on board. Realizing the geopolitical importance of the outcomes of regional war and peace efforts, Moscow has allegedly shifted its support from the fragmented Northern Alliance group to the Taliban in order to strengthen its Afghan role. Washington believes that Moscow is channelizing its support toward the Taliban to impede the peace process in Kabul and roll back progress made by US-led forces and drive a wedge between the US and its coalition partners, while Moscow keeps denying allegations of its support for the radical group.
US State Department officials, however, have expressed concerns over Moscow’s failure to work with Washington in Afghanistan, and some US military officials on the ground have not hesitated to accuse Russia of providing arms to and sharing sensitive intelligence with the Afghan Taliban.
As things stand now, Russia has admitted to opening up channels of communication with the Taliban with such objectives as protection of Russian citizens in Afghanistan, promotion of peace in Afghanistan and above all, containing the influence of ISIS – which is considered by Russia a more dangerous threat to the Central Asian region because of its transnational objectives and role.The Taliban’s quick agreement to join Russian-led peace talks scheduled to be hosted by Moscow on September 4 this year indicated Russia’s outreach to the group. Washington’s rejection of Russia’s invitation to participate in the peace efforts underlined geopolitical suspicions of each other’s intentions. The Russian leadership, however, postponed the talks to facilitate the participation of the Afghan government and other stakeholders in the peace process.
Russian intelligence has projected that ISIS has an enhanced presence in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters including many foreign fighters (those fleeing Syria after being recruited from the Central Asian region) spread across eight to nine provinces, including its sway in the northern province of Jowzjan, which shares a border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, carrying a dangerous portent for the Central Asian states.
Moreover, Russian officials have argued that the radical group has been able to recruit many people from the Central Asian region, posing a serious threat to Russian security concerns. Moscow has also been seen praising the Taliban’s efforts at containing drug trafficking into Russia’s back yard.
Nonetheless, given its lingering suspicions of US geopolitical intentions, Russia may be using its support for the Taliban as a hedge against growing American influence in the region. Moscow has rejected Washington’s estimate that the numerical strength of ISIS varied from 1,500 to 2,000 and disputed the claim that the group’s influence was limited to such provinces as Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan and consisted of only local defectors from the Taliban and other militant groups. Moscow has allegedly charged the US with sharing common interests with ISIS in keeping Afghanistan embroiled in instabilities and disorder so that it could have a permanent military presence in the region.
The geopolitical rift between the two powers has been further exacerbated by continuing US sanctions on Russia, which will have impacts on the peace process in Afghanistan. Meanwhile in Syria, Russia has stepped up its support for the Damascus regime by supplying S-300 missiles, and Idlib continues to be a hotbed of geopolitical jostling for influence between Moscow and Washington.
Afghanistan, as another site for their scrambling for geopolitical supremacy, will continue to witness an enhanced role of Russia, preventing cooperation between the two powers unless Moscow’s regional geopolitical claims are counterbalanced by a global US geopolitical role.
Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”
As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.
Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.
Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.
Bad, but Still a Strategy
If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.
In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.
The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.
Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today
Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans
The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.
“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.
The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.
It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.
“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.
Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.
According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.
Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.
“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.
According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.
Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”
FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.
China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears
The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.
What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.
As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.
In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.
What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.
Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.
Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.
Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.
Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.
In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.
However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.
Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.
Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.
The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.
Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today
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