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Why and How Russia is poised to strengthen its Afghan Role

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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.

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India

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On Russia’s Power: is Winter Coming?

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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On November 11–12, 2018, Abu Dhabi hosted the fifth annual expert meeting within the strategic dialog organized by Emirates Policy Center with the support of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Traditionally the event gathers a large number of specialists in international relations, regional security, and Middle Eastern issues. Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, made a speech at the session devoted to the role of Russia in the modern world, including in the Middle East.

Talking about Russia’s power in the Middle East or in a broader global context, we should probably start with defining what power in the contemporary world politics really means. Is it about material resources that a nation can mobilize to shoulder its foreign policy aspirations — the total throw-weight of strategic missiles, the number of aircraft carriers and combined budgets of national assistance agencies? Is it about the size of your territory or about the natural resources that the territory contains? Is it rather about you GNP or about GNP per capita that defines your power in international relations? Probably not. If you happen to be an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the jungle, this does not necessarily make you the strongest beast around. A lot depends on how functional these eight hundred pounds are. It may be pure muscle tissue, but it may also be accumulated belly fat.

There is another, more functional definition of power in world politics. Power is defined as ability of states or non-state actors to make other actors do certain things or abstain from doing some things in the interests of those exercising power. To put it in a broader context, you can define power as ability of actors to meet the goals they set for themselves in international relations.

From this vantage point, Russia has recently demonstrated that it is a powerful state, capable of using its power in an efficient way. No matter how we assess the Russian role in the contemporary international system — as a predominantly positive or a predominantly negative, — we should agree that Russia constantly punches above its weight, having more impact on the system that it theoretically should have according to its ‘objective’ economic, technological or demographic potential.

If I were to compare Russia to a large investment fund, I would venture to say that the price of its stocks today is significantly higher than the true value of its assets. Look, for instance, at the recent Russia’s posture in the Middle East region. In my view, we can label it as an exceptionally successful political start-up: with rather modest price paid in blood in treasure, Moscow has been able to turn itself from a marginal player in the region into the arguably most important external power broker.

This apparent gap between the operational power and its material foundation needs an explanation. To say that Vladimir Putin has been simply lucky, making full use of indecisiveness and inconsistencies of the West and exploiting many vacuums of power around the globe is to say nothing. There should be something here about the ability of the Kremlin to make fast and resolute decisions, about its capacity to promptly mobilize Russia’s political and military forces, about the quality of the Russian diplomacy and so on.

Russia’s highly centralized political system, impressive domestic and international state propaganda machinery, its consistency in supporting Moscow’s allies and partners — all these features of the ‘Putin’s style’ foreign policy puts Russia in a league of its own in world politics. It does not have many important features of a truly great power (above all, it lacks a solid and diverse economic foundation), but so far it has been able to capitalize exactly on what distinguishes it from a ‘standard’ Western democracy or a typical non-Western autocracy. In other words, Russia is powerful because Russia is different.

Nevertheless, the Russian way of maximizing its international power contains a number of risks that should not be underestimated. First, the set of instruments, which the Kremlin can use in international relations to advance its goals, is quite limited. Russia is a nuclear superpower, is has military power projection capabilities second only to the United States. It is a global leader in cyber warfare and in a number of futuristic weapons. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto power, which it never hesitates to use. It is a member of other international groupings — ranging from G20 and APEC to SCO and BRICS. It is a global supplier of hydrocarbons, many other commodities, as well as of food stock. It is the largest country in the world with eleven time zones.

However, is this set enough for Russia to maintain its status in global politics for all of the XXI century? Until 2050? Until 2030? Probably, not. If so, in the rapidly changing international environment the Kremlin has to consider seriously a significant diversification of its foreign policy instruments with a special emphasis on soft power components (culture, education, social practices, technological edge, science and so on). The sooner we start moving in this direction, the more secure the country’s role is likely to be in the long-term future.

Second, many of current Russia’s foreign policy investments are high-risk investments bordering political speculations. Should Russia continue betting of leftist political regimens in Venezuela or in Nicaragua? Should it bet on Euro-sceptics and right wing populists in the European Union? Should it invest into failing autocracies in Africa? This opportunistic globalism is distracting Moscow from what is truly important for Russia: from resolving multiple crises on the territory of the former Soviet Union, from building stable partnerships with its immediate neighbors, from gradually restoring the troubled relationship with the West.

As for targets of opportunity overseas, any political engagement should be preceded, not followed by a careful consideration of exit strategy options. History teaches us repeatedly: countries that can win wars, quite often lose peace. If you take the ongoing conflict in Syria, it will not last forever. When the name of the game is no longer military operations, but a post-conflict reconstruction, new players will come to the stage, no matter who is charge in Damascus. External powers with deeper pockets than those that Russia has will claim a central role in the post-war Syria. The Kremlin should try very hard to convert its current military successes into less explicit, but a more lasting and a more stable political presence in the country.

Finally, neither Russia, not any other nation should forget that the real foreign policy power comes from the inside. Foreign policy victories might look great and they definitely appeal to the public, but they never become an adequate substitute for victories at home. In the end of the day, the ability to balance economic growth and social equity, preserving national identity and integration into the global community, political representation and efficient governance constitute the only reliable foundation for power in international relations. All other foundations turn out to be quite shaky and fragile.

I have no doubts that Russia has all needed ingredients to stay as a great power, no a global spoiler. It has the potential that makes it capable of being not a part of the problem, but a part of the solution for the international system of the XXI century.

However, the future of Russia’s power and that of Russia’s role will depend on the overall evolution of the system. In a popular American fantasy television series “The Game of Thrones”, characters from time to time remind each other — “Winter is coming”. By “Winter” (with a capital “W”) they mean something really bad, big and unavoidable looming on the horizon. They cannot prevent the Winter, so they have to learn who to survive in this extremely hostile and dangerous environment.

Today, there are many indicators that “Winter” might be the future of the world politics in years to come, that what we observe today is not a bad weather, but a profound climate change. The implosion of the state system in parts of the Middle East, the rise of right populism and nationalism in Europe, Brexit in UK the election of Trump in US, the coming collapse of the US — Russian strategic arms control, a renewed arms race in Asia — there are multiple symptoms of hard times ahead of us.

If the name of the game in the global politics is likely to be security, not development, if the prime goal of nations is going to be survival rather than prosperity, why should Russia change its current understanding of power in international relations? In a way, the Kremlin is better prepared to face the global Winter than most of its competitors and opponents are. To create incentives for the Russian foreign policy to reinvent itself, one has to prove that the global Winter is not the only option. Otherwise the world might face a self-fulfilling prophesy. As they say, “fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention.”

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia and Comoro Islands Cooperate To Enhance Bilateral Relations

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On November 8-10, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Comoro Islands, El-Amine Souef, paid his first official working visit to Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with him on November 9.

After the talks, Lavrov told the media conference that they had confirmed to continue promoting bilateral cooperation in many spheres and work together towards using the existing potential in both countries.

There is considerable potential for cooperation in fishing, renewable energy, the provision of fresh water and agriculture.

“We have agreed to help our business communities establish direct ties and we also exchanged opinions on international issues, reaffirming the identity or similarity of our views,” Lavrov said.

They exchanged of views on international and regional issues of mutual interest with an emphasis on preventing and defusing crises in Africa and the Middle East, struggling against piracy in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean and countering terrorism and extremism.

Lavrov reminded that Moscow firmly supports the principle formulated by the African countries, that is “African solutions to African problems” and urged Africans to find ways of settling conflicts while the international community provides the necessary assistance through the African Union and sub-regional African organisations with the coordinating role of the UN.

Under a memorandum signed by the ministers, Russia will be training law enforcement personnel for the Comoro Islands.

Kelvin Dewey Stubborn, South African based Senior Analyst on BRICS and African policy, observes that foreign assistance is very essential to transform the economy and improve living standards of the population on the Comoro Islands.

Thus, Russia’s economic engagement is needed at this time, most importantly, to maintain stability and turn around the opportunities into an attractive place. With a relatively small investment, Russia could achieve important results for the Islands, so the first step should be genuine commitment, he told me in an emailed interview from Johannesburg.

One of the world’s poorest and smallest economies, the Islands are hampered by inadequate transportation links. It has a rapidly increasing population and few natural resources.

The low educational level of the labour force contributes to a subsistence level of economic activity and a heavy dependence on foreign grants and technical assistance. France, the colonial power, still remains a key trading partner and bilateral donor.

Russia established diplomatic relations with the Comoro Islands after it gained independence from France on 6 July 1975. In mid-2017, Comoros joined the Southern African Development Community with 15 other regional member states.

The most common language is Shikomoro, a Swahili dialect. French and Arabic are also widely spoken. About 57% of the population is literate. The Islands, with a population of about 1.2 million, situated off the southeast coast of Africa, to the east is Mozambique and northwest is Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

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Russia’s Growing Clout in Asia Pacific Region

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In their strategic calculus, the Asia Pacific major powers as well as other countries do not consider Russia a major military power for the region. Although these Asia Pacific countries understand Russia’s military clout in Europe and Middle East, they somehow fail to see how overall Russian military might have an impact in the Asia Pacific region too.

Accordingly, the growing influence of Russia in the region finds less attention on the regional media outlets, the regional discussion platforms and the think tank papers produced across the region. This is a total contrast to Russian involvement in Europe and Middle East, something which receives huge coverage. Despite the low coverage of its engagement in the Asia Pacific, Russia’s geopolitical presence is increasing in the region.

Although its military and economic involvements in the Asia Pacific reduced significantly after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has over the last decade improved and enhanced its military might significantly, making its military a potent power in the region.

Russia has been selling weapons and other advanced military technology to the Asia-Pacific countries in order to bring these countries into its geopolitical orbit. Besides its close military relations with both China and India, Russia is increasingly building good relations with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.

Furthermore, Russia is on a spree of building certain infrastructures in several Asia Pacific countries which would make those countries dependent on Russia for the proper functionality of those infrastructures. Take Bangladesh’s nuclear plant for example. Russia is setting up a nuclear-powered power plant in Bangladesh, and this infrastructure would certainly make Bangladesh dependent on Russia for the technological aspects of the project. Bangladesh has also been purchasing heavy weapons and military vehicles from Russia.

Recently this year, many regional countries were alarmed by Russia’s large scale war games. The fact that the war games was conducted in the eastern part of Russia – which forms part of the Asia Pacific region, unlike Russia’s western part that forms part of Europe – makes it an alarming development for the Asia Pacific region.

According to an Australian news website, the war games, namely Vostok-2018 or East-2018, involved more than 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, 1000 aircraft, helicopters and drones and 80 warships and support vessels.

More alarming was the inclusion of the Chinese military into the war games alongside the Russians. Around 3500 Chinese troops were said to have taken part in the Russian war games. Troops from Mongolia too joined the drills.

Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister, boasted about the drills saying, “Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles – and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible.”

Condemning the drills, NATO said the war games “demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”.

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