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Tackling the Illicit Drug Trade: Perspectives From Russia

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The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. How can this fight be won? While strengthening cooperation with its Central Asian neighbours will be crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, Russia needs to complement law enforcement with a softer approach for the demand side of the drug trade at home.

“The Afghan drug threat is one of the worst problems for Russia’s national security,” said Alexei Rogov, deputy director of the new challenges and threats department of the Russian foreign ministry on November 26, 2019. He thus effectively captured Russia’s persistent drug problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Accounting for one-fifth of the world’s opium market estimated at USD 65 billion, Russia is the world’s largest heroin consumer, all of it flowing from Afghanistan through Central Asia.

The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. Russia has around four to six million drug addicts and a drug-related mortality rate of 10.2 per 100 000 persons. This far surpasses the rate of its European neighbours. The UK, despite being Europe’s largest cocaine consumer, has a drug-related mortality rate of 3.7 per 100 000 persons. With a death toll of around 30 000 per year, it is no wonder Russia has marked the drug trade as a major national security threat.

How can this fight be won? The words of Alexei Rogov perfectly illustrate Russia’s heavily securitised approach to the problem. Russia’s response has focused primarily on the security aspect of the drug trade, such as policing and border control. While regional cooperation is crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, initiatives between Russia and its Central Asian neighbours are short-term and poorly coordinated. Regional organisations’ anti-drug potential could be further exploited, as could cooperation with the EU, which is also affected by the Afghan drug trade. At home, the high mortality rates are explained by the draconian legislation on drug consumption and the lack of comprehensive drug policies. Faced with increasing drug-related mortality, complementing law enforcement and regional initiatives with a softer approach at home is the next logical step.

A Threat to National and Human Security: Developments and Continuities in the Afghan Drug Trade

Drug trafficking in Russia is far from being a recent problem. The drastic rise of organised crime in the tumultuous years that followed the fall of the USSR, as well as the newly opened and poorly controlled borders with former Soviet states, has facilitated the transnational smuggling of opium produced in Afghanistan (which accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s heroin output). Travelling through the Northern route, the drugs are smuggled to Russia through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. While Afghanistan might be the Colombia of Central Asia, the Central Asian drug market presents different characteristics from its well-known Latin American counterpart. It is not organised in mega-cartels with the power of a small state, but in smaller more disparate criminal groups. These groups can extend their influence in the region more thanks to poor border security, lack of transnational cooperation, and rampant corruption among law enforcement and local officials than to their own strengths and ingenuity.

Pointing fingers at borders and even at the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which saw Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan integrated into a free trade zone with Russia in 2015, is highly misleading. While greater connectivity and opened borders make the region an ideal transit route for illicit trade, it is complicity and impunity that explain why less than 5 per cent of the drugs passing through Tajikistan are seized. The widespread corruption and poverty that lead many to resort to drug trafficking are the root causes of the drug trade in Central Asia.

Regarding Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict (2001-2020) and political instability make it a breeding ground for drug trafficking. The drug trade has led to many disagreements between the U.S. and Russia, with the two parties failing to reach a coherent anti-drug strategy. The possibility of a NATO-Russia cooperation was briefly evoked but has been eliminated by U.S. withdrawal from the country following the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed on February 29, 2020. This recent development will risk affecting the anti-drug fight. With 61 per cent of the Afghan population deriving its income from agriculture, the impossibility of cultivating traditional crops amidst conflict, and a new power vacuum, Russia will need to step up to make sure drug production does not explode. Moreover, Afghanistan’s new dabble into the mass production of synthetic drugs, notably methamphetamines, which is cheaper than heroin, is increasingly worrying. A booming market largely driven by the rise of the Russian Hydra darknet, the quantities of synthetic drugs seized by Russian authorities have multiplied by twenty over the 2008-2018 period.

Given the growing availability and affordability of drugs on the Russian market, the security dimension of the Central Asian drug trade naturally dominates the drug discourse and, to some extent, justifies Russia’s militarised approach. With a 7 644 km-long shared border with Kazakhstan and hundreds of tonnes of drugs flowing in each year, drug trafficking has severe implications beyond the social costs of addiction and directly threatens Russia’s security. This is all the more worrying considering that Islamic terrorist groups like the Taliban use the drug trade to finance their operations. The crime and terrorism nexus operating in the region thus makes Central Asia a priority for Russian policy.

The War on Drugs at the Regional Level: Results and Future Perspectives

A relentlessly creative and adaptable market, with a myriad of new ways to conceal and smuggle narcotics every year, the illicit drug trade is truly a transnational problem and requires intense cooperation between the affected states. However, the anti-drug potential of regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Sino-Russian led security alliance, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), is not fully exploited and is limited in terms of capacity and political will.

Russia has been promoting collective security with its Central Asian neighbours through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Created in 2001 and composed of eight member-states (India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), it plays a major role in stemming the Afghan drug trade. The SCO’s 2018-2023 anti-drug strategy marks the creation of an effective anti-drug mechanism within the organisation. The SCO often collaborates with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military alliance between six former Soviet states (Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), and the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre for combating the illicit trafficking of narcotics (CARICC).

Most of Russia’s effort in the region has focused on strengthening the governments in place, such as investing in the state structure or their military. Russia has maintained a steady military presence in the region, one likely to increase after U.S. withdrawal. However, regional cooperation has mainly focused on short-termed joint operations and border security, such as operation spider web in July 2019, which led to the seizure of 6 422 kg of narcotic drugs and 3 241 arrests. The porous borders, explained in part by the geographical difficulty of border control in such mountainous terrain, the lack of training and equipment of security forces are certainly worth paying attention to, but they are also short-term solutions to a much more endemic problem. 6 422 kg might seem like a big win, but it is nothing compared to the hundreds of tonnes of heroin crossing the border each year. This purely militarised and short-term response, both from Russia’s part and in its engagement with its neighbours, is necessary but insufficient. Fighting the illicit drug trade will require a long-term strategy and a much greater political will to tackle its systemic causes. At the moment, the drug trade is 30 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP, with an increasing amount of people turning to drug trafficking to survive. Fighting corruption, implementing institutional reforms and providing economic benefits to the region are as crucial as border policing.

In light of this, international assistance could prove useful, notably from the EU. While Central Asia is not a priority for Brussels, there is still a strong case for cooperation here. Afghan heroin and meth production is not only Russia’s problem. The drug trade in Central Asia might not be a security issue for Europe in the way it is for Russia, but opium trafficking along the Northern and the Balkan route also reaches Europe and the black sea route via Turkey is rapidly emerging as a prominent smuggling corridor. In July 2019, Ukraine intercepted 930 kg of Afghan heroin destined for Western Europe. Europe’s role in Central Asia is limited compared to Russia’s, and its focus on democracy promotion tends to clash with Russia’s priority of supporting the regimes in place to strengthen their capacity to fight the drug trade. But overcoming those differences and finding ground for cooperation would be a positive step towards fighting the drug trade.

The War at Home: the Grim Reality of Drug Addiction in Russia

Draconian legislation criminalising drug use has characterised Russia’s domestic war on drugs for the past three decades. While the dominance of the security discourse in Russia’s anti-drug strategy is somewhat justified, tackling the illicit drug trade purely from a national security perspective does not diminish the social threat posed by drug consumption. Drug use is a pervasive domestic issue, but it has yet to become a policy issue. Underdeveloped drug policies and politicians’ refusal to address it largely explain the high mortality rate.

With 100 000 jailed in 2018 (one in three convicts), Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe, most of them convicted under Article 228 of the Russian penal code which treats drug possession as a criminal offence. Such harsh legislation not only leads to more risky forms of drug use (the use of dirty needles for drug injection has directly contributed to the HIV epidemic currently affecting 1.16 million people in Russia, one of the fastest-growing HIV rates in the world), but prevents access to treatment. With such large fines and lengthy prison sentences, (for possession of 2.5 grams of meth, users can go to jail for up to ten years) as well as the social taboo around drugs and HIV, users do not seek treatment and are further marginalised.

This addiction and HIV crisis in Russia is largely homegrown and will reach endemic levels in the next few years if it continues to be swept under the rug. The peculiarity and pervasiveness of the drug trade is its creation of a steady base of consumers and addicts. Criminalisation has not and will not diminish the demand for drugs, hence the need to work on demand much as supply reduction. While the legalisation of soft drugs is unlikely to appear as a convincing solution anytime soon in Russia, a softer approach to drug use is needed. At the moment, no long-term treatment or harm reductions services are available, and opioid substitution therapy remains forbidden.

Conclusion

Drug trafficking is a complex issue that must be fought on multiple fronts. Russia’s drug policy needs to involve a wider concept of security that not only encompasses the threat to national security, but also the human and social threat of drugs. Intense cooperation with Central Asia and Afghanistan through the SCO and CSTO is essential, as is strict border policing and law enforcement. Nonetheless, this no-tolerance policy for the supply side of the drug trade needs to be complemented with a softer approach for the demand side at home. To dwell on the social and economic consequences of drug use would be a truism, and Russia has every interest in decreasing the influence of drug trafficking on its population’s health and security. Developing more robust social policies seems at the moment more feasible than tackling the systemic causes of the drug trade in Central Asia. The latter will require a solid long-term strategy that goes beyond anti-drug operations and border control. Russia must step up its fight both at home and abroad.

From our partner RIAC

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USA and Australia Worry About Cyber Attacks from China Amidst Pegasus Spyware

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Pegasus Spyware Scandal has shaken whole India and several other countries. What will be its fallout no one knows as we know only tip of iceberg. Amidst Pegasus Spyware Scandal USA and Australia both have shown serious concerns about Cyber Attacks on US and Australian interests. Both say that China is hub of malware software and both face millions of such attacks daily.

I am trying to understand why a software is needed to spy on a particular individual when all calls, messages, data, emails are easily accessible from server. In most of cases these servers are located in USA and some cases these are located in host country. In certain sensitive cases Government Agencies have their own server like Central Intelligence Agency and hundreds of other agencies and military establishment world over including India. Now point is who installs those servers.

A couple of years back I had talked to Mr Mike Molloy who is Chief Executive Officer of Orion Global Technologies previously known as Orion SAS. He had explained me how his company installs servers in host countries on request of private or gov bodies. He talks about contract and trust. That means even when a company or Gov buys a server or software for designated uses the “Secrecy” Factor remain on discretion of company which has supplied server or software.

Now  if all data, e-mail, chat, messages, calls are accessible to Gov as per law and technology (Through Server all components of Communication are accessible and thats why  me and you see start seeing call recording of a person even after many years later), I am unable to understand why a Gov will be needing a software to Spy on any one.

Now coming to where Australia and USA wants to carry the whole debate.

Australian Foreign Minister Sen Marise Payne said, “Australian Government joins international partners in expressing serious concerns about malicious cyber activities by China’s Ministry of State Security.

“In consultation with our partners, the Australian Government has determined that China’s Ministry of State Security exploited vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange software to affect thousands of computers and networks worldwide, including in Australia. These actions have undermined international stability and security by opening the door to a range of other actors, including cybercriminals, who continue to exploit this vulnerability for illicit gain”, She further added.

She opined, ”The Australian Government is also seriously concerned about reports from our international partners that China’s Ministry of State Security is engaging contract hackers who have carried out cyber-enabled intellectual property theft for personal gain and to provide commercial advantage to the Chinese Government”.

She warned China by saying, “Australia calls on all countries – including China – to act responsibly in cyberspace.  China must adhere to the commitments it has made in the G20, and bilaterally, to refrain from cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage”.

On other hand USA’s The National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a Cybersecurity Advisory on Chinese State-Sponsored Cyber Operations. National Security Advisor said, ”Chinese state-sponsored cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. and allied systems. These actors aggressively target political, economic, military, educational, and critical infrastructure personnel and organizations to access valuable, sensitive data. These cyber operations support China’s long-term economic and military objectives”.

The information in this advisory builds on NSA’s previous release “Chinese State-Sponsored Actors Exploit Publicly Known Vulnerabilities.” The NSA, CISA, and FBI recommended mitigations empower our customers to reduce the risk of Chinese malicious cyber activity, and increase the defensive posture of their critical networks. 

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Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geopolitical blocs

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pakistan-terrorism

Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini  and Varundeep Singh*

On July 14, 2021 a terror attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in which a number of Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu hydropower project (a project which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) were killed. The attack predictably evinced a strong response from China. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi speaking before a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Minister’s meeting asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from ‘terrorist elements’ and in a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, asked Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to book. Earlier in April 2021, a car bomb attack took place at Serena hotel in Quetta which was hosting China’s Ambassador to Pakistan (four people were killed and twelve were injured)

Wang Yi significantly praised the Ashraf Ghani government, for its attempts towards building national unity and providing effective governance. Beijing clearly realizes that its economic investments in the country as well as big ticket infrastructural projects can not remain safe if there is no security. Afghanistan also criticized Pakistan for its role in sending 10000 Jihadis to Taliban, this is important in the context of the region’s geopolitics.

 Like all other countries, Beijing and Islamabad, would have expected uncertainty after the US withdrawal of troops but perhaps over estimated their capabilities in dealing with the turbulence which had been predicted by many.

Importance of Chinese Foreign Minister’s statements

Wang Yi’s statements are important because days earlier a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen had praised China and welcomed its role in the country’s reconstruction. He had also assured China that those involved in the insurgency in Xinjiang would not be given refuge in Afghanistan (one of China’s major concerns has been the support provided by Taliban to the East Turkmenistan movement)

While Beijing may have opened back channels with the Taliban and realized that it needs to adapt to the changing geopolitics, recent developments would have increased its skepticism vis-à-vis the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia has been more favorable towards the Taliban. Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Roman Babushkin argued that the Taliban are a reality which needs to be accepted, and also that any military activities without a political process are insufficient.

Babushkin did make the point that for successful negotiations, Taliban needed to end violence.

‘that Taliban should deal with the problem of terrorism and other related issues in order to become legitimate, in order to [get] delisted [at the UN Security Council], in order to go ahead with the future Afghanistan and creation of the inclusive government

It would be pertinent to point out, that Zamir Kabulov, Russian President’s Afghanistan envoy went a step further and said that the Afghan government was not doing enough to make talks with Taliban a success.

China’s statements subtle warning to the Taliban, indicating its reservations, and praise of Ghani indicate a possibility of greater understanding between Washington and Beijing (even though Beijing has repeatedly attributed the current troubles in Afghanistan to Washington’s decision to withdraw troops).

Can US and China find common ground

 It remains to be seen if Biden who has exhibited dexterity on a number of complex issues reaches out to Xi Jinping to find common ground with regard to Afghanistan. Significantly, while US-Turkey relations had witnessed a downward trajectory and Biden has been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and Human rights record, both leaders met on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in June 2021. During the meeting Turkey agreed to secure Kabul Airport. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan while commenting on Turkey’s assurance said

‘The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute to get to that,’

Taliban earlier this week warned Turkey of ‘consequences’ if the Middle Eastern nation increased its troop presence in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Russia’s statements with regard to the Taliban indicate that it is not totally on the same page as China (its prior experience in Afghanistan has made it more cautious and circumspect), and that the Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geo-political blocs and traditional lenses. All major stakeholders in Afghanistan, both within the region and outside, seem to be understandably befuddled by the turn of events. It is not just the US, but even China which would be worried not just from an economic stand point but the overall security implications of the turmoil in Afghanistan. The terror attack in KPK indicates that other CPEC related projects could also face threats from militant groups. Beijing would thus need to be quick to react to the overtures from the Taliban in order to secure its economic assets and lives of Chinese workers in neighbouring Pakistan.

 It is especially important for Washington, Beijing and other important stakeholders in the region to work together for dealing with the near term turbulence as well as long term challenges Afghanistan is likely to face.

*Varundeep Singh is an Independent Policy Analyst.

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Pegasus: Human rights-compliant laws needed to regulate spyware

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The UN human rights chief on Monday said the apparent widespread use of Pegasus spy software to illegally undermine the rights of those under surveillance, including journalists and politicians, was “extremely alarming” and confirmed “some of the worst fears” surrounding the potential misuse of such technology. 

“Various parts of the UN Human Rights system, including my own Office, have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools from a variety of sources supposed to promote public safety in order to hack the phones and computers of people conducting legitimate journalistic activities, monitoring human rights or expressing dissent or political opposition”, said High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in a statement

According to reports, the Pegasus data leak allegations which surfaced through a consortium of media organisations over the weekend, suggests widespread and continuing abuse of the software, which the manufacturers insist, is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. 

The Pegasus malware infects electronic devices, enabling operators of the tool to obtain messages, photos and emails, record calls, and even activate microphones, according to the consortium’s reporting. The leak contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers which reportedly belong to those identified as people of interest, by clients of the company behind Pegasus, including some governments.  

‘Indispensable role’ 

Surveillance software has been linked to the arrest, intimidation and even killing of journalists and human rights defenders, according to the senior UN official.  

Reports of surveillance also trigger fear and cause people to censor themselves.   

“Journalists and human rights defenders play an indispensable role in our societies, and when they are silenced, we all suffer”, she said, reminding all States that surveillance measures can only be justified in narrowly defined circumstances when necessary and proportional to a legitimate goal.  

‘Deep intrusions’ 

Given that Pegasus spyware, “as well as that created by Candiru and others, enable extremely deep intrusions into people’s devices, resulting in insights into all aspects of their lives”, the UN rights chief underscored, “their use can only ever be justified in the context of investigations into serious crimes and grave security threats.” 

If recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true, she maintained that the “red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity”. 

‘Due diligence’ 

Companies developing and distributing surveillance technologies are responsible for avoiding human rights abuses, she said, and they must take immediate steps to mitigate and remedy the damage their products are causing, or contributing to, and carry out “human rights due diligence” to ensure that they no longer play a part in “such disastrous consequences” now, or in the future. 

States also have a duty to protect individuals from privacy rights abuses by companies, she added.  

One key step in this direction is for States to require by law that the businesses meet their human rights responsibilities by becoming more transparent in their design and use of products and by putting in place effective accountability mechanisms. 

Better regulation key 

Reports also confirm “the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technologies and ensure strict oversight and authorization.” 

Governments should not only immediately stop using surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights, but also “take concrete actions” to protect against such invasions of privacy by “regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technology created by others”, the High Commissioner said.  

Without human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks, Ms. Bachelet upheld that there are “simply too many risks” that the tools could be used to intimidate critics and silence dissent.

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