Independent analyst of geopolitics and foreign policy as well as culture. She contributes to a variety of alternative-media platforms and is involved in independent book publishing. Nina earned her PhD (History) from the University of Toronto, focusing on modern and contemporary Russia, history of culture, and U.S. foreign policy.
“Central Asia is… crucial in defining what Russia might or might not become.”
What does NATO build-up in the Baltic, war in Donbass, and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh have in common with the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan? Each of these areas is a pressure — or a flash — point along Russia’s periphery. These areas are collectively referred to as an arc of instability meant to drain Russia’s resources by creating or fanning the flames of existent conflicts by the Kremlin’s geopolitical opponents. Of course, each of these cases is complex, involves a number of regional or global players with their own overlapping — or even contradictory — agendas, and must be analyzed with these nuances in mind. Nonetheless, analysts have warned that the Tajik-Afghani direction will be next to heat up in the near future. Two key reasons for this are continued instability created by Washington’s occupation of Afghanistan and the expansion of the so-called Islamic State terrorist organization into Central Asia both for strategic purposes and as a result of Russia’s successes in the Syrian counter-terrorism campaign.
For this reason, it is important to review the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia from the Russian perspective.
Regional stability is a matter of security for the Russian Federation considering that it affects its southern periphery. However, unchallenged U.S. hegemony has led to the rise of chaos around the world as a result of Washington’s interventions, overthrowing regimes, and destroying statehood in the Middle East, North Africa, Ukraine, Central Asia, and beyond. The ongoing 15-year occupation of Afghanistan by Washington and its NATO allies, in particular, has failed to stabilize that country. On the contrary, security risks for Russia, primarily narcotics trafficking and terrorism — in part, linked to migration — have dramatically increased in this time period. Let us first examine Russia’s practical security concerns in the given region and then determine how its instability would benefit Russia’s geopolitical opponents.
In the late imperial period, Afghanistan functioned as a buffer state between Russia and its rival Britain in Central and South Asia. As Russia expanded eastward across the Eurasian landmass, Afghanistan gained strategic importance to Britain, considering its proximity to colonial India. In a certain sense it even began to overshadow the importance of Turkey, which allied with Britain in an attempt to push Russia out of the Black Sea region in the mid-19th century. As a result, Britain engaged in three wars with Afghanistan. These and other maneuvers along Russia’s border have come to be known as the Great Game, and its echo reverberates across current geopolitical events.
After the 1917 Revolution, the Soviet Union was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. In the 1950s-1970s, Afghanistan received over $1 billion in aid from the USSR, including a substantial military component.
Much like the case of its maritime predecessor Britain, Afghanistan was of strategic importance to Washington’s global agenda countering the Soviet Union in every part of the world.
Thus Washington covertly trained the Mujahideen even prior to the Soviet military entry into Afghanistan in 1979 upon the repeated requests by its government. USSR’s decade-long engagement — that its Cold War opponents compared to America’s Vietnam — has left Russia cautious about this part of the world to this day. Indeed, it was the example of Afghanistan that Russia’s critics brought up upon its entry into Syria in autumn of 2015 as requested by that country’s president. Beyond Russian air support, the lack of boots on the ground — which somewhat delayed the ongoing counter-terrorist operation by relying on the Syrian Arab Army — was likely informed by the Soviet-era Afghan War experience as well.
Another area of interest to regional stability is Tajikistan, particularly the Tajik-Afghan border, the sensitive nature of which allows for illegal trafficking into the Russian Federation.
In the early Soviet era, this part of Central Asia in the Fergana Valley was split into Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz republics roughly along ethnic lines. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, independent Tajikistan was torn by civil war for economic and socio-cultural reasons, which led to mass exodus of ethnic Russians from the area. To this day, Tajikistan is one of the major sources of economic migration into Russia. Other Central Asian countries that were once Soviet republics, such as Kyrgyzstan, are also noteworthy particularly as members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). As the so-called Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization spreads across Central Asia, visa-free travel mandated by the EEU becomes a major security concern.
Russia’s Security Concerns in Afghanistan and Central Asia
There are three areas, which represent Russian security concerns in Central Asia: narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and migration. At present, the Russian Federation engages with countries south of the border through military and political cooperation. Its 201st military base (Motorized Rifle Division) is stationed in Tajikistan. In addition to economic associations like the EEU, there are several other discussion and cooperation platforms, such as the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Antiterrorist Center, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) anti-terrorist organ RATS, or the militarypolitical Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Both CSTO and SCO include former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Direct cooperation also exists between Russia and the relevant agencies in the countries in question in terms of combatting narcotics trafficking and terrorism. When it comes to the question of drug trade, the Russian direction of transnational criminal gangs operating out of Afghanistan has been the subject of many drug labs, the estimates for which range from hundreds to 2,000 — on the rise since the beginning of Washington’s intervention, especially the production of heroin as well as “designer” drugs. In the last few years, there are believed to be tens of thousands of criminalgroup members and 100,000 drug mules, with only 1-4% of drug traffic stopped at the border. Whereas by 2015 the total number of drug users in Russia declined, heroin — all of which comes from Afghanistan — remained steady. Last summer, Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) emphasized the fact that even though narcotics production in Afghanistan greatly increased during NATO’s occupation, NATO itself has done nothing to fight this, transferring all responsibility onto that country’s government. According to Ivanov, some opium fields are even located right outside the military bases. Indeed, FSKN and Afghan counterparts routinely carry out operations in shutting down trafficking channels. However, with many possible routes, porous borders, and, most important, continued regional instability facilitating narcotics trade, much remains to be done.
Furthermore, some of the money earned from drug trafficking funds terrorism, the situation with which in Afghanistan is “close to critical,” Vladimir Putin noted last October at a Meeting of the CIS Council of Heads of State. This meeting was followed by another between the Tajik military delegation and Russian counterparts in December of 2015. The number of fighters who had joined the so-called Islamic State terrorist organization in Afghanistan rose to 3,000, per U.S. estimate at the end of 2015, whereas Russian sources mention 4,000-5,000. And if IS continues to lose its positions in Syria and Iraq, due to recent Russian-Syrian successes, it may transfer much of its activities to Central Asia. Indeed, the opium market, the source of Afghan heroin, is valued at approximately $20 billion. This exceeds oil profits for IS. The latter has already been able to recruit some militants from the Taliban, in addition to absorbing smaller groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
One of the greatest worries for CIS members is that an estimated 5,000—7,000 of their own citizens, who had joined various terrorist organizations abroad, would come home and use their experience domestically. Russia itself is no stranger to terrorist attacks that it suffered after the dissolution of the USSR, including highly publicized and tragic hostage-taking scenarios in Budennovsk, Beslan, and Moscow carried out at civilian objects like hospitals, schools, and theaters.
The official Russian position on Afghanistan focuses on political regulation even with armed groups. As of recent, this approach includes working with the Taliban at the level of information-sharing to fight the so-called Islamic State. This tactic coincides with that of China and Iran. Working with the Taliban has been long-advocated by certain Russian experts in the field such as Semyon Bagdasarov, the director of the Center for the Study of Middle East and Central Asia, as a matter of pragmatism: deciding whether the Taliban — indigenous Afghanis — is good or bad is not up to Russia; nor have their territorial aspirations gone beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Such an approach is, of course, a highly sensitive issue for the current government of Afghanistan, and the Russians frame it as a matter of achieving overarching peace, one key to which is pushing out the so-called Islamic State.
Another security concern for Russia linked to both narcotics trafficking and terrorism is migration from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. This subject has been the point of contention in post-Soviet Russian society for the past 20 years. On the one hand, these economic migrants once lived in the same country as those in Russia and take on lower-paying jobs, such as construction, contributing to the economy. On the other, certain critics argue that there is unsufficient screening by the Federal Migration Service (FMS), which allows for criminal elements to sneak through the border. Some even suggest that such migration — now in the millions — may lead to demographic replacement. Whatever the case may be, as the global situation with the rise of terrorism worsens, tougher measures must be implemented. Russia’s CIS agreement allows for the cancellation of visa-free travel if citizens of certain states pose as a national security threat. This would not be an unusual move: considering the spread of the so-called Islamic State in Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan toughened border measures, including engaging military machinery, in order to prevent terrorists that arrived in Kyrgyzstan from crossing into Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan has visa-free travel with Russia as a Eurasian Economic Union member, which may need to be reevaluated.
Arc of Instability
How do Afghanistan and Central Asia fit into geostrategic plans of Russia’s main self-declared opponents? Major Washington think tanks like Stratfor advocate a containment policy against Russia, which, in general principle, is similar to the one practiced by the U.S. against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. One of the key components of the current version of this policy is the creation of multiple zones of instability along the Russian border in order to drain its resources that could find better use elsewhere in active rather than defense scenarios. For instance, Stratfor refers to a large segment along Russia’s border crucial to its containment as the “Estonia — Azerbaijan line.”
In addition, destabilizing Russia’s immediate security area is meant to delegitimize its leadership by making it look weak and potentially bring in a new, more pliable counterpart akin to Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. Some of these zones in Russia’s immediate vicinity include the so-called Intermarium in the Baltic and Eastern Europe with Washington’s military presence:
The Baltic salient, 145 kilometers (90 miles) from St. Petersburg in Estonia, would be a target for Russian destabilization. Poland borders the Baltics and is the leading figure in the Visegrad battlegroup, an organization within the European Union. Poland is eager for a closer military relationship with the United States, as its national strategy has long been based on third-power guarantees against aggressors.
The Poles cannot defend themselves and the Baltics, given the combat capabilities necessary for the task.
Hostile Ukraine under overt Washington rule and wartorn Donbass:
Putin is now in a position where, in order to retain with confidence his domestic authority, he must act decisively to reverse the outcome [in post-regime-change Ukraine]. The problem is there is no single decisive action that would reverse events. Eventually, the inherent divisions in Ukraine might reverse events. However, a direct invasion of eastern Ukraine would simply solidify opposition to Russia in Kiev and trigger responses internationally that he cannot predict. In the end, it would simply drive home that although the Russians once held a dominant position in all of Ukraine, they now hold it in less than half. In the long run, this option — like other short-term options — would not solve the Russian conundrum.
Moldova and breakaway Transnistria:
In Western hands, Moldova threatens Odessa, Ukraine’s major port also used by Russia on the Black Sea. In Russian hands, Moldova threatens Bucharest.
South Caucasus with Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Tajik-Afghan border in Central Asia:
[T]he very pro-Russian Armenia…could escalate tensions with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Previously, this was not a pressing issue for the United States. Now it is.
Like Stratfor founder George Friedman, President Carter’s National Security Advisor and geostrategist Zbigniew Brzezinski emphasizes the importance of these areas to Russia in order to use them against it:
An independent Azerbaijan, linked to Western markets, by pipelines that do not pass through Russian-controlled territory, also becomes a major avenue of access from the advanced and energy-consuming economies to the energy rich Central Asian republics. Almost as much as in the case of Ukraine, the future of Azerbaijan and Central Asia is also crucial in defining what Russia might or might not become.
Some of these regions are also noteworthy due to either being resource-rich, particularly in terms of energy, or functioning as energy-transit zones. Of course, each one involves a complex set of causes and regional, or global, players with their own interests. Thus, we must be careful not to reduce each region in question solely to proxy-war opposition between Washington on the offensive and Moscow on defense. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that the U.S. and other players, such as today’s hostile Turkey, could manipulate each conflict zone to pressure Russia. Nor can we ignore the fact that Russia’s strategic partners like China also have substantial interests in regions like Central Asia, which must be balanced with those of Russia.
In the last number of years, West-backed regime change in Ukraine and the subsequent war in Donbass is an exemplar of such a conflict zone. It was in part created by Washington, which exploited its conflicting identities in the Europe-facing west and Russia-facing east, and which invested $5 billion into “civil society” projects in Ukraine on an official level alone.
After all, Ukraine has far-reaching links with Russia, from cultural, historic, and ethnic roots to heavy industrial production interlinked since the Soviet era, not to mention energy transit. It is also geographically within its immediate security zone. Recall Brzezinski’s comments in the Grand Chessboard, Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire…
[If] Moscow regains control of Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as its access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.
What developments have we seen in the last two years since these recommendations had been made after the Westbacked regime change in Ukraine? First came NATO buildup in the Baltic and Eastern Europe with 6,000 troops stationed in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, in addition to numerous displays of technical power such as the socalled Dragoon Ride through Europe. Both NATO, three quarters of which is funded by the U.S., and the U.S. itself explicitly list Russia as one of the top threats or aggressors, even above terrorism, in their strategic defense documents. In practice, U.S. quadrupled its military spending to increase its presence in Europe to specifically counter Russia.
Next, we have witnessed the worst fighting in majority — Armenian autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire, even though fighting frequently occurred throughout this entire time period. In this instance, Azerbaijan broke the agreement in December of 2015 — by shelling Karabakh — and again in April of 2016. This location is of outmost geostrategic importance: at the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, linking a number of possible energy-transit routes into Europe, and thus of significant interest to OPEC countries, Turkey, Russia, and the U.S.
The timing is also of interest: the incident in December was immediately preceded by a visit to Baku by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whereas more recent fighting in April escalated the day after Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington. In the very least, Aliyev had either been put under pressure or felt encouragement to attack Nagorno-Karabakh — at a time when low oil prices in an oil-producing country may have led him to consolidate his voters behind a nationalistic idea in an economic downturn. Certainly, Azerbaijan has attempted to practice a multi-vector politics and retain friendly relations with Russia, including weapons purchases. This may not have suited Turkey after the dissolution of an amicable relationship with Russia after the former downed SU-24 in Syria, as Turkish aid for terrorism in Syria had been revealed, not to mention the Kurdish question. Indeed, Turkey immediately expressed support for Azerbaijan after fighting escalated this month. At thesame time, a Turkish-Russian conflict benefits Saudi Arabia, whose energy-transit interest in Syria has been pushed out as a result of the thus-far successful Russian-Syrian anti-terrorist operation. As for Russia itself, a “hot” war in this region is logistically damaging for military-political reasons: Russia uses the Caspian Sea-Azerbaijan-Iran-northern Iran-Syria or Armenia-Iran corridors to fly its aviation into Syria.
The so-called Islamic State terrorist organization has been expanding into other regions, in part for strategic reasons, and in part due to the losses to the Russian-Syrian campaign. Central Asia is one of the key areas in this expansion due to the overall chaotic environment that has been maintained as a result of Washington’s and its NATO allies’ presence in Afghanistan that facilitates illegal activities, such as the aforementioned narcotics trade. Following the official end of the U.S. mission in 2014, Afghanistan continues to be wrought by frequent acts of terrorism, while hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the area in 2015 alone. U.S. currently maintains a convenient position of keeping approximately 10,000 troops that are described as military advisers, while failing to improve the situation either with narcotics or terrorism. As the Syrian experience demonstrates, despite the establishment of a broad Western coalition, which claims to have been fighting the so-called Islamic State in Syria for over a year — not to mention funding questionable “moderate rebels” — no progress was made until the Russian entry into that war theater. This brings into question the very seriousness of Washington’s claims about fighting terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. Having Russia drawn into an increasingly chaotic situation on its southern border, with the possibility of simultaneous flare-ups in Donbass and south Caucasus, would certainly create the kind of defensive distraction that would benefit its opponents. According to Bagdasarov, the so-called Islamic State has already captured a number of areas close to the Tajik-Afghan border. The combination of all of these factors — narcotics trade and terrorist expansion, including CIS citizens joining terror cells abroad — presents a serious multi-level security threat to Russia.
Greater diplomatic engagement — by using various existent platforms — in Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia would increase Moscow’s influence and thus balance out not only Washington’s, but also Beijing’s presence in the region. At the same time, Moscow should explore partnering with Beijing and Tehran to facilitate inclusive political regulation in Afghanistan. Per Putin’s continued suggestions, a consolidated international approach is needed to combat terrorism. Technical training of anti-narcotics agencies in CISmember states and Afghanistan would standardize the methodology and improve results in a similarly broad antinarcotics coalition.
Domestically, Muslim communities in Russia must present a unified front, particularly in religious institutions, in terms of providing education to prevent the kind of radicalization that sent hundreds of that country’s citizens to join terrorist cells abroad. Most important, Russia must become more proactive where possible, rather than defensively responding to its geopolitical opponents’ moves, in order to ensure domestic security as well as that of its near abroad.