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Russia-Afghanistan relations: bilateral interests after the War epos_print_logo.png
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Russia-Afghanistan relations: bilateral interests after the War

Friday, 10 October 2014 07:27
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by Gregorio Baggiani*
EPOS Insights


A Brief Historical Profile

Russia-Afghanistan relations date back to the 19th century, when the Russian Empire became interested in Afghanistan moves in India. This became known as "The Great Game" between Britain and the Russian Empire. The two countries clashed twice over supremacy in Afghanistan. As we know, Afghanistan has always been a crossroads for conquest campaigns aimed at controlling the country, because of its strategic importance as a passage point between Central Asia, Southern Asia and the Middle East. In particular it's been a crossroads between two great expanding Empires, the British and the Russian.

Tensions between the two Empires were so great that in the late 19th century an agreement had to be found over the so-called Durand Line (1893), which divided what was at the time British India, today's Pakistan, from Afghanistan strictly speaking, thus dividing the Pashtun ethnic group into two groups separated by an official border. This led to dramatic consequences that continue today. But it is only with the end of the Second World War that the contemporary history of Afghanistan strictly speaking, as an important element of balances and counterbalances between the various regional and world powers, really begins. For example, for some time the contrast over Afghanistan remained between the USSR, Pakistan and Iran, while the United States kept quite a low profile, implicitly recognizing the Soviet Union's “pre-emption rights” as a bordering country.

In other words, Afghanistan kept swinging between being a factor important at the regional level to being a decisive one for worldwide strategic and geopolitical balances. And it is precisely on this swinging on the world political stage that the Soviet invasion of 1979 helps us shed light. The United States interpreted the invasion as a first step towards Soviet penetration into the Persian Gulf, which the United States considered a strategic area of primary importance because of its energetic relevance.

It saw the invasion of Afghanistan as a perfect opportunity to damage the Soviet Union as much as possible, by supplying, with or via its regional allies, weapons and finances to the rebels, thus beginning a proxy war via its regional allies. Afghanistan lent itself particularly well to the aim, being a convergence point between Islam, and its potential radicalization, and the growing Chinese influence. In addition, the United States interpreted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a factor of destabilization for international balances. In other words, it shifted from considering Soviet policy in Afghanistan as “legitimate” to considering it as strictly "offensive", as part of a planned limitless expansion of Soviet presence in the whole planet, something which had to be countered with all available means.

Ultimately it was the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, the consequent deployment of Cruise and Pershing “Euromissiles” in Western Europe and the substantial reduction of technological transfer towards the Soviet Union (for example of technically advanced machinery for the extraction of oil in particularly difficult deposits, which reduced the opportunity for the country to collect hard western currency from oil exports) that hastened its collapse.

Furthermore, the United States took advantage of the invasion to destroy the Soviet Union at the level of propaganda too, drawing attention on its authoritarian and expansionist traits with the public opinion of the Islamic world and third world in general, and also with those Western States which managed therefore to resist against the pacifist campaign orchestrated by the Soviet Union itself and which had as its ultimate aim military supremacy in the European continent and hence a split between NATO allies, i.e. between Western Europeans and Americans.


The Present

The Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989, (this year sees the 25th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan), still insistently projects its shadow between Russia and Afghanistan, making it quite difficult for the two countries to establish new relations, from the practical, logistic and organisational points of view, as well as from the psychological. The advice the past can give Russia is to act with caution in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of NATO troops in late 2014 poses security problems to the entire international community and hence to Russia too, concerned about Islamic terrorism spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia and from there lapping at its borders. Russia's main concern is maintaining security in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Moscow considers some of the Central Asian states ( Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) its allies, or at least countries with which it has good political and economic relations. They are members with Moscow of CSTO (the Collective Security Treaty Organization), which aims at guaranteeing military security in Central Asia but of which not all the states in the region are members. This treaty is also concerned with contrasting drug trafficking from Afghanistan and Central Asia.


Moscow's Interests in Afghanistan

Since 2001, after 9/11, the Kremlin has supported US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan as an anti-terrorist measure, because it satisfies its interests of stability in in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

After the scheduled withdrawal of NATO troops in late 2014, the ideal situation for Moscow would be a stable Afghanistan with no foreign troops. But this is indeed only an ideal, while the pulling out of NATO troops will actually mean increased insecurity and instability in Afghanistan.

Therefore Russia has every interest to cultivate relations in the security sector with the government of Kabul, but without becoming tangled up in the country's internal affairs. Moscow has a great interest in cooperating in the military training of the Afghan army, but it needs to avoid, at all costs, becoming involved in the struggle between the various political factions that want to seize power. The NATO programme that involved Russian specialists training Afghan troop has unfortunately been suspended due to events in Ukraine and Crimea.


Russia's Role in the Great Game in Central Asia

It would make no sense for Russia to enter the competition for hegemony in Afghanistan because too many other states (Pakistan, China, India) have strong interests in the region. What Moscow can do instead is keep up to date with events and with the interests that move the various states to act in Afghanistan. For this reason, for Russia to keep contacts with military and intelligence structures of countries like Pakistan, Iran and obviously Afghanistan will be a particularly precious policy.

As we know, Pakistan considers Afghanistan an integral part of its sphere of influence and hence looks at the situation in the neighbouring country in terms of security and as an opportunity to gain an advantage over its traditional rival in southern Asia, India. For this reason the Pakistani secret services have been operating in Afghanistan since the mid-seventies, with particular intensity during the years of the Soviet invasion, 1979-1989.

In the future, this operational involvement of Pakistan intelligence, after the withdrawal of western troops, will inevitably grow. For this reason a broad Russian-Pakistani alliance would be quite difficult to achieve, but a pragmatic cooperation on questions like terrorism and drug trafficking could be possible and useful for Moscow.

Central Asian states are generally very concerned about the withdrawal of western troops because they fear it may lead to a fresh outbreak of the terrorist phenomenon in Afghanistan and beyond its borders, with heavy consequences from the point of view of terrorist activity in the entire region, along with an increased drug trade and an intensification of the phenomenon of refugees in countries bordering with Afghanistan.

From the Russian point of view, Moscow has two possible modes of action in the region: 1) to act as effectively as possible with its regional allies within the CSTO; 2) to activate inter-state cooperation within the Customs Union which at the moment includes Belarus and Kazakhstan as well as Russia. The latter country, which shares thousands of kilometres of border with Russia, appears to be particularly crucial for maintaining stability in Central Asia.

The Eurasian Economic Union, which in future may also include several Central Asian and Caucasian states (including Armenia), ought to contribute to maintaining or even increasing stability in Central Asia, as a sort of "bulwark" protecting the Russian Federation from terrorist threats and drug trafficking, phenomena that are often interconnected. To obtain the desired effects, Russia could invest funds in reinforcing security structures and also in contributing to regional economic development. Moscow has every interest in reinforcing military cooperation with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the only countries in the region where it has troops and military bases and which are members of the CSTO. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not members of the latter and Moscow will have to necessarily develop relations with the two countries only on a bilateral basis. It would be absolutely convenient for Russia to also involve in two mighty Asian powers like China and India, which play a very important role at the regional and continental level in maintaining stability in Afghanistan.

Considering the decades-long rivalry between India e China, Moscow should find it easy to propose itself as a strategic partner for New Delhi. And this is particularly true after the recent rise to power of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which intends to increase India's international reach at the regional and continental level. In turn, China is interested in stability in Afghanistan just like Moscow, though their interests in the country, specially economic ones, are quite divergent, because Afghanistan does not represent a relevant geopolitical corridor from the point of view of Russia's economic interests.

However, both countries fear a return of the Islamic phenomenon: the Russians with regard to the southern Caucasus and the Chinese with regard to the Xinjiang region, which borders with Afghanistan and is populated by the Uyghurs, of Turkish ethnicity and Muslim religion. Moscow must therefore cooperate with the regional powers because the possibility of cooperating with the residual NATO forces that will remain in Afghanistan will be predictably quite low because of the serious tensions existing between Russia and NATO after recent events in Ukraine.

With the withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan, Russia's negotiating power with the West over Afghanistan will also necessarily be diminished, as its negotiating power in general will diminish once the terms of confrontation between Russia and the West are lost. But this will in any case allow Russia to activate a more targeted policy in Afghanistan, though it will no longer be able to cooperate on this stage with NATO in particular and with the West in general.

All that will be left to Russia on the negotiating table with NATO and the West is its concession to allow NATO planes involved in the withdrawal of troops and military equipment from Afghanistan to fly through its air space. The withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan will also lead to a new deployment of these troops to geopolitical stages of importance to Russia, like Central Asia and Eastern Europe, in a climate mainly marked by renewed hostilities between Russia and the USA.

The loss of Afghanistan as a "negotiating card" to play with the West – though the Syria and Iran cards are still partially playable – will not fail to haverepercussions on Russian foreign policy in the terms we previously mentioned, but it will also, to a certain extent, give it a renewed freedom of action in the Afghan context in particular and in the Central-Asian in general.

A context that Moscow considers an integral part of its sphere of influence, helped by the war in Afghanistan itself from the point of view of its strategic and military role in the region – one where Russia has a military base in Tajikistan, to contrast drug trafficking and terrorism, and where it will soon acquire a new one in Kyrgyz territory (the Manas air base, which will remain in concession to the US Army until the end 0f 2014 as a logistic transit centre for troops deployed in Afghanistan).

Afghanistan, a country marked by a cyclic return of violence linked to tribal rivalries, should not, therefore, be left at its own mercy after ISAF troops leave. In this difficult context, Russia will be able to gradually carry out an important role of stabilization, together with the other regional and continental powers.


*Gregorio Baggiani is a contributor of "Il Mulino" - online edition- since 2009; scientific collaborator of the Professorship  of History of International  and Eastern Europe Relations at the University of "Roma Tre"; OSCE electoral observer for the Italian Foreign Office




DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Friday, 10 October 2014 08:19

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