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The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a test for Russia’s plans in Central Asia

Afghanistan
  • Russia has gloated about the failure of the US’s two-decade campaign to reshape Afghanistan.
  • But the collapse of Afghanistan’s US-backed government has put Russia in a challenging position.
  • The potential for violence on its borders has given Russia greater responsibility for regional security at a time when Moscow faces mounting domestic difficulties.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

While the failure of the United States’ two-decade campaign to reshape Afghanistan was a source of no little schadenfreude in Moscow, the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s US-backed government has thrust Russia into a challenging position.

Even as President Vladimir Putin confirmed that Russia has no intention of deploying troops to Afghanistan itself, the potential for radicalization and violence around Russia’s borders is foisting greater responsibility for regional security on Moscow at a time of mounting domestic difficulties.

The Ghani government’s collapse and the departure of US forces from central Eurasia, seemingly for good, also offers Russia a window of opportunity to bolster its role as a powerbroker both within and around Afghanistan, advance a vision of regional connectivity that boosts its own interests, and consolidate its political-military influence in neighboring Central Asia.

All of these steps, however, would require more resources than Russia’s leadership has thus far been willing to invest, and greater risk than it has been willing to take on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at video conference
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a virtual meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization council at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, December 2, 2020.

Russia’s interest in Afghanistan centers above all on its concerns about the impact on neighboring Central Asia. Since the Soviet collapse, Moscow has looked to Central Asia as a strategic buffer against instability further south, and Russia remains the region’s dominant security provider – notwithstanding the enormous growth of Chinese trade and investment in recent years.

The Central Asian states today are on the whole more stable and effective than they were in the 1990s, which is one reason Moscow has been more sanguine about the Taliban returning to power. But Central Asia’s mostly Soviet-trained elites still see Russia as the region’s principal security guarantor and are turning to Moscow for help as Afghanistan’s future descends further into uncertainty.

Russia has long demanded recognition of its “privileged interests” throughout the post-Soviet region. Now that Washington has ceded the field in Afghanistan and central Eurasia more broadly, it remains to be seen whether Moscow can actually play the role of regional pivot to which it has long aspired, securing itself and its neighbors without provoking a backlash, while simultaneously managing the impacts on its wider competition with the United States.

Moscow’s immediate aims center on ensuring that any instability and chaos from Afghanistan does not spread north.

According to National Security Council Chair Nikolay Patrushev, Russia is focused on “securing control over migration flows,” particularly when it comes to “defending the region from terrorists’ crossing borders under the guise of refugees.” Moscow also seeks to prevent “the spread of radical ideology, contraband weapons, and drug trafficking.”

Because Russia maintains a visa-free regime with most of its Central Asian neighbors, it worries that terrorists or traffickers who cross from Afghanistan could easily make their way to Russia. Perhaps more concerning is the potential for refugee flows to destabilize the Central Asian states themselves, touching off a cascade of Central Asians fleeing to Russia and forcing Moscow to intervene more directly in the region.

For that reason, Russian and Central Asian authorities worry about the breakdown of order, especially in northern Afghanistan, where most of the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek population lives.

Tajikistan soldiers
Tajik troops before the start of joint military drills with Russia and Uzbekistan at Tajikistan’s Harb-Maidon firing range about about 12 miles north of the border with Afghanistan, August 10, 2021.

Tajik and Uzbek militias formed the nucleus of the Northern Alliance that fought against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in the 1990s. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul in mid-August, the Tajik commander Ahmad Massoud and Ghani’s former vice president, the Tajik Amrullah Saleh, organized anti-Taliban forces in the northern Panjshir Valley; although the Taliban now claim to have defeated them and taken control of the valley, there is still the potential for continued unrest and fighting there.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, another former Afghan vice president and ethnic Uzbek, heads an Uzbek militia that is currently in negotiations with the Taliban, and could also play an important role in Afghanistan’s political future.

Both Moscow and the Central Asian governments have long maintained ties to northern Afghanistan’s Tajiks and Uzbeks and to figures like Dostum.

In the absence of a unified opposition platform like the Northern Alliance, however, Russian officials fear that today, anti-Taliban fighters in the north could also turn to more extreme groups like al-Qaida; the Islamic State, whose regional affiliate, the Islamic State Khorasan or IS-K, claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 bombing outside the Kabul airport; or Jamaat Ansarullah, whose founder has called for establishing an Islamic emirate in Tajikistan.

The jihadists’ ranks could also be supplemented by some of the several thousand Russians and Russian-speaking Central Asians who went to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, who could be galvanized to return to Afghanistan by the US departure and worsening conditions in Syria.

As the Russian scholar Andrey Kazantsev notes, even if the Taliban has pledged to deny sanctuary to such transnational groups, it has tended to leave them alone in the northern regions, because it sees non-Islamist rivals, including the militias that formerly comprised the Northern Alliance, as a greater threat.

Governments in Moscow and the Central Asian capitals fear that jihadists based in northern Afghanistan could carry out cross-border attacks, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, did in the late 1990s. But they also worry that the instability these groups could cause in Afghanistan could touch off an influx of refugees and encourage the spread of jihadist ideology among Central Asians disillusioned with corruption, repression and lack of opportunity at home.

Russia, like Central Asia, is thus reluctant to take in Afghan refugees, fearing their ranks could include members of al-Qaida, IS-K or other extremist groups.

Uzbekistan troops at exercise in Tajikistan
Uzbek troops at joint military drills with Russia and Tajikistan at Harb-Maidon firing range about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) north of the Tajik border with Afghanistan, August 10, 2021.

If the Central Asian states’ fears of disorder are pulling Russia into the region, Moscow’s own geopolitical ambitions are pushing it in the same direction.

The US departure gives Moscow an opportunity to boost its security presence and strengthen regional organizations, above all the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which would strengthen its claims to a sphere of “privileged interests.”

Doing so, however, would require Moscow to take on additional responsibilities that Russia’s leadership – never mind the Central Asian governments – may not be prepared to countenance.

Russia already maintains a significant troop presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose 1992-1997 civil war intersected with the conflict next door in Afghanistan.

Moscow is the driving force behind the CSTO, a regional security bloc aiming to secure “peace, international and regional security and stability, protection of [members’] independence on a collective basis, territorial integrity and sovereignty.” And Russia has also helped strengthen the region’s borders through training, equipment sales and deployments, some under CSTO auspices.

As Taliban forces began approaching Kabul, Russian troops conducted joint exercises with the military and security forces of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Moscow agreed to a request from Tajikistan’s government for an extraordinary meeting of the CSTO security council and authorized additional arms sales.

Afghanistan’s collapse will be a major test for the CSTO. In past crises, including last fall’s conflict between Azerbaijan and CSTO member Armenia, the organization has sought to minimize its involvement. Moscow favors a stronger CSTO as an element of regional integration but has been content to paper over the real differences between member states – and their concerns about ceding sovereignty to a Russian-dominated bloc.

The CSTO maintains a 5,000-person rapid response force focused on Central Asia, but deploying CSTO personnel operationally would be a major departure and could impose some difficult choices, given disagreements among member states – including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who fought a brief border war this spring – and concern about Russian power projection.

Destroyed armored vehicle on Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border
A Kyrgyz policeman next to a burnt armored personnel carrier near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan, May 5, 2021.

Particularly notable is Russia’s increasing security cooperation with regional heavyweight Uzbekistan, which withdrew from the CSTO in 2012 and has subsequently maintained balanced relations with Moscow, Washington and Beijing.

In April, Moscow and Tashkent signed a new strategic partnership agreement. Some Russian observers point to the current crisis as an opportunity to bring Uzbekistan back into the CSTO fold. Though Tashkent has firmly rejected this suggestion, the US withdrawal is forcing Uzbekistan, like its neighbors, to look more to Russia for support in an uncertain environment, strengthening Russia’s role as a security provider for the region.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also confirmed that Russia is prepared to relaunch talks under the so-called Moscow Format, bringing together Afghanistan’s neighbors to seek a regional framework for ending the conflict there.

In the process, Moscow aims to position itself as a regional powerbroker, while advancing its interest in economic integration, including building new links among Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also support this approach, its success could benefit Russia not just in Afghanistan, but in the wider region.

As Moscow pursues greater regional responsibility, US President Joe Biden has justified the withdrawal of US forces by pointing to the need to focus Washington’s energy and resources on competition with “an increasingly assertive China and [a] destabilizing Russia.”

The US withdrawal, of course, will result in a larger Russian presence in and around Afghanistan. Whether this larger presence helps or hinders the US strategy of competition remains an open question.

The framing of US-Russian relations around the notion of great power competition suggests that Russia’s advance into central Eurasia will emphasize not only containing potential spillover from Afghanistan, but also further minimizing US and Western influence in the region – and rebuilding elements of Russian domination across post-Soviet Central Asia.

Of course, the more resources and attention Moscow devotes to a region Washington has determined to be a strategic backwater, the less it will be able to devote to more critical regions like Central and Eastern Europe. And in the unlikely event the Kremlin decides to wade back into Afghanistan militarily, it will almost certainly find itself just as frustrated and flustered as both the US and the Soviet Union, which occupied Afghanistan for a decade after 1979, were before it.

Jeffrey Mankoff is a distinguished research fellow at the US National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies and the author of the forthcoming book, “Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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