Russian frustration is rising with NATO’s “incomprehensible passivity” in efforts to contain Afghanistan’s growing drugs output. It has reached a point where some politicians in Moscow are starting to call for an active Russian military presence in Central Asia.
The Kremlin flashed its dissatisfaction with anti-trafficking efforts in Afghanistan on September 29, when Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, lambasted the inability of US and NATO forces to curb trafficking in northern Afghanistan. He also intimated that the growing presence of Islamic militants in northern Afghanistan may be linked to the recent clashes in Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley.
“Drug crime fused with terrorism has become a threat to peace and stability,” Churkin said in a speech delivered to the UN Security Council.
NATO is showing “incomprehensible passivity in the fight against drugs” and has failed to respond to “logical proposals” from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Churkin added.
The same day Churkin was speaking in New York, there was an announcement in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek that 40 Russian border guards would be stationed in Osh to serve as “advisors” to their Kyrgyz counterparts.
A September 30 statement issued by Russia’s permanent mission to NATO called on the Atlantic Alliance to redouble its anti-trafficking efforts. “The drug problem has to be settled once and for all, if we are to achieve stabilization in Afghanistan and the region,” the statement said.
Some Russian MPs are now actively contemplating the deployment of Russian units in Central Asian states to wage an anti-drug campaign. Speaking at a security conference held in Moscow in early October, Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, called on Russia to seize the initiative. The United States, he hinted strongly, can’t be trusted to defend Russian interests.
“We need to amend the law ‘On Defense’ and allow the use of troops to combat drug trafficking in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. … If we don’t do this, the Americans will do it,” Bagdasarov said. “It is unacceptable, given that drug trafficking is a threat to our national security, that representatives of a different state, not us, fight it.”
Abdugani Mamadazimov, the head of National Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan, told EurasiaNet.org that Russia is motivated not only by intent to combat drug trafficking, but also by a desire to stem the spread of Islamic extremism. “The situation in Central Asia isn’t a direct threat to Russia but it has indirect influence. But if the security situation gets worse because of Islamic militants in the region, it will affect Russia. It will be seen as a second front – they already have a problematic area in the Caucasus,” he said.
An increased Russian troop presence in Tajikistan could create a fresh set of problems, Mamadazimov suggested. Russian border guards used to be responsible for patrolling Tajikistan’s porous border with Afghanistan, but they withdrew in 2005 at the behest of Tajik President Imomali Rahmon. The re-introduction of Russian forces along the frontier would be perceived as “neo-colonialism” by many Tajiks, Mamadaziev asserted.
Such a Russian deployment would probably not make much of a difference in the anti-drug fight, Mamadazimov added. “NATO is taking some measures to address [drugs trafficking and security] but their actions are not sufficient,” he explained. “Tajikistan needs not only Russia’s assistance but also [more] help from the European Union and the United States. But nobody is doing enough.”
Leonid Gusev, a professor of international relations at Moscow State University, said the rising rate of drug abuse in Russia created a major incentive for the Kremlin to act. But he cautioned against a unilateral approach. He said all the major regional organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization needed to coordinate and implement a single strategy.
“The OSCE will hold a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, in December where [representatives of] all of these organizations will meet,” he said. “Perhaps that kind of coordination might be discussed as well. It would be at least a step towards addressing this problem.”
For Gusev and many others in Moscow, memories of Russia’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan still loom large in the decision-making process. “If Russian troops are to be stationed abroad they should only go in with some international organization. I remember Russian troops going in to Afghanistan in 1979 and coming back in 1988, why do we need that again?” Gusev said.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.