Russia’s Management of the Afghanistan Problem: Limited Resources, Unreliable Allies and Unpredictable Events
Some journalists have described Russia’s recent engagement with Afghanistan as a “return” to that country, ignoring the fact that Russia has, with the exception of a few years’ gap from mid-1992 onward, regularly maintained relations with the Afghan government and other forces within Afghanistan. Russia’s bilateral relations with Afghanistan have been going well since the fall of the Taliban in 2001-2002. Despite this, Russia was (and still is) limited in what it can do for Afghanistan, economically, militarily and diplomatically. Afghanistan has, in the last few years, come to the realization that the hoped-for Chinese investments and development projects are not materializing, leaving the Afghan government as dependent as ever on the usual donor countries. Similarly, Afghan leaders have expressed optimism for a security relationship with Russia, particularly the provision of weapons (from ammunition and small arms to attack helicopters) and training, mirroring the earlier optimism for Chinese trade and investment. Again, Afghanistan will again here likely have to rely on those who currently support it militarily, particularly the United States.
Russia seeks to maintain good relations with a friendly national government in Kabul and to keep lines of communication open to powerful northern Afghan leaders (both in and out of government). Russia also attempts to ascertain the interests and goals (if any) of the Taliban leadership in regard to Central Asia, and, with an eye on a worst-case scenario, to create a unified line of defense in Central Asia with the cooperation of all five states there. This is something sorely lacking with the absence of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from Russian-led security initiatives.
Russia faces numerous obstacles to protecting its interests in Afghanistan and the bordering states of Central Asia that extend beyond the unrealistic expectations and hopes of Afghan leaders. Russia is a minor player in Afghanistan, but it may have potential to become more important if the situation in Afghanistan leads to a strategy of containment in Central Asia. Here Russia will play an important role, as it dominates the security architecture of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, though to varying degrees across the different states. The countries that border Afghanistan to the north are, despite all being former Soviet republics, radically different in how they interact with Russia on the Afghanistan problem. Even considering the basic mutual interests of Russia and Central Asia, the dysfunctional relationships between Moscow and the governments in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have the potential to derail at any time. The leaders in Tashkent and Ashgabat have a relatively high level of independence in their foreign-policy making, which is a luxury that Tajikistan does not enjoy. It is in these independent and reluctant Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan where Russia faces its greatest “Afghan” challenge — one of containment, not engagement.
Background (up until the end of Karzai’s presidency)
The basic history of Russia (and the Soviet Union) in Afghanistan is well known and thoroughly documented. The Soviet strategy of balancing the United States in Afghanistan began modestly enough with development projects, but progressed towards the extensive training of military and civilian technical specialists during the later Soviet era. The ever-increasing involvement with the Afghan military and local communists eventually culminated in the Soviet military intervention. A short military operation was planned, but the result was a decade of war and failure. The Soviet withdrawal was not the end of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, as the Afghan communist government of President Najibullah continued with Soviet support. The Afghan government outlasted the Soviet Union, with the new Russian government continuing to subsidize and supply Najibullah. The end of Russia’s military and economic support in 1992, in addition to other events, led to the fall of the Afghan government and the beginning of the civil war. From this point, Russia was absent, except on the Afghan borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, where Russian border guards patrolled. Russia had far greater problems and better potential for new relations elsewhere.
The Russian government eventually came to consider the northern march of the Taliban as a threat to its interests in Central Asia. However, the military support that Russia (as well as India and Iran) gave to the Northern Alliance from 1994 onwards was limited in comparison to what Pakistan was doing for the Taliban. Russian support for anti-Taliban forces was never comprehensive. However, immediately after 9/11, Russia boosted its contacts with and support for Afghan military commanders and local leaders in response to American involvement. This Russian interaction paled in comparison to the money, weapons and diplomatic support that America was pouring into Afghanistan, leaving Russia to sit mostly on the sidelines of the Afghan political scene. Russia was not unimportant, however, as the government of Russia consistently supported American military operations for years afterwards. This took mainly the form of over-flight rights and acquiescence to American military bases in Central Asia.
Eventually, the Russian political and military elites began to consider the American presence as less and less of a positive. They were glad that the threat of the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had been eliminated, but they wanted the United States to leave Central Asia and Afghanistan. This up-and-down-relationship rebounded when Russia realized that the Taliban were once again a powerful force, and Russian-American cooperation in Central Asia and Afghanistan resumed. The cooperation was as recent as December 2014 with Russia’s vote in favor of UNSC Resolution 2189 in support of the Afghanistan-NATO agreement for the post-2014 Resolute Support Mission, even though NATO had suspended all cooperation programs earlier that year in retaliation for Russian actions in Ukraine, and despite the American sanctions levied against Russia in early- to mid-2014.
Russia’s relations with Afghanistan were often more so about its relations with America than Afghanistan itself. For example, Russian economic ties after 2001 never grew to be as big as Russia hoped. Russian-Afghan business deals and development agreements were signed, but were only good if the European and American donors would pay for their implementation. Russian-Afghan trade remained modest, and ties are still heavily tilted to Pakistan and Iran, erasing the gains made in the Soviet era. However, Russia did write off Afghanistan’s over $11 billion in debt to the Soviet Union — though there was absolutely no chance of recovering this Cold War-era debt.
The importance of Russia to NATO and American operations has reached a low, since Russia is no longer needed as a transit route. Even when there was demand for transit — most recently the withdrawal of equipment — the re-opening of the cheaper Pakistani route led to the Russian route withering. And the American move from Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan to a base in Romania left Central Asia and Russia as less valuable partners. With the demand for transit having disappeared, and Russia-US relations at a low point, the Russian government in May 2015 officially rescinded its permission for NATO transit through Russia.
The only significant events in Russian-Afghan bilateral relations until recently were mostly symbolic; for example, President Karzai’s support for the Russian annexation of Crimea, interspersed with his praise for Soviet development projects. Karzai, whose relations with the American and European governments was strained, might have been attempting to boost relations with Russia out of interest in business, trade, development assistance and military support, or he might have done so out of other considerations (to demonstrate his independence to the Americans and spite the West, or to bolster his long-standing demands that internationally-recognized borders be negotiable in order to keep open the issue of Afghanistan’s informal territorial claims inside Pakistan across the Durand Line). Whatever the case, Russia in no way can replace the Americans, the Europeans and other donors in terms of financial aid and military support, including equipment, training, operations, air support, and other items.
Current Situation in Russian-Afghan Relations
The most important Russian ties to Afghanistan at the moment are the efforts to procure Russian helicopters, artillery and small arms for the Afghan military. The most significant Russian deliveries were between 2011 and 2014 (63 helicopters), with a sanctions break in deliveries after Russia annexed Crimea. Sanctions on the main exporter of Russian military equipment were lifted in late 2015, and there are currently no more obstacles to the delivery of Russian military equipment to Afghanistan, except for payment. Russia does occasionally give Afghanistan free military equipment, such as its donation of 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles early in 2016, but the more expensive programs, such as helicopter deliveries and maintenance, require American and European funding.
Smaller distractions include such public campaigns by Zamir Kabulov, the main Russian envoy to Afghanistan, and various Russian journalists, government officials and commentators to convince the public that the US is directly supporting and supplying the Islamic State in Afghanistan — or at the very least standing aside and allowing an imminent threat to grow. This type of information campaign, along with hyping an Islamic State threat to Central Asia just across the border in Afghanistan, should all be disregarded as products for public consumption in Russia, Central Asia and Afghanistan, not one that reflects the actual opinion of Russian foreign policy and security elites.
Difficulties in Managing Bilateral Relations with Afghanistan
The Russian government has good relations with both President Ghani and First Vice President Dostum, who recently visited Russia. Russia also tries to maintain relations with Afghan political leaders across the north of Afghanistan. This includes the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Muhammad Noor (as well as with other powerful northerners — though this is denied by the Russian ambassador). Russia needs to keep ties to Noor open, as he is powerful beyond his governorship and is likely a leader who needs to be reckoned with well into the future. But this is where Russia would experience difficulties if it tried, in the future, to assist northern political and military figures as a buffer against cross-border insecurity. It is not possible to fully support both Noor and Dostum, as these two men have gone to war with each other in the past, and their forces are currently engaged in smaller battles with each other (as of May 2016). Russia also needs to be careful in its dealings with Noor, as he campaigned against Ghani in the 2014 presidential elections and relations are still strained. Yet Russian caution prevails. Russia did not endorse or support any candidate in the 2014 Afghan presidential elections, and it has not supported any northern Afghan powerbrokers.
The potential complications of Russia supporting northern Afghan political leaders are not the only difficulties in maintaining beneficial bilateral relations with Afghanistan. A good example is Russia’s Taliban policy. The Russian government has, in recent years, expressed the opinion that the Taliban is a permanent entity that the Afghan government and its backers need to negotiate with. This is not controversial, as the Afghan government and the United States both have engaged, or attempted to engage, the Taliban in negotiations. However, the Afghan government wants to be the central negotiator in negotiations with the Taliban. Russia disregarded this, at least in terms of holding talks, when in late 2015 it hosted Taliban representatives at its military garrison in Kulob, Tajikistan. This received some attention as The Sunday Times erroneously identified the Taliban representative as the overall leader, Mullah Mansour. In reality, the representatives were negotiators from the Taliban office in Qatar, as well as one powerful northern Taliban commander.
The Russia-Taliban meeting clashed with the sentiments of Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s top envoy to Afghanistan, that only the Afghan government in Kabul should lead talks with insurgents. In terms of determining the intent of the Taliban towards Central Asia and Russia, this meeting made sense, and no controversy resulted (publicly) in Afghanistan. But Russia did eventually stumble when it came to the problem of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan. With an eye to the ISIS threat, Kabulov stated in January 2016 that Taliban and Russian interests coincide, and that Russia has channels of communication open with the Taliban, statements which quickly made it into the Western and Afghan press. Four months later, when a Taliban suicide attack killed over 60 people in Kabul, Afghan news and TV outlets, as well as social media, attacked the Russian government and accused them of supporting the Taliban. Russian Ambassador Alexander Mantytskiy scrambled to say that Kabulov’s words were misreported, and that Russia does not support the Taliban.
Russia was used to enjoying American failures and outrages in Afghanistan, and has not been accustomed to this sort of criticism since the Taliban era. The Russian government, in these series of events, came close to ignoring the advice of an FSB-linked think tank in Moscow that urged in 2013 not get involved in internal Afghan affairs. The consensus among security analysts and policymakers in Russia is that their country has a limited ability to affect outcomes in Afghanistan. Russia instead is following a policy of cautious and limited engagement, noninterference, and a wait-and-see approach to the future of Afghanistan’s security environment. For now, Russia’s main approach is to work toward a zone of containment on Afghanistan’s northern border in Central Asia.
Challenges in Managing Allies on the Afghan Border
Russian-Central Asia cooperation on the various problems and opportunities related to Afghanistan could be expected to be a relatively smooth process given the basic mutual interests, especially the goal of preparing for any type of insecurity spillover from Afghanistan. However, Russia and the Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan are suspicious of each other’s ulterior motives. This distrust, built up since 1991, has prevented genuine, productive regional cooperation and greatly hindered Russia’s efforts to take the lead in creating the regional security cooperation structures that could handle all Afghan-related problems — including the worst-case scenario of spillover (e.g., a massive flow of refugees) or substantial cross-border attacks from Afghanistan.
In practice, Russia’s containment strategy along Afghanistan’s northern border currently includes only Tajikistan. Turkmenistan took full control of its border in 1999, ending the presence of Russian border guards. Aside from speculation and rumors, there is no imminent return of Russian forces or programs to Turkmenistan, since that country’s leadership is extremely reluctant to cooperate in any way that undermines its independence. This has led to consternation in Russia. In early 2016, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov failed to convince the Turkmen government to accept Russian assistance in guarding the Afghan border, despite the increasing levels of violence in the vicinity. This was the most recent Russian attempt to get Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to cooperate on security issues, specifically through the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Despite recent improvements in diplomatic and economic relations between Russia and Uzbekistan, the Uzbek government still makes it clear that it does not needs assistance in its security and military sector. As noted above, this excludes a possible return to the CSTO, which it left in 2012. Uzbekistan’s police and military are far more capable that those in Tajikistan or Turkmenistan, and its short river border with Afghanistan is well secured. Uzbekistan seeks to maintain maximum independence, and unlike Turkmenistan, it has both the capability and the funds to do so under most difficult circumstances. In addition, it is not just Afghanistan where Uzbekistan sees a threat. The Uzbek government so distrusts the abilities and motivations of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s security forces that it considers the borders with these countries as secondary borders with Afghanistan. That is, Uzbekistan does not fear its Afghan border, but rather it fears Afghan-related turmoil coming through its Central Asian neighbors.
In terms of spillover of insecurity and maintaining a strategic base, Tajikistan is both Russia’s most valuable partner in containing insecurity and also its most regular headache. The Tajik public is the most pro-Russian population worldwide, second only to Kyrgyzstan. Yet the Tajik government regularly tries to aggressively negotiate more favorable terms in its relationship with Russia. Most prominent were the 2012 negotiations over the continued presence of the Russian 201st military base. Tajikistan asked for as many as 20 concessions that the Russians found completely unacceptable, including a demand for a $250 million per year basing fee (compared to the $4.5 million rent that Russia pays for its base and facilities in Kyrgyzstan). President Rahmon, in his attempt to negotiate, demanded that Russia respect Tajikistan more since he had received many offers of “mountains of gold” for military basing rights in Tajikistan from other unnamed countries. Unfortunately for the Tajik government, they could not leverage an American base in their country against Russian demands, as Kyrgyzstan was able to with the Manas air base.
A deal was eventually agreed upon in October 2012, extending Russian basing rights until 2042. The Tajiks attempted to re-open negotiations again in 2013, despite being granted more favorable migration terms for its citizens, an elimination of a fuel duty, $200 million in free military equipment over the next 30 years, and other terms. Considering that the Russian military base is a long-term guarantor of security in Tajikistan, the Tajik government’s backtracking on the agreement likely only exasperated the Russian government and further damaged perceptions of Tajikistan’s reliability. Given the difficulties of negotiating the extension for a military base, it is unlikely that Tajikistan will, barring a complete disaster, take Russia up on its offer to redeploy Russian border guards to the Afghan frontier in a return to the role that Russia carried out until 2005. As for the military base, Russia decided this year to reduce its size from a division to a brigade, and to eliminate one of the three garrisons, in particular the one closest to the Afghan border in Kulob — a move that is most likely part of Russia’s military modernization and restructuring campaign.
Despite the Tajik people’s positive perception of Russia, there are some smaller issues that could derail relations. The Tajik government and people have demonstrated that they will tolerate poor treatment of Tajik labor migrants in Russia (including racially-motivated murder and police brutality), as well as occasional assaults and rare homicides committed by Russian soldiers in Tajikistan, with the worst repercussions being some limited anger expressed on social media. But in return, the Tajik government’s mistreatment of Russian citizens has not, been tolerated by Russia. An example here is the attempt by Tajik officials to confiscate a private Russian cargo plane and jail its Russian pilot and his ethnic Russian co-pilot. The cargo plane, returning from Afghanistan to Russia, made an emergency landing in southern Tajikistan at the Qurghonteppa airport. Tajik officials, motivated by either a desire to steal the valuable plane, extract a price for its release, and/or use it as a tool to negotiate with Russia on other issues, charged the pilots with smuggling an unregistered spare plane engine. A Tajik court sentence the two Russians to eight and a half years. Russian threats (e.g., to deport Tajik labor migrants) eventually convinced the Tajik government to grant amnesty to the pilots. Numerous Russian officials and media outlets condemned the Tajik government for its actions, stating that the case damaged Russian-Tajik relations.
Russian politicians and media outlets have occasionally targeted Tajikistan and President Rahmon over the last few years, portraying Tajikistan as corrupt, in danger from Afghanistan and unappreciative of Russian assistance. These articles cause much consternation in Tajikistan, since many people feel that Russian media condemnation of President Bakiev in Kyrgyzstan was a key factor in his downfall. Of course, the Russian government is more often full of praise when publicly discussing cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan. Russia is a friend and protector, but it is a difficult friendship and it could end suddenly if the next disagreement is intractable. Nevertheless, Russia has been cautious — or at least not excessively forceful — in solving disagreements with Tajikistan.
Russia is limited in what it can offer Afghanistan in terms of trade, development and military support. Afghan optimism in its relationship with Russia is misplaced, because Russia has a limited budget and its foreign policy priorities lay elsewhere. This does not mean that Russia wants to disengage from Afghanistan. The Russian government clearly wants to keep open lines of communication with Afghan leaders at the national and local level, including the Taliban. Of course, there is a delicate balance to be maintained, since Russia cannot be partners with all conflicting parties in the long-term. Choosing a friend to support in Afghanistan could also mean acquiring that person’s enemies. After difficulties in 2016 following its meeting with the Taliban, Russia will likely be more cautious in its Afghans dealings, or at least more secretive.
The Russian containment strategy in Central Asia is a more active effort. Russia is obliged to defend Tajikistan from a sizeable foreign incursion, particularly from Afghanistan, as part of its commitment to the CSTO mutual defense treaty. And the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force, which trained recently in southern Tajikistan, is a heavily Russian force. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, however, are outside the CSTO and have brushed aside Russia overtures, confident in their ability to defend their borders without Russian assistance.
The Russian government, media and some experts can be alarmist about the Afghan threat to Central Asia, with many adding that Central Asia needs Russian assistance. But more subtle views prevail behind the scenes. The Russian government must realize that Afghanistan is not the major threat to stability in this region; rather, it is the weak Central Asia governments. Despite this exaggeration, if a catastrophe along the Afghan border with Central Asia occurs, Russia would be needed, especially in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Russia’s most active Afghan policies are enacted in Central Asia, not inside Afghanistan itself.
Editor’s note: Christian Bleuer is a 2012 Ph.D. graduate of The Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia). Since 2011 he has been mostly based in Central Asia where he works as an independent researcher and consultant. His focus is on security, human rights, Islam & society, and foreign policy.
 Kirill Nourzhanov, “Russia’s Afghanistan policy after 2014: staying at an arm’s length and preparing for the worst,” in Afghanistan and Its neighbors after the NATO Withdrawal, ed. Amin Saikal and Kirill Nourzhanov (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016), 167.
 Joakim Brattvoll, “Is Russia Back in Afghanistan?,” PRIO, Brief No. 4, 2016, 4.
 Thomas Ruttig, “From Point Zero to ‘New Warmth’: Russian-Afghan relations since 1989,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, 8 August 2014, http://aan.af/1sk6lGB; Jake Howry, “Why Afghanistan Supports a Russian Crimea,” The Gate, 7 April 2014, http://goo.gl/XyQWsG
 For example, See: “Russian envoy: Taliban could become legitimate ‘political power’ in Kabul if it cuts terrorist ties,” Russia Today, 19 April 2016, https://goo.gl/cHTDWX; “Igor' Morozov: Vospominaniya ob afgantsakh i Afganistane samyye dobryye,” Afghanistan.ru, 23 March 2016, https://goo.gl/h00AMN.
 For a more realistic assessment of how the Russian government makes threats assessment regarding the region, see: Nourzhanov, “Russia’s Afghanistan policy after 2014,” 163-178.
 On the rivalry between Dostum and Noor, see: “General Babadzhan: Protivostoyaniye storonnikov Dustuma i Nura vygodno ikh obshchim vragam,” Afghanistan.ru, 28 March 2016, https://goo.gl/bo7P1F; Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar, “Face-Off Between Strongmen Exposes Afghanistan’s Political Rifts,” The New York Times, 23 March 2016, A8.
 Nourzhanov, “Russia’s Afghanistan policy after 2014,” 168.
 For the names of those at the meeting, see: “Taliban Representatives met Russian Officials,” The Frontier Post, 30 December 2015, https://goo.gl/tPNV83. For their biographies, see: Kate Clark, “The Taleban in Qatar (2): Biographies – core and constellation,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, 24 June 2013, https://goo.gl/OEH9Xn.
 “Russian Ambassador To Afghanistan Denies Moscow Supporting Taliban,” Reuters, 25 April 2016; Mir Abed Joenda, “Russia Rejects Links With Taliban,” Tolo News, 27 April 2016, https://goo.gl/gWmjcq.
 Nourzhanov, “Russia’s Afghanistan policy after 2014,” 168.
 Nourzhanov, “Russia’s Afghanistan policy after 2014,” 171, 174-175.
 “Tajikistan Wants $250M for Russian Base, Report Says,” Moscow Times, 12 July 2012.
 Russia has been making this same offer regularly. See: D. Dyomkin and R. Nurshayeva, “Russia mulls re-establishing control of Tajik-Afghan border,” Reuters, 15 October 2015.
 This was the consensus agreement between myself and several other anonymous analysts.
 Fieldwork interviews in Dushanbe, Kulob and Qurghonteppa from May 2012 to June 2014.