Russia’s awareness of regional around Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been a field for the much tutted “cooperation” between Moscow and the West in pursuit of common interests. One likes to remember in Moscow that President Putin was the first world leader to phone president Bush after September 11 attacks, offering his country’s aide to fight international terrorism. It paved the way for the construction of US and NATO military bases in Central Asia, and even authorisation to use Russian airspace for transporting material and even troops. After all, Moscow was not much unhappy that someone did the job in a restive region fallen under Taliban ready to export their brutal ideology into the former Soviet republics.

Half surprise

This August 2021, the collapse of Kabul regime was less a surprise in Moscow that it was in the West, essentially because the Russian tradition of keeping open channels with all the forces on the ground had provided the Kremlin with a more realistic picture of the situation on the ground. It resulted from the combination of traditional diplomatic work and an old style “humint’ intelligence gathering that the West, and especially the Americans, lacked. They kept saying that you cannot control a largely rural territory from the cities, and more importantly that, in Afghanistan, people had divergent loyalties (ethnic, tribal , familial), that the “national state” was, and is, still largely an outsiders’ myth.

In short, there has been a moment of schadenfreude in Moscow, worst of all on television programs. Officials were more restrained, albeit in line with the declarations of Russian foreign minister spokeswoman Maria Zakharova when she said that the manner foreign forces were withdrawn by Washington and NATO “exposed the ‘absolute inadequacy” of NATO and the US, unable of planning and coordinating their actions efficiently. Moreover, “the US has turned out to be absolutely incompetent as a leading power” and video footage of the self-abasement of the ‘invincible machine’, which has travelled the whole world, demonstrated “NATO’s absolute inadequacy as a military-political bloc”.

At the moment, one can only make a few conclusions, based on official declarations and experts reports. For instance, that:

  • The Russians have been very coherent during those last 2 decades, ready to follow the situation from a distance and to talk with any kind of new leaders representing national forces. The Russian foreign minister Lavrov speaks of them as the “force of the land” and calls for the formation of an “inclusive government” as quickly as possible. But the concept is understood differently in Russia and in the West. For Moscow, inclusivity means the involvement of the different regional, ethnic, tribal forces existing in a country – reason why it repeated his refusal to recognise a “Taleban government”. For the West, it means the inclusion of all strata of the Afghan society, with an accent on minorities and women. The Russian approach is shared by the other regional powers, as well as Arab countries involved in the search of a settlement. For them, the West didn’t learn from its mistakes and didn’t accept that it is impossible to change a society from outside, nor by military nor by economic pressure.
  • The departure of the Western allies in such dramatic conditions offered Russia the opportunity to reassert itself as a global and a regional power. But it wants to be part of the re-organisation of the regional influence, not to be in command of it. There is no question of Moscow launching a Russian version of the American “coalition of the willing”. Nor of creating a united Chinese-Russian front, if only because their national interests diverge. They are strategic partners, not allies, but both suspecting that the West insistence on preventing Russia and China “to take profit of the vacuum” is just a Western new power game risking to drag the all the region into proxy-wars.
  • Russia is concerned by an eventual disintegration of Afghanistan, which would have unpredictable consequences in a region where ethnic and religious feuds do not know borders. This is especially true in Central Asia’s countries where the authorities, and Moscow, are alarmed by Western plans to redirect refugees towards their Northern “brothers” territories. All those governments are poor, political shacky, economically distressed, with millions of national forced to work abroad. The last thing they need is the arrival from Afghanistan of people close by ethnicity but not much else, who will be trapped there if their Western visas are not issued. They fear a return of Islamic and nationalist violent opposition forces; and that the arrival of “compensation” by Western donors will feed corruption and undermine fragile regimes.
  • Russians are concerned that, confronted with a loss of image of the American might, and questions about the role of NATO allies in decision making process, Washington will push for testing the CSTO, which was extravagantly presented at the time as a NATO equivalent under Russian wing. For the moment, CSTO has been perceived by Russian partners as a source of control and security for the borders of Central Asia; there have been numerous military joint operations as well as bilateral presidential contacts between the different states. Nothing looks as a retreat of Russian influence there, quite the opposite, but it is testing both Russian and post-Soviet untested multilateral structures.

For our readers, we would recommend a book written in 1961, by our director, Andrew Wilson, one of the first Western journalist to cross Afghanistan in bus and lorries during 2 months, armed with a knowledge of Farsi and a lot of patience. Reporting among others about the Soviet presence. “North from Kabul” was published by George Allen & Unwin.

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