The looming withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan slated for 2014 poses for Moscow a serious geopolitical predicament. In spite of their conspicuous silence on the matter, Russian officials have been growing increasingly uneasy about the potential vacuum. Yet still some in the Russian leadership see this as a welcome opportunity to expand influence in Central Asia at the expanse of the West. Moreover, Moscow’s quest for a greater role in Afghanistan is intrinsically connected with its wider ambitions in the post-Soviet space.
Recent events have shed light on Russia’s aspirations in Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular. First, Moscow convened a regional summit in the Tajik capital Dushanbe attended by presidents of Afghanistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Although the agenda was mainly dominated by economic and trade issues, the four presidents did not stop short of expressing their concerns over the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the impeding withdrawal of NATO forces from the country. From Russia’s point of view, it hopes that this and similar regional gatherings will help it buttress regional security and by extension also increase its influence in the region. Despite vague proclamations, however, the meeting produced few tangible results and Moscow walked out empty handed. Second, Igor Yurgens, a close confidante of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the head of the Institute of Contemporary Development, unveiled a report on how to boost Russia’s role in Central Asia. Speaking at the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum, Yurgens called for transforming the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-backed security organization, into an effective instrument of projecting Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space, namely Central Asia. Nevertheless, since its foundation the CSTO has been severely hindered by petty conflicts and general lack of commitment among its members to much chagrin of Moscow. These two events have something in common as they both point out to Russia’s sense of entitlement to play a more prominent role in the region but at the same time one can hardly escape the reality of Moscow’s shrinking foreign policy resources to pursue such an ambitious policy.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to define its place in its neighborhood and come to terms with the loss of former subjects. This has taken on different forms in Moscow pushing, to a varying degree of success, for political, security and economic integration. A good case in point has been Central Asia, where Russia has been particularly active with the aim of retaining its grip on the post-Soviet republics. Vast natural resources, feeble autocratic governments, and threat of religious extremism have acted as a powerful magnet for the Russian political and military establishment. But Russia has also been drawn to the region fearing the spread of militant extremism from Afghanistan into Central Asia and Russia’s own soft underbelly.
With the US invasion of Afghanistan, Russia on the one hand applauded the toppling of the Taliban regime but at the same time began to grow increasingly unhappy about the Western military presence. Russia has feared it might lose to the West. As a result, parallel to assisting the Western effort in Afghanistan by providing transit routes for NATO supplies, for instance, Russia has at times made sometimes more and sometimes less overt attempts at evicting the Western troops from the region by turning up the heat on the local governments hosting Western military basis. But cognizant of its own limited resources Moscow has been on the whole happy with the West to take on the insurgents in Afghanistan. With the planned departure of the Western troops, however, Russia will be faced with the unappealing prospect of having to step in should the security situation in Afghanistan take a turn for worse. To which Russia’s answer for the moment seems to be to rally local governments behind its leadership through regional networks, in particular drawing on the CSTO as a suitable security outfit to cope with the worsening security environment. Consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the CSTO thanks to its membership base exhibits a strong geographical tilt towards Central Asia. The organization has been promoted largely by Moscow who has hoped to fashion it into an eastern-style NATO. The crown jewel of this effort has been the Russian-inspired rapid deployment force, which is supposed to be deployed for a wide variety of missions in the post-Soviet space. However, little has been achieved in this regard and only Russia has committed a significant number of troops so far.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has once declared Afghanistan the CSTO exclusive zone of responsibility. However, it is hard to imagine that Russia given its recent troubled history would even contemplate deploying its troops in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the fractious CSTO has only limited usability as member countries cannot even agree on the primary purpose of the organization whether it should be used to defend against external threats or assist in putting down domestic unrests in member countries. Therefore, one can hardly expect the CSTO to become a serious player in the region. The state in which the CSTO is at the moment is only another proof of how low Russia’s stock with the local autocrats plummeted.
At the Dushanbe summit President Medvedev argued that responsibility for what happened in the region lied ultimately with Afghanistan and its neighbors, Russia not excluded. Between the lines one could read Medvedev’s insistence on limiting the interference of what he termed the outside powers aka the US and NATO. This, however, only shows how little the Russian leadership has come to acknowledge far reaching changes which have swept across Central Asia over the last decade.
As the date for the pullback of the Western troops is nearing, Moscow will have to step up to the plate. Yet, for Moscow to fill in the shoes of the US and NATO after their planned withdrawal is unrealistic. In fact, Moscow’s aspirations to raise its profile in the region while helping Central Asian governments to fend off the threat of violent extremism turns out to be equally unrealistic lest Moscow comes to terms with its limitations. The unforgiving realities of quickly changing Central Asia have not fully dawned on Moscow yet and sooner it makes necessary adjustments to its policy the better for Russian interests and the region as a whole. Central Asia despite the planned withdrawal of NATO troops is becoming crowded with external powers, such as China, India, Iran and the West, vying to establish their permanent foothold in the region. However frustrated Russia might be, its dominant position in the region is the thing of the past. Therefore, Moscow has to partner with both countries in the region and outside powers, or at least not trying to engage in costly geopolitical tussles, rather than striving to cling to its long lost statues of the regional overlord.
Jakub Kulhanek is the head of the East European Center at the Association for International Relations in Prague. He is currently with the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.