23.12.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Russia’s Turn towards Afghanistan

654633222Contrary to popular perceptions about Russia’s lack of interest in Afghanistan, she has been gradually and imperceptibly making its headway into Afghanistan particularly since the US’ announcement of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since at least 2007, when Russia established its Embassy in Afghanistan, she has been trying to regain its foot there, and has been partly successful in achieving this objective. One of the major factors that has pushed Russia to reactivate its policy towards Afghanistan, after an initial period of relative inaction, is that it wants to contest the US’ hegemonic designs in the region, which are explicitly anti-Russia, and involve domination of the Central Asian region, the so-called Russian “under-belly.” Russian moves into Afghanistan are, however, quite different from the rest of the regional and extra-regional players playing the “great game” in Afghanistan. Being under the constraints of the past, she has got to re-constitute its image as a ‘friend’; and, in doing this, she is being indirectly helped by the blunders the US and its allies are making.

Speaking to Journalists in Kabul a few months ago, the spokesman for the Russian embassy in Afghanistan said, “You see Russia’s interest in Afghanistan rising. It’s visible,” said Stepan Anikeev, “We want to enlarge our role in the region. It’s not only for Afghanistan, but for our own goals.” And, for that reason, people of Afghanistan, especially the political elite, also seem to be developing a positive view of Russia. The warmth developing between Russia and Afghanistan can be judged by the fact that the government of Afghanistan did release a message from Russian President Mr. Putin to the Afghan government, marking the new Persian year. Importance of the timing of this message lies in the fact that it was the only such message made public, and it was done so at a time when the US and its allies were working to impose sanctions on Russia in the wake of crisis in Ukraine.

For, Russia, however, Afghanistan continues to be a hard country even after more than two decades have passed since the Soviet-Afghan war ended. Being under the constraints of the past, she is having to adopt a policy whereby she can build a soft image of herself before undertaking large scale investments—hence, considerable investments in projects like promotion of education by giving the Afghan students opportunities to get higher education in Russia.

For example, according to Russian estimates, a total of over 15,000 Afghan citizens have been educated in Russia, of which about 1400 Afghans have graduated from Russian civilian and military universities. Many of them later on became part of the political, business and security elites of Afghanistan.

Similarly, to achieve the said objective, Russia has been giving scholarships to Afghan students in recent years. The number of students going to Russia has been steadily increasing every year.  For example, in 2004 there were 50 scholarships per year; 75 in 2007, and from 2008, the number grew to 80 scholarships. For 2010, 100 scholarships were prepared, and 115 for 2011. And since then the number of students studying in Russia and number of scholarships being awarded have been doubled.

To promote Russian funded education in Afghanistan, Russia has also recently allotted about US$2 million for reactivation of the Soviet build Kabul University, and with a further $4 million to be spent by Russia as part of international aid for the development of education in Afghanistan.

At current stage, apart from education, Russia is also investing in economic projects. At the outset, the Russian government has compiled a list of 140 Soviet-era projects that it would like to rehabilitate, according to the Russian embassy in Afghanistan, and the estimated cost of these projects is millions of dollars. The proposal for launching this rehabilitation programme was given by Russia as late as in 2010 in London conference on Afghanistan, which was then rejected by the Western powers. However, Russia has now decided to go ahead with it as a means of establishing its position, although moderately, in Afghanistan. In this behalf, The Kabul House building Factory, which is by far Afghanistan’s largest manufacturing outlet, was the first to receive assistance to the tune of $25 million. In addition to it, Russia is also renovating a Soviet-era built House of Science and Technology by spending almost $20 million. Russia is going to re-establish this building as a Russian Cultural Center—a center for those with interest in Russia and its people. To further boost bi-lateral economic relations, a joint commission on “trade and economic cooperation” was also launched in 2012—the year when the US withdrawal began.

An important aspect of Russian policy towards Afghanistan is that, despite the expectation of the Taliban coming into power, she did not provide full scale military aid to the NATO forces, nor did she agree to send its troops in Afghanistan. And, although there are talks of providing Russian made Weapons to the Afghan forces, this programme is still far from final. Focus of Russian investment remains on socio-economic development and positive image building.

It is evident that Russia is prepared to make and is already making a lot if investment in Afghanistan; however, the question is what she stands to gain from it? The most probable and logical answer would be the fact that Afghanistan borders three of the former Soviet Union States. And, for that reason, it would not be a wrong assessment if the Afghan people perceive Russian resurgence in Afghanistan as a renewal of the ‘Great Game.’ However, for Russia, increasing investment and making way for long lasting engagement with Afghanistan is crucial for Russia’s own political and economic position in the region.

Similarly, increasing interest of Russian in Afghanistan becomes understandable when one looks at it through history of Russia’s relations with the Taliban, previously called Mujahedeen. Russia would not like to see the Taliban gaining too much influence in Afghanistan; for, they can be a potential source of fanning out radical Islamic thought in the Central Asian States—precisely the way they did it in 1990s. Also, the danger of civil war breaking out, especially in the northern parts of Afghanistan where non-Pashtun and anti-Taliban people live in majority, is a scenario which Russian would not want to confront especially when she is following a policy of complete disengagement with what happens inside Afghanistan. In the case of the Taliban coming into power and the northern alliance militias resisting the Taliban, conflict would become almost inevitable, which might pose security threats to the Central Asian States because of the possibility of spillover.

The foremost interest of Russia in re-setting its foot in Afghanistan in to counter the US’ design of using Afghanistan as a platform to gravitate its influence in the Central Asian region—or, as it is often called, the “Russian Under-belly.” Even though, the US and NATO forces are going to withdraw from Afghanistan, the US policy has gradually become more and more oriented towards Asia. In this context, it is important for Russia to rebuild its own sphere of influence in Asia in order for better positioning itself vis-à-vis the US. Although the 2014 pullout from Afghanistan will not completely disengage the US and the West from the region, as is evident from the many clauses of the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement signed between Afghanistan and the US, there will be a noticeable cutback of activities; the US will most likely aim at redefining its influence in the region, probably by shifting towards application of soft power. Nonetheless, the US withdrawal is going to create a crucial power vacuum in Afghanistan, which is necessarily to be filled by regional players—prominent among them being Pakistan, Indian, China and now Russia.

But the crucial question is: can they manage the post-2014 scenario, either individually or collectively? As far as Russia is concerned, it does not intend to get itself militarily engaged in Afghanistan after the US and NATO forces withdraw. The question of the replacement of the ISAF by Russian Collective Security Organization, or even by SCO, is out of the picture since it would turn the table over Russia itself, creating for her a situation not much dissimilar to that of the late 1980s. Therefore, to avoid such a scenario, Russia has also been trying to establish its relations with the Taliban as well. Russia has been trying to achieve this objective by improving its relations with Pakistan by offering the latter assistance in controlling energy crisis it has been facing for many years now. On the other hand, what appears to be a more feasible option for Russia to manage the post-2014 scenario is to increase its military presence along the CA states, bordering Afghanistan. Not only would it bolster Russian influence n in the CAS—since CAS is also apprehensive of the possibility of the Taliban coming into power—but also allow her to more closely watch the “Under-belly” against the US influence, as well as check narcotics export from Afghanistan.

In short, Russia has recently found enough reasons to reinvigorate its policy towards Afghanistan. In fact, it is the US withdrawal that has pushed Russia to rethink its otherwise stagnant policy that prevailed during 2003-2006. However, the withdrawal has opened up immense possibilities for her and she is prepared to draw maximum benefit out of it in the long run. However, there is a big challenge for her also, that is, not allowing other actors to make use of the situation in Afghanistan against Russian interests—hence, the need for non-military presence in Afghanistan to have at least this much political influence as to counter such designs of the rival states.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.