Russia takes and gives in Afghanistan battle

Russia seems to have a message for the Obama administration: Go ahead and boost your military effort in Afghanistan -- but not without our help.

In recent days, Russian officials have rushed forward to offer logistical help to NATO troops in Afghanistan -- at the same time dipping into a dwindling budget to offer impoverished Kyrgyzstan more than $2 billion in an apparent payoff for ejecting a U.S. military base crucial to the war against the Taliban.

In fact, Russia is tugged between two strong, conflicting impulses. It distrusts U.S. motives, especially when it comes to America’s penetration of former Soviet states. But Moscow’s sense of invulnerability appears shaken by falling oil prices and the precarious economy. Many analysts believe the Kremlin is looking for an opening to make nice with the West. Nearby Afghanistan, where instability also spells danger for Russia, presents a handy opening.


And so Russian officials offer help with one hand, lash out with the other.

“They see a menace on the side of America, where it does not exist, and they don’t see the real scale, the real magnitude, of the menace from the south, from Islamic fundamentalism, which is a real danger,” said Sergei Arutyunov, chairman of the Caucasus studies department at Moscow’s Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. “They pay tentative and not always consistent lip service to American efforts in fighting this menace, but on the other hand they are even more afraid of the American presence anywhere near their borders.”

Analysts agree that Russia needs a more peaceful Afghanistan. The mountainous Central Asian republics on the Afghan border are tribally and culturally intertwined with Afghanistan, and easily influenced by conflict there. And those republics, in turn, are closely tied to Russia.

There is a fear that a further deterioration in Afghanistan could spill over the border into the rest of Central Asia -- and onto the doorstep of Russia, which is home to a sizable Muslim minority.

“If Afghanistan and Pakistan are further destabilized, this instability will flood Central Asian countries and the Russian border and flood the south of Russia,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev, who served five years in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. “Russia will do anything to prevent that.”

Some analysts criticized Russia’s eagerness to see the United States ejected from Kyrgyzstan.

“If Russia really wants to help and assist in the American efforts in Afghanistan, then the Russian government should use its influence not to cajole the Kyrgyz into abolishing this base but, on the contrary, to broaden the abilities of this base as an indispensable, important link in the chain of anti-Taliban operation,” Arutyunov said.

But others predicted that Russia would follow up by offering to help the United States supply Afghanistan. And sure enough, Moscow has sent out increasingly broad offers to open its territory for transport. Last week Russia’s foreign minister even dangled the possibility of transporting weaponry to Afghanistan.

“They will create problems and then resolve them for a fee,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “This is a hard-nosed, ad hoc approach where they’re trying to maximize and monetize their geopolitical clout.”

In Russian diplomacy, ego also tends to figure in. The message from Moscow these days appears to be that the United States should not expect to cut deals with the Kremlin-backed governments of Central Asia. If Obama wants something from the region, he’ll have to ask Moscow.

This is a far cry from Russia’s more conciliatory approach in 2001 when the U.S. and allied warlords ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban government after the Sept. 11 attacks. In those days, Russia still labored under the humiliation and financial collapse of the 1990s, and viewed the attacks on the U.S. as an echo of its own wars in Chechnya and struggles with militant Islam.

Vladimir Putin, who then served as president, reached out to commiserate with Washington and kept silent as the U.S. opened military bases in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Experts now say the United States underestimated or ignored the extent to which Putin, who is now Russia’s prime minister, regarded the presence of U.S. troops on former Soviet soil as a risky and generous concession.

Putin “thought that was worth some return concessions on the U.S. part,” said Vladimir Milov, who served as deputy energy minister during Putin’s first term in office. “He thought that he’d agree that the U.S. could advance militarily in Central Asia, and then he would be able to negotiate something back. But it didn’t work out, so he got offended.”

From that point on, relations further soured.

A few years later, popular uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia ousted Russian-backed politicians and installed pro-Western governments with U.S. encouragement.

To Moscow, U.S. actions in its backyard smacked of betrayal. Putin has said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”; the government has also said it demands “privileged” influence in the former Soviet republics. Bush administration attempts to lure Georgia and Ukraine out of Moscow’s grasp enraged Putin, insiders say.

These days, facing both the U.S. military presence and increasing Chinese energy deals in places like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Russia is on a drive to reestablish dominance in Central Asia.

That ambition was signaled this month, when Russia summoned the leaders of six other former Soviet republics and they agreed to the creation of a collective rapid-reaction force. The government said it would be based in Russia, and compared the force to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At the same time, while in Moscow, the Kyrgyz president announced his country’s intention to accept massive Russian financial aid -- and rid the nation of the American troops.

“Putin wants to retain major control over Central Asia, and probably it’s a new dividing line he wants to draw with the West,” Milov said. “This is why Kyrgyzstan and the military base is one of the crucial points.”