The Russian government continues to deny news accounts that its security forces paid the Taliban to kill members of the United States Armed Forces stationed in Afghanistan; but at the same time, Moscow has exploited these reports at home to generate support for the Kremlin. Many Russians are apparently pleased that their government is taking revenge on the US for Moscow’s loss in Afghanistan and showing the West that Russia can act with impunity now—including abroad. At the same time, the Kremlin seeks to use the reports to promote divisions in the US. It is playing up the suspicions of some that elements in Washington are using this story to justify remaining in Afghanistan despite Donald Trump’s promises to withdraw as well as to revive the story about Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 elections as the presidential campaign heats up.
Many in the West assume Moscow cannot be happy by the exposure of such an operation, especially given the fact that the Taliban is outlawed in the Russian Federation as an extremist group. But those observers forget two important caveats. First, in designing its intelligence operations, Russian agencies always plan for their failure and how they can use any such “failure” to Moscow’s advantage. This pattern has been true since Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Operation Trust in the 1920s (see EDM, November 8, 2019). Given that Moscow had to assume any such operation involving payments to militants would eventually leak, in Afghanistan in particular, Moscow almost certainly planned for what it would do when it did. And it may even have considered ensuring that the leak happened precisely when it would do the Russian leadership the most good.
Second, as Moscow officials knew well, many Russians were certain to be pleased by such a story. The population has been primed to view the revelations of bounties on US soldiers as Russian revenge against the United States for Moscow’s defeat in Afghanistan and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, to those Russians, the reports would serve as an important demonstration that, today, Russia is back and can act regardless of the reaction of the West. Or even better, they possibly highlight that the West cannot or will not take any serious steps to counter such Russian activities. Thus, what many in the US and Europe might see as a black eye for the Kremlin, a sizeable proportion in Russia consider an unqualified victory and yet another reason to support the course Vladimir Putin has charted. As such, it is a narrative the Kremlin likely would have wanted to exploit in advance of the July 1 vote on the constitutional amendments designed to extend Putin’s rule essentially indefinitely (see EDM, July 2).
As Moscow journalist Aleksandr Polozov observes, “Moscow no longer especially fears any sanctions that might follow its unmasking, and it has even begun to learn how to turn international scandals to its benefit given the delight many in the country feel as a result of the secret work of the special services abroad.” Afghanistan is an ideal place to show this given that “more than 30 years ago, Russia itself had to withdraw from that country after suffering significant losses.” Three years after that, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and most Russians, to this day, draw a clear line from one event to the other and blame the US. Indeed, he says, for a sizeable fraction of Russians, “the current accusations against their country, however strange it may seem, do not need any confirmation. They are ready to believe in such actions, condemned as they are beyond the ocean or somewhere else, as a long-awaited form of historical revenge” (Znak.com, July 1).
The Kremlin is taking advantage of these reports, as Moscow media outlets make clear, not only to win support from its own population but to advance its efforts to undermine trust in the US media. Russia suggests that these reports are not only false but, in fact, are being pushed by the so-called “deep state” in Washington to prevent President Trump from living up to his promise to pull US forces out of Afghanistan (Vzglyad, July 6; Ia-centr.ru, July 5).
These arguments, currently disseminated by Moscow-based media, are certainly being repeated by Kremlin-controlled outlets directed at the West as well as by Russian diplomats and agents of influence in the United States. In addition to their impact on the US population as it heads into an election, such Russian interpretations are designed to increase tensions between Trump, on the one hand, and the US intelligence community, on the other—a group he has long been suspicious of (Kommersant, July 1). Reinforcing such tensions works to Moscow’s advantage by making it less rather than more likely Washington can and will respond to Russian actions.
But Moscow is also pursuing an even larger goal inside the United States than that. Gevorg Mirzayan, of the Russian government’s Finance University, suggests that the bounties story has the effect of reviving the narrative of “ ‘Russian interference’ ” in US elections and, thus, works to Moscow’s advantage. It gives Russia yet another chance to assert that such charges are being made by Trump’s opponents without evidence—a line of argument many in the US will be more than ready to accept (Kommersant, June 29). It thus politicizes the issue with those who support Trump, encouraging them to reject the story outright as an invention of actors seeking to politically harm him. And indeed, this is precisely the narrative various Russian commentators are now echoing.
That would once again seem to put Moscow in Trump’s corner. Yet, in contrast to 2016, some in Moscow appear pleased that this report has given presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden the chance to criticize Trump for his failure to respond (Kommersant, June 30). As such, it suggests that, in this information and influence operation, the Kremlin is not putting all its eggs in one basket as was the case four years ago. Rather, Moscow sees the reports on its paying Taliban fighters to kill US soldiers as a chance to intensify divides in the United States and weaken Washington in its future dealings with Russia, regardless of who wins in November.