Russia abstained in the UN Security Council’s September 20 vote to prolong the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, a NATO-led operation. This is the first time since 2001 that Russia withheld its approval from an allied operation (U.S.-led Enduring Freedom and NATO’s ISAF) in Afghanistan. Concurrently, Moscow indicated again that it tolerates the U.S.-led air base in Kyrgyzstan — that supports operations in Afghanistan — conditionally and temporarily.
Moscow’s abstention in the Security Council has no significant consequences on the practical level. Symbolically, however, it hits at what the United States and NATO define as a core interest and top operational priority. Politically, it signifies yet another warning that Russia is prepared to challenge U.S. and NATO interests and hinder their policies almost anywhere in Eurasia to the maximum feasible extent.
Thus, obstructionism in Afghanistan is only the latest in the series of recent Russian moves against anti-missile defense in Europe, the Treaty on Conventional Forces, conflict resolution in Kosovo (where Russia opposes what it calls “a NATO state”), U.S. military installations in Romania and Bulgaria, sovereignty and integrity of Georgia and Moldova, and other geopolitical issues, all amid the challenge to Western energy interests and energy security. By stepping up the obstructions or pressures and multiplying the disputed points, Moscow seeks to extract concessions on some issues in return for relenting on other disputes that it has itself created.
Russia was the only country that did not support the Security Council’s resolution to prolong ISAF’s mandate by another year. As a pretext for its abstention, Moscow raised questions about the ongoing Japanese naval operation in the Indian Ocean. The Russians objected to the draft resolution that linked Japan’s naval operation with the ISAF and Enduring Freedom ground operations in Afghanistan.
The Japanese operation is designed to supply allied forces in Afghanistan, via the Indian Ocean and Pakistan, with fuel and other critical materiel. It is also intended to intercept and board vessels suspected of carrying arms or reinforcements destined for terror groups that operate in Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas. Russia asked for a voice in defining the parameters of the Japanese naval operations. Furthermore, Moscow objected to the resolution’s wording that commended Japan for its role.
The naval operation is highly controversial in Japan. It became one of the factors behind prime minister Shinzo Abe’s resignation earlier this month, following the opposition’s victory in the Senate elections. Opposition parties call for termination of this naval operation while the governing Liberal-Democratic Party wants to continue it and has welcomed the Security Council’s resolution for praising this Japanese contribution to anti-terror efforts.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin objected to what he described as improper interference in Japan’s internal affairs through this resolution. Churkin argued almost explicitly that the resolution’s wording would help the government and hinder the opposition in the Japanese political debate over the naval operation. Thus, Moscow evidenced an interest in curbing Japan’s emergent role in international security in Asia, even on the anti-terror front in this case. With this move, Russia seems to be positioning itself more broadly against NATO’s intentions to develop closer links with countries like Australia and Japan for enhancing security in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Also on September 20, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) proposed assuming a political and security role in Afghanistan. Citing an urgent need to stabilize the country and the region, CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha offered the organization’s assistance to train Afghan military and security personnel, combat drug trafficking, coordinate economic aid projects by Central Asian countries through the CSTO in Afghanistan, and help “normalize” the political situation there through legislative assistance.
Moscow is airing this set of proposals through the CSTO, so as to make it look “multilateral” and regional, rather than Russian. The goal is to re-introduce Russian political and security influence in Afghanistan through means short of a military presence. Moscow could not fail to see opportunity in the recent setbacks and dysfunctionalities of NATO and U.S. operations there. It seeks to capitalize on this situation for re-entry in Afghanistan, primarily through soft-power instruments, for a strategic payoff that eludes the hard-power wielding Western forces.
Bordyuzha was addressing a two-day meeting in Bishkek of the Security Council Secretaries of CSTO member countries (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). At that session, Bordyuzha reaffirmed Russia’s position that U.S. access to the Manas air base is time-limited to the duration of operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, while Kyrgyzstan’s agreement with the United States on this issue is a matter for Bishkek to decide, nevertheless Kyrgyzstan is “actively consulting with its allies on this issue” — a clear hint that Moscow retains the options to allow, disallow, or set conditions to the continuation of the basing arrangement in the future.
(Interfax, Itar-Tass, September 19, 20)