Moscow was remarkably relaxed about the NATO summit held in Latvia’s capital, Riga, last week. Russian President Vladimir Putin even played with the idea of making an informal visit there for French President Jacques Chirac’s birthday party but abandoned it due to “other commitments” (Vremya novostei, November 30). It had become clear for the Kremlin already in June, when U.S. President George W. Bush cancelled his visit to Kyiv, that the Alliance would not issue invitations to Ukraine and Georgia — and it saw no reasons to worry about the invitations issued to Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia.
In a particularly refined diplomatic dance, the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had been postponed from October to coincide exactly with the NATO summit. Scheduling brief and deliberately meaningless meetings with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili, Putin made sure that both would be present in Minsk and not in Riga (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 30). This minor personal triumph was the only result of the “jubilee” summit marking the 15-year history of the CIS as a quasi-organization, which Russian commentators often compare with a suitcase without a handle — awkward to carry, but yet a pity to drop (RIA-Novosti, November 29).
There was, however, a theme that connected the two summits in a not very obvious way. In the center of discussions between NATO allies, quite understandably, was the situation in Afghanistan that had dramatically deteriorated in the course of one year. It remains to be seen whether the very limited additional deployments and commitments that the Alliance was able to pledge with the strong encouragement of President Bush would indeed turn its operation into a “mission possible,” in the words of Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (Lenta.ru, November 30). In Moscow, however, the perception is gaining ground that NATO is trapped in a hopeless quagmire and is facing a defeat in the very operation that it cannot afford to fail (RIA-Novosti, November 30).
There is certainly no small amount of wishful thinking in these expectations, underpinned with the assessments that the United States has no chance to regain control over the escalating civil war in Iraq. In an extensive large interview with Der Spiegel, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov refrained from giving NATO any “tactical advice” but he emphasized that the Soviet Union had not been able to control the whole territory of Afghanistan despite deploying a grouping of 100,000-110,000 “elite” forces (Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 28). While often portraying NATO as a “great menace,” Russian military experts know full well that the Alliance would never be able to deploy even half of this force and that the U.S. would not be able to provide firm leadership while bogged down in Iraq (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, November 3).
The impression of a looming disaster to the immediate south of their borders creates new anxiety among the Central Asian leaders, who tried to wrest a new security commitment from Russia at the Minsk gathering. Moscow, however, effectively sabotaged Kazakhstan’s initiative for reforming and consolidating the CIS (Kommersant, November 30). Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, despite his best efforts, got very little of Putin’s attention and returned to a new escalation of street protests in his capital. Apparently, the Russian leadership remains unconcerned about the fast-moving disintegration of structures of governance in Kyrgyzstan caused by their capture by drug-trafficking groups and leading towards a possibly violent state failure. The similar transformation of Tajikistan into a drug-trafficking state is viewed with much the same indifference, despite the continuing deployment of a few thousand Russian troops at the military base near Dushanbe.
Moscow never misses a chance to point a finger at NATO for failing to contain the poppy cultivation and opium production in Afghanistan, but Russian leaders show little interest in any kind of cooperative initiatives aimed at checking the flow of drugs into Central Asia. Instead, Ivanov signals the readiness to separate the “areas of responsibility” between NATO and the Russia-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that includes all Central Asian states (except Turkmenistan) plus Armenia and Belarus (Lenta.ru, December 1). Since no practical work is being done in the CSTO toward enhancing stability to the north of Afghanistan, Russia appears simply to be waiting for NATO’s failure, which is certain to transform radically the security landscape and force the Central Asian leaders to beg for Russian “protection.”
Meanwhile, some masters of political speculation in Moscow have started to debate in rather hypothetical terms the possibility of sending Russian troops into those areas of Northern Afghanistan that could hold against the new Taliban offensive (Gazeta, November 23). Typically, cooperation with Iran is considered in such scenarios as far more preferable and practicable than any joint operations with NATO (Ekho Moskvy, December 1). The real scale of potential risks and efforts necessary to counter them are conveniently left out of such debates, particularly since Russia’s main oil-and-gas interests in Turkmenistan and northwestern Kazakhstan appear to be safe from the immediate danger.
It is impossible to deny that NATO is in serious trouble with its ambitious and painfully under-resourced state-saving operation in Afghanistan. Russia could have made itself into a crucially important partner able to tip the balance against the terrorism-prophesying mullahs, much the same way as it did in autumn 2001. Putin’s anti-NATO choice now appears irreversible, as it is driven by the internal logic of the evolution of his regime — but it is still striking how clearly it goes against Russia’s fundamental interests.