Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 228

After several days of confusion, Russia’s Defense and Foreign Ministries moved yesterday to clarify Kremlin policy with regard to peacekeeping in Afghanistan by stating categorically that Russian troops would not be a part of any international force dispatched to the war-ravaged country. At the same time, however, various official and unofficial Russian sources continued to suggest that significant numbers of Russian military and defense-related personnel might still find their way into Afghanistan, albeit in connection with different missions. Moscow’s precise intentions in this area remain unclear at present, but the evidence suggests that Russia’s political leadership intends, like its American counterpart, to avoid the entanglements and difficulties of managing a peacekeeping operation there. But the Kremlin may be seeking simultaneously to use the American military victory in Afghanistan, and what it hopes will be a postvictory American withdrawal from the region, to reestablish its own influence in Kabul and Northern Afghanistan. Toward that end Moscow appears set to rapidly increase its diplomatic presence in the country and, by virtue of its close ties to the Northern Alliance, to use various humanitarian and commercial activities to filter military personnel and advisers into the country.

Statements asserting Moscow’s intention to stay out of the peacekeeping business in Afghanistan came yesterday from both Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was speaking to reporters in Moscow, and from Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (no relation), who was doing the same thing in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Both men spoke in categorical terms, with Russia’s defense chief saying that Moscow has “absolutely no plans, desires or intentions” to send military forces into Afghanistan as part of a planned international peacekeeping force. Defense Minister Ivanov’s remarks appeared in part to rebut an article published yesterday in the influential Russian daily Kommersant, which stated that the country’s General Staff was currently drafting plans for the possible introduction of about 1,000 Russian military personnel into Afghanistan as part of the UN-backed peacekeeping force. A day earlier another Russian daily, Vremya Novostei, had also reported on Moscow’s alleged intentions to take part in the peacekeeping operation, though it appeared to base its conclusions not on rumors of General Staff planning in this area but on recent statements made by senior Russian officials, including Sergei Ivanov himself.

Indeed, it is articles that have appeared in two newspapers controlled by Kremlin-opponent Boris Berezovsky–Kommersant and, especially, Nezavisimaya Gazeta–that have helped to highlight some of the ambiguous statements made recently by top Russian officials on the issue of possible Russian military involvement in Afghanistan. An article published last week by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for example, pointed out that Ivanov appeared to have reversed himself during a current tour of Russian military bases by stating in Kazan on December 5 that Russia would not participate in Afghanistan peacekeeping operations and then hinting at the opposite during remarks made two days later while on a visit to Dushanbe.

But the newspaper offered a considerably more provocative hypothesis in the same article when it referenced some ambiguous remarks President Vladimir Putin made last month to draw the conclusion that Moscow actually intended to dispatch Russian troops into Afghanistan not under the banner of a UN peacekeeping operation, but in connection with the search-and-rescue operations it is undertaking in the area. The newspaper then went on to claim, moreover, that Russian paratroopers and special forces personnel were included in the contingent of “Emergency Situations Ministry” personnel who arrived unexpectedly in Kabul late last month (see the Monitor, November 30). And it would be easy, the newspaper suggested, to simply continue expanding this contingent further, under cover of the Emergency Situations Ministry, into an Afghan peacekeeping force, or by presenting newly arriving personnel as technical specialists sent to help the Northern Alliance. Most provocatively of all, the newspaper alleged that the Kremlin believes it unlikely that American troops will remain in Afghanistan long enough to shape the postwar political settlement there, and hinted that the Kremlin hopes to use the ensuing “military-technical vacuum” in the country to pursue its own geopolitical goals.

Various Russian officials have confirmed in recent days Moscow’s apparent intention to quickly expand its diplomatic and, less obviously, its military presence in the region. On the former score, a Russian Foreign Ministry official told reporters yesterday that Moscow would soon be reestablishing its embassy in Kabul in a four-story building provided rent-free by the “Afghan government” for two years. And plans are also underway to reclaim consulates in two other Afghan regions, including one in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The same Foreign Ministry official, moreover, underlined Moscow’s hopes that military cooperation will continue between Russia and Afghanistan’s new government, and that this possibility could open the door to a “return to Afghanistan of Russian military advisors.” Indeed, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that Russian arms deliveries to the Northern Alliance may have totaled some US$40 million already, and that Moscow believes continued military technical cooperation with Afghanistan would necessitate the dispatch to Afghanistan of numerous Russian military advisors and technical specialists. In addition, defense chief Ivanov has been quoted as saying that “if Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry requests arms deliveries or training for Afghanistan’s military personnel, those requests will be met.” Moscow seems clearly to be hoping that military and military-technical cooperation could provide both an avenue for the return of a Russian military presence in Afghanistan and a means by which Moscow can exercise some leverage over the new government.

The Moscow Times observed recently that Moscow had gotten much of what it wanted in the interim Afghan government created recently in Bonn, with its Northern Alliance allies having claimed the key Interior, Foreign and Defense Ministry posts. Yet the same article points out that Russian influence in Afghanistan may ultimately rest in large part upon its ability to deliver aid and reconstruction resources to the destitute and war-ravaged country. It is perhaps with this goal in mind that Russia, itself cash-poor and an international debtor, has emphasized its humanitarian aid operations to date in Afghanistan. Yet Moscow is clearly hoping for more. Aside from military-technical cooperation, a Russian Foreign Ministry official indicated yesterday Moscow’s hopes of parlaying the existence of nearly 200 Soviet-era construction projects in Afghanistan into a major role for Russia in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. The same official also pointed to potential Russian participation in projects aimed at developing Afghanistan’s key oil and energy infrastructure. His comments, and those of other Russian officials, make clear once again that while the military side of the Afghan war may be drawing to a close, Moscow will not be shy about seeking advantage in the political battles for influence that are now just beginning (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 8, 11; Reuters, Vremya Novostei, Moscow Times, December 10; Interfax, November 11).