Russian border guards based in Tajikistan have carried out their first extensive training to cope with the aftermath of a possible chemical attack in the country launched by Al Qaeda. The exercise was designed to test the capability of Russian border guards to respond quickly and decisively to an attack on key facilities in Dushanbe. According to the scenario used, the drilled attack was launched against a chlorine depot near where Russian border guards are located in Dushanbe. Targeting the water purification facility, susceptible to such an attack, the terrorists intended to cause maximum disruption and spread fear and panic amongst the local population.
Smoke pots imitated the billowing poisonous gas, as Russian security forces swept into action. In the 30¢ªC heat, a chemical detachment was first on the scene, followed by medics making their mobile hospital operational within one hour; reconnaissance soldiers then rescued everyone affected by the incident, while firefighters were also dispatched to the scene, decontamination of the affected area swiftly followed. Major-General Aleksandr Baronov, Commander of the Russian Federal Security Service Border Directorate in Tajikistan, was satisfied with the performance of the 100 personnel involved in the training. (NTV, Moscow, June 4 2004).
The exercise provided an interesting counterpoint to the high level meeting in Sochi on the same day (June 4) between Presidents Putin and Rakhmonov, which resulted in a number of agreements concerning bilateral military cooperation. It patently revealed that in the event of such an attack taking place in Tajikistan, Russian forces -not Tajik- would be tasked with sealing off and protecting vital facilities within the Tajik capital. Given the symbiotic relationship between the two countries and the undoubted security dependence of Tajikistan on its close ally Russia, this is hardly surprising.
Tajik President Rakhmonov’s announcement in April 2004 that Tajikistan would take over the control of its own borders, asking Russian border to leave the country, was understandably met with alarm amongst the international community. Officials from the United States, UK, UN and EU promptly arrived in Dushanbe seeking clarification of Tajik intentions and exploring practical ways in which they might help. (Interfax, Moscow, June 9 2004).
Putin agreed to an extension for the Russian border guards to stay in Tajikistan until 2006, though the nature of their presence will gradually change into an advisory role, with less Russian involvement in the task of border security. It is unlikely, however, that Putin envisages an end at that point to Russia’s involvement in this area of Tajik security, since the flow of illegal narcotics across the Tajik-Afghan border, combined with the potential of militants using the border as a transit point into Central Asia, and from there into Russia, means that the sensitive question of Tajikistan’s border security will remain a Russian national security interest for many years. Far from losing face, Putin has secured the free use of the base in Dushanbe for the 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD) in return for handing over control of the Tajik-Afghan border to Tajikistan, and the Okno optical -electric tracking station in Nurek for use by Russia’s space troops, redirected parts of Tajikistan’s debt to Russia into the completion of the Sangdudi hydroelectric power station. (RIA News Agency, Moscow, June 4 2004; Vedomsti, Moscow, June 7 2004).
Moreover, perhaps the greatest success in the Russian strategy has been in the international reaction to their proposed withdrawal from the Tajik-Afghan border. It concentrated minds in the west, finally appreciating the real and valuable part played to date by Russian border guards in attempting to stem the flow of drugs across the border from Afghanistan. For many years, Moscow has sought to find a mechanism through which the financial cost of manning the vital border could be diversified. By raising the spectre of Russian border forces being recalled to Russia, leaving the Tajik-Afghan border in exclusively Tajik hands, the international community may suddenly find deeper pockets.
Moscow’s skillful security diplomacy in Tajikistan has been highlighted. With minimal effort it can leverage a larger response from the West, keen to assist impoverished Tajikistan combat the problem of drug trafficking. Far from leaving the country, Russia’s security interests there are long term, and instead may be looking for ways to improve its efficiency. Antiterrorist exercises, such as that staged in Dushanbe this month, shows some concern in both capitals that such attacks could occur, with potentially devastating consequences in terms of the political turmoil which could follow in its wake. Tajikistan could not cope adequately with an Al Qaeda attack on its key facilities, it is simply too poor and its security structures too weak. But nothing can make clearer that when trouble looms on the horizon, Tajikistan looks towards Russia for help. For Russia, on the other hand, it is a cost-effective approach.