Russia’s Third Front: Mounting Anxiety Over Afghanistan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 24

Taliban militants in Tajikistan (Source:

With most of the military forces of the United States and the North Atlantic Organization (NATO) having departed Afghanistan, Russia has grown increasingly anxious about a possible deterioration of the regional security situation. As 2014 ended, Moscow flatly called NATO’s Afghanistan policy a failure (Pajhwok Afghan News, December 31, 2014). Yet, at the same time, Russia insists that the North Atlantic Alliance retains responsibility for Afghan security even though its mission has ended. This paradox is a basic attribute of the essential ambivalence that dogs Russian security policy in the wider Central Asian region (Xinhua, December 31, 2014). So while Russia “has a stake in Afghanistan,” it wants others as much as possible to defend that stake. Moscow, itself, is neither prepared to send troops to Afghanistan, nor even to the border with Tajikistan (, December 8, 2014; Interfax, December 29, 2014).

Central Asian leaders, like Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, have warned that Afghanistan risks becoming another Syria or Iraq, and Vladimir Putin concurred with this assessment (Interfax, December 10, 2014). Meanwhile, Russia’s presidential representative in Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, likewise claims that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan know of and share Russia’s assessment of an imminent Islamic State–led invasion of Central Asia. Though, many Western analysts consider that assessment of the radical militant group’s capabilities, especially in this theater, as overhyped (Interfax, December 29, 2014). Similarly, Russia’s General Staff also expects the Afghan situation to deteriorate, and Kabulov anticipates the rise of Islamist fighters and an expansion of their operations to the borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—if not beyond—by spring 2015 (ITAR-TASS, December 10, 2014; Interfax, December 29, 2014). Obviously, this assessment leaves Russia with few if any options, let alone good ones.

Indeed, the Taliban already reached that border by the end of 2014 (TOL Newsline, January 3, 2015), and some analysts assert that the Taliban is currently present and active in northern Tajikistan (1News TV, December 15, 2014). In his end-of-year interview, Kabulov went farther, claiming that about 100 Islamic State fighters have been deployed from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan to prepare an attack on Central Asia. Specifically, he warned that they had created beachheads on the border with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan (Interfax, December 29, 2014).

Faced with such rising perceived threats, and having little or no faith in Western efforts in Afghanistan, Russia has begun to consider other alternatives. At the December 2014 summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Putin openly warned his alliance partners that they must prepare to take “preventive actions” (, December 23, 2014). Similarly Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that Russian and Tajikistani defense forces must be ready for any scenario, necessitating a bolstering of the combat potential of Tajikistan’s military as well as of the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division base hosted there (Interfax, December 23, 2014). Meanwhile, Kabulov, the Kremlin’s representative to Afghanistan, was even more explicit: He openly raised the possibility of so-called precautionary moves on the Russian-Kazakhstani border or the Caspian Sea and of fighting militants on the Amu Darya rather than on the Volga River. This would mark a fundamental departure from Russia’s more rhetorical than substantive regional security policy to date—amounting mainly to an attempt at deterrence and dissuasion (Interfax, December 29, 2014; World Politics Journal, November 25, 2014).

Russia has also been trying to compensate for its limited options by strengthening its bilateral ties to Central Asian states: for example, by forgiving Uzbekistan’s debts so that Tashkent can buy new Russian weapons, by making overtures to and arms deals with Pakistan (see EDM, July 2, 2014), as well as by increasing exercises with Central Asian militaries and adding capabilities to its regional bases. Furthermore, Moscow has brokered a deal by which India buys Russian weapons and provides them to Afghanistan (, February 10, 2014; RFE/RL January 7, 2015). India is also enhancing its military cooperation with Central Asian states, no doubt with Russian approval (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, December 8, 2014).

Moscow is even discussing the possibility of employing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces (or those of other Muslim regions) not only in the North Caucasus, but in Central Asia as well. Kadyrov has announced his willingness to send Chechens to perform special military missions for President Putin that other Russian military units cannot perform—for example, in Ukraine, or as Putin’s palace guard or, perhaps, in Central Asia (Interfax, December 29, 2014).

But by far the most amazing move was Defense Minister Shoigu’s November 2014 call on China to join with Russia to defend Asia against US threats in the Asia-Pacific as well as against US-orchestrated “color revolutions” and Islamist terrorism (Interfax, November 18, 2014). Specifically, he was advocating enhanced Sino-Russian security cooperation (through unspecified means), both bilaterally and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Shoigu’s suggested geographic area of Sino-Russian cooperation included not only Central Asia but also East Asia—a sentiment echoed by his deputy, Anatoly Antonov. Both men decried US policies that purportedly were bringing about color revolutions and boosting support for Islamist terrorism in Southeast and Central Asia. Shoigu further stated that, “In the context of an unstable international situation, the strengthening of good-neighborly relations between our countries [Russia and China] acquires particular significance. This is not only a significant factor in the [two] states’ security but also a contribution to ensuring peace throughout the Eurasian continent and beyond” (Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, November 18, 2014; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 20, 2014).

Beijing has yet to give a formal public reply to Moscow’s offer, though it still adheres to its previous posture that opposes alliances with anyone. Nevertheless, the deteriorating situation facing Russia in Afghanistan and Central Asia creates a potential third front, on top of Ukraine and the North Caucasus, which Moscow cannot afford and does not really want given its current constraints. It is the reality of Russian weakness and its increasing desperation about Central Asia’s security situation that has actually pushed Moscow to appeal to Beijing for a full-blown alliance—because, in reality, that is what “collective security” implies. It remains to be seen what will develop; but undoubtedly, 2015 is gearing up to be quite a fascinating year in Central Asia.