Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 220

Cooperation between Russia and the United States in the U.S.-led antiterror war, heretofore the foundation of the recent rapprochement between the two countries, has turned a bit sour this week following Moscow’s unexpected dispatch of Russian troops and diplomatic personnel to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The expression of U.S. concerns over the matter appears to have intensified over the course of this week. On Tuesday, a senior State Department official was quoted by news reports as saying that the United States had urged several countries, including Russia, to forego any recognition of the Northern Alliance as Afghanistan’s new government. But the same official said that Russia had not been singled out for criticism. On Thursday, however, there were published reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell had expressed U.S. concerns during a telephone conversation with his opposite number in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Powell reportedly urged the Russians to avoid any abrupt or diplomatic moves in Afghanistan and said that Moscow should also forego any actions that might promote Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Northern Alliance that currently controls Kabul and much of Afghanistan. Rabbani has long been backed by Moscow and is still the officially recognized president of Afghanistan.

Alarm bells began ringing in Washington on Monday, following the appearance in Kabul of about 100 uniformed Russian military personnel. Moscow had informed neither Washington nor the United Nations about its intention to send personnel to the Afghan capital. Russian officials have since claimed that the contingent is composed mostly of personnel from the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations, and that their primary goals in Kabul are to erect a field hospital and to reestablish a Russian embassy in the city. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the contingent in Kabul will eventually number about 200, and will include specialists to clear mines around the Bagram air base, the facility north of Kabul which the Russians are using as a landing base.

While officials in Moscow have continued to insist that the purpose of the Russian contingent is purely humanitarian, the circumstances surrounding its arrival suggests other motivations. Observers in Kabul, for example, have pointed out that the location the group staked out makes little sense as a site for a field hospital, because two brick and mortar buildings serving the same purpose are located nearby. Of more practical and symbolic importance, the deployment of the contingent makes Russia the first foreign power to establish a presence in the Afghan capital, given that the greater numbers of U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan have thus far stayed clear of the capital. Indeed, the Russians arrived in Kabul at the invitation of the Northern Alliance leadership, receiving a warm reception that contrasted sharply with the rebuff meted out by alliance leaders to British troops currently based at the Bagram airport. London had hoped to expand its troop presence there as a way to begin preparing the airport for relief deliveries, but was told by the alliance leadership that foreign troops in large numbers were unwelcome in Afghanistan.

Many observers, meanwhile, are comparing the dispatch of the Russian contingent to Kabul with the surprise deployment of Russian paratroopers to the Slatina airport in Kosovo in 1999. And just as that earlier move by the Russian military was aimed at giving a weakened Russia some leverage over Western policy in the former Yugoslavia, so this move by the Kremlin appears designed to help Russia shape the political situation on the ground in Kabul. Through its backing of the Northern Alliance, Moscow clearly hopes also to increase its own influence in Afghanistan and throughout the region. Indeed, the United States and Russia have already clashed over the alliance’s role in a future Afghan government, with Washington insisting on a governing structure drawn more equitably from Afghanistan’s various ethnic and regional groupings while Moscow seeks a dominant role for its Northern Alliance allies. The latter would antagonize Pakistan, a key player in the U.S. antiterror campaign. Islamabad backed the Taliban and has insisted on a strong Pashtun presence in any new Afghan government (Reuters, November 27; New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, November 28; Washington Post, November 28, 29; International Herald Tribune, November 29).

A commentary posted earlier this week on the Kremlin-connected Strana.ru website, meanwhile, dismissed Western criticism of the Russian move into Afghanistan and laid out what probably is some of the Kremlin’s thinking on the matter. Among other things, the commentary made clear that Moscow intends–rapprochement with Washington or no–to pursue its own strategic interests in Afghanistan, and that these interests are directly related to promotion of Rabbani’s Northern Alliance. Indeed, the commentary presents official and media criticism of the Russian move in the United States and the West as something of a propaganda campaign. A follow-up piece by the same author, also posted on the Strana.ru site, goes a step further by charging that the Bush Administration’s recent condemnations of Moscow for both the closing of the independent TV-6 news channel and for Russia’s role in air attacks in Georgia are in fact little more than an attempt to make Moscow pay for its decision to dispatch the contingent to Kabul. What Washington really seeks, the commentary argues, is to maintain its leading role in Afghanistan during the second stage of operations there, which involves the formation of a post-Taliban government. It is Moscow’s willingness to defy Washington, the commentary goes on, that had led the Bush Administration to play “its traditional card” against Russia–that is, to raise new questions about the Kremlin’s commitment to democracy (Strana.ru, November 28-29).

The jousting between Moscow and Washington suggests anew that the close partnership which has developed between the two countries remains a fragile one, and that the two governments continue to have diverging interests on a number of key security issues. It is perhaps ironic that the war in Afghanistan, which as a follow-up to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States was initially what brought the two countries so close together, is now serving to highlight some of these divergences. As operations in Afghanistan pass increasingly from the military to the political spheres, moreover, these differences could become sharper. Potential U.S. moves to broaden the antiterror war to countries other than Afghanistan could have an even more disruptive effect on Russia-U.S. ties. Several senior Russian officials suggested recently, for example, that while Moscow might countenance some U.S. antiterrorist operations outside of Afghanistan, any move against Iraq would “make it difficult to preserve the unity of the coalition against terrorism”–a clear signal that Moscow might withdraw its own backing for the antiterror campaign if Baghdad were to become a target of U.S. military strikes (The Times, November 29).