Moscow doesn’t want U.S. and NATO troops to stay in Afghanistan, but it also doesn’t want their hasty retreat that would allow an extremist Muslim threat to grow in the chaotic region, according to Stanford political scientist Kathryn Stoner.
With worsening relations with the West, Russia’s leadership is at a crossroad, grappling with difficult foreign policy choices and priorities on Afghanistan amid the U.S. and NATO military exit, the expert wrote in a new article in the journal Asian Survey.
The Soviet-Afghan War from 1979 to 1989 – called a ‘Bear Trap’ in the Western media – is believed to be a major factor that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That’s why even mere thoughts about a possible conflict in Afghanistan send goosebumps down the spine of Russian officials, “who have no interest in being trapped again in a war they can neither afford nor win,” according to Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford political scientist and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
As the U.S. troops withdrawal deadline approached in December 2014, Russian leaders argued that this kind of sudden power vacuum would leave open doors for a great number of threats in Afghanistan, including weapons proliferation, drug trafficking and a rising threat from radical Islamists, the author of the article wrote.
Recent news reports show that ISIS has established a presence in Afghanistan, which is why it’s an ISIS vs. Taliban question now, and from a Russian perspective, “it is a question of the lesser of two evils,” according to Stoner.
And Russia is more likely to point at ISIS if asked who’s a bigger threat to Russian interests, since the terrorist group has been repeatedly attempting to recruit Russian Muslims. Not long ago, ISIS launched Furat Media channel, which broadcasts in the Russian language.
ISIS recruits Russians to get into the U.S.
The reason why ISIS chose Russia to expand its influence is clear: Russian Caucasus region is very volatile and consists mostly of extremists willing to do pretty much anything.
However, the ultimate target of ISIS is the U.S., which is why it’s reasonable to say that ISIS is using Russians in order to get to Americans. ISIS holds a grudge against the U.S., which means once the terror group has amassed a significant amount of recruited Russians, it is likely to make hundreds – if not thousands – of attempts to send those recruited Russians to the U.S. soil.
In order to ensure stability in the region, Russia even expressed that it would likely to support some moderate rank-and-file Taliban to become a part of the Afghan government, Stoner wrote.
“Russian leaders point to the fact that heroin trafficking was less under the Taliban than in the past five years under the U.S./NATO coalition,” the author noted, adding that drugs are getting into the Russian territory.
As part of the efforts to establish a “defensive zone in Central Asia against Afghan radical or narcotics incursions into the Russian heartland,” Moscow is considering the possibility of deploying additional troops to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both neighboring with Afghanistan, as well as rearming both countries’ armies, Stoner pointed out.
Russia’s tough choices to protect itself
According to Stoner, Russia is at a crossroad of three difficult choices: (1) to return to its post-Soviet policy and create a northern buffer zone that would protect its Central Asian allies from any possible threats coming from Afghanistan.
The second (2) choice would be to agree to cooperate with the new president of the country, Ashraf Ghani. If the Kremlin opts for this choice, Russia would likely help to reduce narcotics trafficking, but at the same time, it could risk “allowing Afghanistan to again become a haven for radical Islamic terrorists,” Stoner noted.
And the third (3) choice would be to continue cooperating with Western forces in order to create a protective zone around Central Asia. However, the third choice creates certain difficulties, as it would cause a “counterbalancing strategy on the part of China, which would not fit with Russia’s strategy.”
However, the author also added, that this choice is ‘a long shot,” since Russia’s renewed confrontation with the West has created major difficulties in the cooperation between Russia and the West on the issues of Afghanistan.
Stoner argues that “there are few reliable indications of which path Russia is likely to choose,” while the elements of each choice can be traced in Russian statements and actions in the region.
China, Russia and U.S. uncertain what to do with Afghanistan
What Russia is most likely to choose is staying on the margins of the Afghanistan issue by focusing its efforts on protecting its own security interests in Central Asia.
“Russia has much to lose and little to gain by doing much more. For this reason, Russian policymakers are in the awkward position of not having wanted the Americans to come to Central Asia, but now, not wanting them to leave,” Stoner concluded.
It must be noted that with the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, world powers have been expressing their interest as to how the situation in the region is going to develop further.
The Taliban movement is on the brink of collapse, and not only the U.S. is uncertain how to handle new possible challenges on the ground, but also China and Russia, who are worried for the safety of their integration projects in the Eurasian region.
While the U.S. is faced with a choice of whether or not to keep its military contingent in Afghanistan, China fears that the established presence of ISIS in the country may put at risk its major Silk Road project. As for Russia, it’s trying to protect its own and its allies’ borders from Islamic militants and drug trafficking.