Alwaght- After nearly two decades since marginalization of the Russian role in Afghanistan due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the military presence of NATO and Western powers in the Central Asian country, over the past few years Moscow stepped up moves to return to the scene of the Afghan developments. Late last year and also earlier this year, Moscow hosted dialogue conferences gathering together representatives from the Taliban and other Afghan factions, an arrangement indicating that the Russians are ready to take a role in Afghanistan’s future peace process. However, the Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmanov expressed concern over the security situation in Afghanistan and called for a Russian military base in the country. Putin’s desire to set up a Russian military base in Afghanistan has many drives. But how achievable is it with regard to the multitude of effective players there?
Russian interests in Afghanistan
The most important interests in Afghanistan are security-related and come in several levels. The first level is the rise of radicalism and terrorism on the borders of the “near abroad”, a term used in the Russian foreign policy to mention such countries as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. So far, Afghanistan has been the core point of this emergence. Before the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban held a severely anti-Russian vision. The US invasion of Afghanistan gained also the Russian agreement. But very soon Moscow understood that the cooperation with the West in its Afghanistan campaign solely represented short-term interests.
The extremist groups in Central Asia and parts of Afghanistan that cultivated antagonism against the Slavic and Orthodox identity in the Muslim regions were nurtured by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The US used them to prompt erosion of the strategic Russian power. The radicalism in Afghanistan held complicated bonds with separatist factions in Chechnya, Bashkortostan, and some of the Russian regions like Karachay, Cherkessia, Balkar, and Adygea. This has been a source of fierce clashes between the Russian forces and the separatists mainly in North Caucasus.
The Russian concerns doubled over the past few years as the US began to relocate ISIS terrorists, many of the being anti-Russian Chechen fighters, from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. Additionally, the increased number of the American military bases in Afghanistan made Moscow understand that under the ruse of anti-terror fight the US and its allies eyed moving close to the Russian borders from Central Asia.
Drugs smuggling also causes worries to the Russian leaders. It was mentioned as a priority to counter in the 2014 and 2020 Russian national security documents. Russia is a target market of the drugs smuggling, with 25 percent of the Afghanistan-produced heroin sent to Russia through Central Asia.
Yet another security challenge posed to Russia from Afghanistan territories is migration. Some of the former Soviet republics cannot resist without Russian support once terrorism spreads across them. Augmented violence and instability in Central Asia will lead to a crisis of migration to Russia.
Significance of a military base to Russia
Over the past few years, Russia, and also China, have understood that to prevent the transfer of Afghanistan security crises to their territories they need to establish military bases in that country and launch multi-faceted security and social activities to eradicate the crises. The largest base Russia has in a foreign country is Camp 201 in Tajikistan with 7,000 forces. The base, 70-years-old, was extended up to 2040 through a deal between Moscow and Dushanbe. Following the intensification of the insecurity in Afghanistan, the Russian president decided to boost the base and equipped it with optimized rockets.
The successful experience of the Camp 201 in Tajikistan to push against terrorism motivated Moscow to seek a security belt around Central Asia using military bases. The country was given permission in 2017 to build a second military base in Kyrgyzstan. Currently, Russia has military bases in Kazakhstan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. The US increase of military bases in Afghanistan from 9 to 13 has drawn Moscow objection. Despite its promises to cut its forces and military bases in Afghanistan, Washington has failed to keep its word.
Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan in mid-March said that the US did not use its military bases in Afghanistan effectively to fight terrorism, adding that the main aim behind establishing the bases was to influence the vicinity of Afghanistan and neighboring countries. He went on that Moscow intended to set up a military base in Afghanistan to make balance with the US beside the fight against terrorism.
Feasibility of a Russian military base in Afghanistan
The main question is that how much Russia is able to establish its own military base in Afghanistan. To establish it, Moscow has to reach deals with several Afghan players. One is National Assembly which is comprised of two chambers: The House and the Senate. According to item 5 of article 90 of the constitution, the National Assembly reserves the right to confirm or revoke the international agreements. Another player is the government which has to demand a foreign military base or agree with a foreign offer. A third player is the Taliban which is of heavy weight in acceptance or rejection of foreign bases in the country.
Since late 2014 and mainly after ISIS rise in Afghanistan, common interests brought Russia and the Taliban together in Northern Afghanistan, a development considerably reduced the deep-rooted enmity between the two. In February peace talks in Moscow, a number of the Taliban leaders including the influential Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai took part. Although the militant group is opposed to the foreign presence in the country, it shares interests with Moscow including opposition to ISIS expansion in Afghanistan. So, one way for Russia to help establish its base is winning this group’s green light. However, the Afghan government holds strategic relations with NATO and the US. Add to this the Kabul-Washington security pact. The West finds a Russian military presence detrimental to its strategic interests and so will practically oppose it.