RUSSIA SEEKS A ROLE IN ‘AF-PAK’: INTERESTS AND CONCERNS
On assuming office, President Barack Obama spoke of ‘resetting buttons’ of America’s relations with Russia. Henry Kissinger’s article which appeared on 26 February 2009 in the Washington Post, reaffirmed a shift in thinking on Russia in the context of the Afghan war. Kissinger argues that the US cannot withdraw from Afghanistan as the jihadist victory there will have ominous consequences for the stability of the entire region. Nor can it win the war by the methods employed so far. He suggests that the Afghan issue be tackled through international effort, involving all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, India and permanent members of the UNSC and not by unilateral US effort. Owing to geographical reasons, he termed cooperation with Russia and Pakistan as crucial and added that Washington had to choose between a partnership or adversarial relations with Russia.
Despite intense competition between Moscow and Washington for influence over the Eurasian space, the two share common concerns regarding religious extremism and militancy. These forces threaten peace and stability in Russia’s soft underbelly. If these forces succeed in establishing a foothold in Central Asia’s populous Fergana Valley - as they aspire to, there will be no stopping them from advancing further north. Russia seeks to counter this threat through a pro-active policy in the southern direction.
There are also economic reasons propelling Moscow’s southward move. Russian expert Yuri Krupnov opines that while Russia exports mainly hydrocarbons and raw materials to Europe and China, it can export industrial products to the countries towards its south and thus, revive its dilapidated industrial base.
In a landmark agreement on 6 July, during President Obama’s recent Moscow visit, Russia allowed 4,500 overflights – about 12 per day — carrying military cargo for US/NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan. Earlier, Moscow only permitted the transit of non-military cargo. More than two-thirds of all supplies for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan have been traditionally sent by the much shorter and cheaper land route across Pakistan. However, due to repeated militant attacks, this route has become unsafe. With the projected increase in the US/allied troops in Afghanistan, the search for a reliable alternative supply route had become critical. Through this move, Russia has assured for itself a role in the Afghanistan conflict, which it was denied ever since the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. As a quid pro quo, Russia is now likely to be involved in training the Afghan forces.
Earlier, Washington had regarded the reassertion of Russia’s influence as the biggest threat to its Eurasian strategy. This author was told by visitors to Afghanistan that the US officials there denied the Russians any role in reconstruction projects. The Chinese were regarded as less of an immediate rival by the West and were allowed to bag a hefty US$3 billion project to exploit Afghanistan’s Aynak copper deposits as also the railway infrastructure development project.
Moscow is also directly cultivating Afghan and Pak regimes. On 30 July 2009, the first four-nation summit of the Presidents of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan took place in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. All sides discussed cooperation in infrastructure projects, energy, transport, and security and ways to curb the drug menace. They agreed to meet regularly to push forward multifarious cooperation. The possibility of the export of hydroelectricity from Tajikistan to power-deficient Afghanistan and Pakistan, including from the Russian-built Sangtuda-1 project on Vaksh River was also discussed, with the participation of Russia for the first time.
Following recent intensification of military operations against Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, many Central Asian fighters living in the Pak-Afghan border areas have reportedly returned to their homelands. This has aggravated the threat of Islamic militancy to secular Central Asian states. Tajikistan, which shares more than a 1000 km border with Afghanistan, is particularly vulnerable. While Moscow wishes to remain the main guarantor of security to Central Asian states, it must contend with tough competition from the West, led by the US and the growing economic and military muscle of China.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reportedly strove hard at the Yekaterinburg SCO summit held on 15 June 2009, to bridge the gap between Russia and the US. India is interested in peace, stability and development in its immediate and strategic neighbourhood. It has made a sizeable US$1.2 billion investment in development projects in Afghanistan. The opening of transport routes and energy corridors, possibly through combined international effort, can greatly boost South Asia’s (including India’s) trade with Central Asia and direct the flow of energy resources southwards. India should welcome the reduction in trade and travel barriers while protecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty. However, the formation of closed groupings to the exclusion of or at the expense of India, need to be countered at the very outset.
During her forthcoming official visit to Moscow between 2-6 September 2009, President Pratibha Patil is also scheduled to visit the Tajik capital, Dushanbe on 2 September. India needs to pursue a carefully calibrated, pro-active policy to promote its interests. History shows that the developments in the region have always affected India’s security and political and economic interests.