For the last decade, Russian policymakers have watched in alarm as the United States, as part of its war effort in Afghanistan, has made strategic inroads into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Washington has set up military bases and built relationships with the countries that Russia considers its sphere of influence, including Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
But now, the Kremlin is facing something potentially more dangerous than the Americans coming to Central Asia: the Americans leaving Central Asia.
The United States announced this summer that it intends to start pulling its troops out of Afghanistan in 2014. What sort of government develops in Afghanistan after that is unclear, but it will almost certainly include elements of the Taliban that are now fighting US forces. That could provide a bridgehead for radical Islamist groups to move northward, into the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics and possibly to Russia itself. Indeed, over the last month, Russian officials have been openly discussing this threat.
‘We aren’t on the verge of solving the problems in Afghanistan, but on the worsening of them, and quite a qualitatively different situation in the Central Asian region, especially after 2014,’ said Nikolai Bordyuzha, former chief of the Russian border service and now secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led group that aims to form a political-military bloc to increase security in the former Soviet Union. ‘The prognosis is clear: Afghanistan will remain a base for organizing terrorist and extremist activities, we feel.’
‘Russia should expect the activation of militant activity on the borders of Central Asia after the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq and Afghanistan…Threats can now come creeping to our southern borders,’ said Col.-Gen. Vladimir Chirkin, commander of Russia’s Central Military District.
‘We don’t want NATO to go and leave us to face the jackals of war after stirring up the anthill. Immediately after the NATO withdrawal, they will expand towards Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and it will become our problem then,’ said Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro.
Irina Zvyagelskaya, vice president of Russia's Centre for Strategic and Political Studies and senior scholar of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies, agrees with such sentiments. ‘There were a lot of people here who said the US being in Afghanistan was against Russian interests. Now the same people are saying, “how dare they leave Afghanistan,”’ she says.
Before the United States war in Afghanistan began in 2001, Islamist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan maintained a low but persistent profile in several Central Asian states. An apparent assassination attempt on Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, killed 16 people in 1999, and in 2004, attacks on the United States and Israeli embassies in Tashkent killed four Uzbekistani security guards.
There have been no such attacks in recent years, however, and a major reason is because the United States’ war in Afghanistan has drawn jihadists from around the region. The number of Uzbeks, Tajiks and other Central Asians now fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan is unknown, but a US departure would free them up to return to the fight in the former Soviet republics, says Georgi Engelhardt, a Moscow-based expert on political Islam in Russia.
In the meantime, secular, authoritarian governments in the ex-Soviet Central Asian states have, in their efforts to stamp out any internal opposition, instituted increasingly harsh control of religious groups. They will thus be attractive targets for Islamist groups, who believe the governments are un-Islamic. That would bring instability closer to Russia’s borders, and even – via the large diaspora of guest workers from Central Asia in Russian cities – into Russia itself, Engelhardt says. ‘And Russia doesn't have many answers for this.’
Others, however, suggest that this threat is being overblown. While the infiltration of Islamist radicals northward toward Russia is certainly plausible, hard information about the extent of the threat is difficult to come by. Exaggerating the threat suits the governments of Central Asia, who can appeal to foreign powers for military aid and justify crackdowns on legitimate opposition.
‘There’s a danger, but we also might be exaggerating the danger,’ says Arkady Dubnov, a Russian journalist and expert on Central Asia. ‘What we’re seeing now is PR, preparation for this period (when the US leaves). This PR is to prepare popular opinion, internal Russian popular opinion and also Central Asian popular opinion, to accept the inevitability of Russian security measures.’
The spate of public expressions of Kremlin concern coincided with the launch of large-scale military exercises with the countries of Central Asia, Tsentr-2011. The exercises involved countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a political-military bloc that Russia is promoting as a means of maintaining stability in its near abroad.
‘The processes taking place in North Africa and the Middle East were difficult to forecast. What will happen next? What leadership will come to power? This has to be a warning to all states. We have similar questions for the Central Asian countries. We must be prepared for anything. This is why we are practicing with these drills,’ said General Nikolay Makarov, chief of the general staff of the Russian Army, before the CSTO exercises began. ‘Russia's military organization must be ready for a worst-case scenario.’
Dubnov argues that rhetoric about an Islamist threat in Central Asia is a pretext to allow Russia to gain influence in the region. ‘Everyone knows that the Taliban won’t cross from Afghanistan into Central Asia, but everyone claims that’s the threat,’ he said. ‘It’s rhetoric. We want to scare them so much that they let us in in advance; we want presence, not war.’
This view is certainly supported by the fact that the most significant current threat coming from Afghanistan to Russia – the large-scale export of opium – would, in reality, likely decrease in the event of a Taliban government coming to power. While the Taliban had cracked down heavily on poppy production, the United States has refused Russian demands to eradicate poppy fields, in the belief that doing so would unnecessarily alienate the Afghan population whose support US forces are trying to gain.
In addition, there’s great scepticism in Russia over whether the United States will actually leave Afghanistan, reflecting a belief that the United States won’t abandon the strategic foothold it has gained in Central Asia, on the flank of China and Iran, in addition to Russia.
In any case, a decreased US presence in Afghanistan and the surrounding countries is inevitable. And whether Moscow likes it or not, that means that Russia is thus going to be taking a greater amount of responsibility for keeping a lid on whatever threats might emerge in Central Asia.