Russia has 'Chechnya' ploy for Afghanistan
By Dmitry Shlapentokh
With the administration of United States President Barack Obama treating the
deteriorating situation in Afghanistan as a priority, given the resurgence of
the Taliban, Russia has become an important player in the region.
Moscow has indicated its apparent support for the US by allowing the transit of
supplies for Afghanistan through its territory. On the other hand, the decision
by the government in Kyrgyzstan to close the US base at Manas is attributed to
There therefore remains a widespread perception in the West that Russia is
enjoying the US's struggles in Afghanistan, given the history of the Soviet
Union's quagmire in that country during the 1980s.
There might be some truth in this, but Russia has a compelling
reason to be involved in Afghanistan. This is not because of any grand ideas of
empire-building; rather it is to be prepared for the possibility of the US's
A considerable segment of the Russian elite is not anti-American, and even less
so anti-European. Their main concern is the Muslim East.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's representative at the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO), emphasized this point in a recent interview in which he
said that the US's defeat in Afghanistan would be "a great catastrophe for
Russia" as Islamists would immediately spread across Central Asia and the
Caucasus. He added that the US presence in Afghanistan was in Russia's best
interests, implying that the best outcome was if the US stayed there
However, Rogozin said he doubted the US would stay long enough to finish the
job. It is at this point that what is now a newly emerging military force
comprising Russia and several other, mostly Central Asian states, is supposed
to step in to keep the Islamists at bay.
Such a military force is problematic, though.
Belarus, for example, is a member of the new arrangement and is supposedly one
of the strongest Russian allies - the countries recently signed an agreement
for joint air defense.
But President Alexander Lukashenko has made it clear that Belarus will not send
any troops outside the country's borders, and he has engaged in an open
flirtation with anti-Russian Ukraine as well as the European Union.
President Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan is also wavering, apparently upset by
the thousands of Tajik workers expelled from Russia due to the economic crisis.
He has indicated that he might not participate in the alliance at all, and
might even close the Russian base in Tajikistan and invite the Americans
Islam Karimov, the mercurial leader of Uzbekistan, known for his constant
vacillation between Russia and the West, has proclaimed that he would send
troops, but only on a case-by-case basis.
Russia is clearly a long way from building a force of any note, if at all, and
Moscow, acutely aware of this, has another plan, which is drawn from the
template adopted successfully in Chechnya.
This involves establishing a sphere of influence in northern Afghanistan, where
the major ethnic groups are Uzbeks and Tajiks, unlike the Pashtuns that
dominate other parts of the country and which support the Taliban. Under the
Northern Alliance led by the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, a pocket in the
north held out against the Taliban during its years in power from 1996-2001.
In Chechnya, Moscow tamed nationalist Chechens by dishing out considerable
largesse to President Ramzan Kadyrov. This included not only money but a huge
mosque erected in the capital Grozny. The resistance was steadily incorporated
into Kaydrov's forces; and Akhmed Zakaev, the leader of the virtual Chechen
government in exile, has even implied he might return.
This would pit Kadyrov, as Moscow's proxy, against Chechen rebel leader Dokka
Umarov's Caucasus Emirate jihadis. If this happens, it would mark the
transformation of Chechnya from the major headache of the Kremlin into a major
cushion against the jihadi threat.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, Russia could stretch its hand into the north to
establish a credible buffer. It is even possible that embattled President Hamid
Karzai could be drawn into this circle.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.