Russian Policy Toward Afghanistan


Map of Afghanistan and surrounding region

Michael Jasinski
September 15, 2001

The events of September 11, 2001 drew the eyes of the world to Afghanistan, a country in a state of civil war and the reputed operating base of Usama bin Laden. Due to its instability and its proximity to the borders of several members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), developments in Afghanistan have long been Russia’s concern.

The extent to which Russia supports US military action, or even directly assists it, will play a major role in determining the position of the Central Asian states, and perhaps even the success of any actions. At the same time, Russia may not welcome an expansion in US military cooperation with Central Asian states. If the US government decides to undertake military operations against targets in Afghanistan, those operations are likely to have both positive and negative effects on Russian interests.

The Taliban Movement

Russian involvement and interest in Afghanistan did not cease with the withdrawal of Soviet forces in February 1989. Soviet and Russian military advisors continued to assist the Afghan army until the fall of the pro-Soviet government in 1992. Once the Taliban movement began to take over Afghanistan in 1994, Russia started to support anti-Taliban forces, particularly those of the so-called Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a former anti-Soviet Mujahideen commander.

Russia perceived the Afghan threat growing during the 1990s, particularly after the start of the Chechen conflict. Russian officials have accused the Taliban of supporting the Chechen separatist movement with arms, funds, and training. Their statements indicate that they view the conflicts in Chechnya, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East as components of a well coordinated Muslim extremist movement that poses a grave threat to the stability of Russia’s southern CIS neighbors and even to Russia’s territorial integrity.

The recent terrorist strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States are likely to reinforce in Russian security doctrine the importance of fighting “international terrorism.” Indeed, some Russian experts feel that the recent terrorist strikes against the United States only vindicate Russia’s “anti-terrorist” orientation. They also view the West’s efforts to mount a response to these acts as a belated recognition of the threat that Russia recognized a number of years ago and has been actively fighting against, including in Chechnya. The fight against “international terrorism” is also viewed as one of the few shared interests between the United States and Russia. [1]

Anti-Taliban Efforts

Russia’s anti-Taliban efforts have largely been limited to sanctions against the Afghan government and supplying arms to the anti-Taliban forces, although there have been unconfirmed reports of Russian airstrikes on Taliban positions. However, Russia has considered more direct military involvement in Afghanistan. In April 2000, following the completion of international peacekeeping exercises in Tajikistan, then-Security Council Secretary Sergey Ivanov (who is currently the Minister of Defense) stated that Russia might carry out preventive air strikes against rebel bases in Afghanistan in the event of intensification of Taliban activities. [2] Although no airstrikes took place, Presidential Adviser Sergey Yastrzhembskiy indicated that the mere threat to use heavy bombers against Taliban camps had the desired effect of deterring the Taliban from aiding Chechen insurgents. Other Russian experts, including Aleksandr Pikayev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated that in addition to forcing the Taliban to disassociate themselves from the Chechens, the threat of airstrikes reassured Central Asian governments, which look to Russia for aid against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. [3]

One of the most vocal advocates of orienting the Russian defense posture toward the south is the Chief of the General Staff, Army General Anatoliy Kvashnin. He believes that the greatest threat to Russia is regional conflicts, similar to the war in Chechnya, rather than the threat of a nuclear war. Accordingly, he has long been an advocate of reducing Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons and of bolstering its conventional military capabilities. The success Kvashnin has enjoyed in advancing his own military reform plans, which reduce the role of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal and promise more funding for the conventional forces, is indicative of his influence. Speaking at a Ministry of Defense conference in July 2001, Kvashnin identified Afghanistan and the phenomena of extremism, separatism, and international terrorism as the main threats facing Russia today. While some strategic exercises in the late 1990s focused on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the likely threat, Kvashnin did not even include the alliance on his list of threats facing Russia, a further indicator of the gradual shift of Russian security policy toward its southern borders. [4]

Kvashnin’s views are shared by his immediate superior, Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov. In an interview given when he was secretary of the Security Council, Ivanov said that the close coordination between the various underground movements in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the threat they pose to the integrity of the Russian Federation, require Russia to improve security cooperation with other countries in order to effectively fight “international terrorism.” Ivanov also supported Kvashnin’s proposals to strengthen Russian forces in the Caucasus and Central Asia, identifying these regions as significant sources of threats to the Russian Federation. [5] The country’s senior political leadership attaches considerable importance to the developments in Afghanistan as well. During his May 2000 visit to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, President Vladimir Putin discussed the issues of providing military aid for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, as well as direct military support. [2]

A Growing US Influence

However, even though Russia would likely welcome any actions by the United States that would diminish the influence of the Taliban, Russia has another concern. It is worried about growing US influence in the region, which includes the oil-rich Caspian Sea basin. Since the mid-1990s, most Central Asian states have participated in a variety of US- and NATO-sponsored military education and assistance programs, including NATO’s Partnership for Peace (which all Central Asian states except Tajikistan have joined), the US International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, and others. US troops have also held a number of joint exercises with the Centrazbat, a Central Asian multinational peacekeeping battalion formed with NATO support in order to participate in UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations.

In light of the Russian opposition to NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe and displeasure with the growing contacts between NATO and former Soviet republics in the Caucasus region (most notably Georgia), Russia is unlikely to welcome increased US presence and influence in Central Asia. [6] This concern may reduce Russian willingness to assist the United States in an operation against the Taliban. Finally, Russia probably would not welcome US strikes if they resulted in waves of refugees streaming into Central Asian states, further destabilizing the situation there.

[1] “Terakty v SShA perekraivayut geopoliticheskuyu situatsiyu v mire,” WPS Oborona i Bezopasnost, September 14, 2001.
[2] Andrey Korbut, “Moskva vvela sanktsii protiv talibov,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 13, 2000; in Integrum Techno,
[3] Aleksey Germanovich, “Signal Flare Attack,” Vedomosti, May 25, 2000; in “Yastrzhembskiy Aide: ‘Threat’ Against Taleban Achieved Goal,” FBIS Document CEP20000526000290.
[4] Vadim Saranov, “Let do voyny,” Versiya, July 3-9, 2001, p. 2; in WPS Oborona i Bezopasnost, July 13, 2001; in Integrum Techno,
[5] “Sekretar Soveta bezopasnosti Sergey Ivanov otvechayet na voprosy ‘Nezavisimoy gazety’ i ‘Nezavisimogo voyennogo obozreniya,” Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, December 1, 2000; in Integrum Techno,
[6] Jim Nichol, “Central Asia’s New States: Political Developments and Implications for US Interests,” CRS Issue Brief, May 18, 2001.

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