By Habibe Ozdal
Afghanistan bears importance for Russia; for the sake of relations with NATO and the US, and for the stability of Central Asia, which Russia considers as its natural zone of influence, as well. The war in Georgia; which was triggered by the West clearing the way of membership to NATO for Ukraine and Georgia, and also by the crisis concerning the plan to deploy a missile shield in Europe; brought the relations between Russia and the US to a deadlock. The relations which were reset with the initiative of the US in the post-2008 era enabled Russia-USA cooperation as visible in the case of Afghanistan.
Russia, which is inclined to confine the activities of extra-regional actors in the ex-Soviet geography, opted for an alternative strategy in the case of Afghanistan. Moscow has both opened its air space and provided with its railway network to supply equipment to ISAF. Because it was thought that as a result of USA combating the Taliban, the spread of religious radicalism would be eradicated and the relevant concerns of Russia would cease. On the other hand, with the occasion of the crisis in Afghanistan, Russia both established a ground of legitimacy for its involvement in the region and gave weight to its relations with the West through the Northern Distribution Network that provided an alternative to Pakistan in supplying equipment to ISAF troops.
The political and economic gains aimed by Russia as well as Russia’s concerns regarding security over Afghanistan are intermingled. Therefore a wider perspective should be adopted to understand Russia’s policies toward Afghanistan.
Afghanistan from the point of Kremlin
In the Russian foreign policy doctrines dated 2000 and 2008, Afghanistan was referred as a significant threat for the southern borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Because of its potential to harm stability in Central Asia, Afghanistan meant a country within which Russia intended to be active. Main tools for Russia to gear up throughout Central Asia and in Afghanistan peculiarly were training the military personnel, common military exercises, military bases and arms trade.
The possibility of Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan in the post-2014 era and religious radicalism rising correspondingly makes Russia worry as it harbors 20 million Muslims within its borders.
Alongside for Russia’s security-first approach, Afghanistan becomes more of an issue on Kremlin’s agenda because of its influence over the Russian society as well. According the data retrieved from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the rate of drug abuse among the population between the ages of 15 and 54 in Russia is 1.64%. In Russia, where 2.5 million drug addicts exist, 1.7 million of these are heroin users. And according to the data of 2010 from the office, Russia is the first in the world in narcotics consumption with a ratio of 21%. 90% of the narcotics consumed in the country are procured from Afghanistan.
According to Russia’s Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics, 10,000 people every year lose their lives because of overdose drug abuse while more than 100,000 people die because of other reasons related with narcotics. In addition, 5 million people every year become drug addicts and one in every one hundred within the younger population carries HIV.
To sum up, narcotics traffic based in Afghanistan poses a great threat against the health of Russian society. For Kremlin, which has been promoting population growth and preparing precautionary packages accordingly since 2007, it is not a surprise that Afghanistan-based narcotics traffic is at the top of the agenda.
In terms of realpolitik, one of Russia’s main goals is to get a slice of the cake while Afghanistan is reconstructed. Russian authorities believe that keeping away from the developments in Afghanistan will result in conforming impositions by the West hereafter. Currently the volume of trade between Afghanistan and Russia is considerably limited. While the trade volume between the two countries was 200 million dollars in 2008, it increased to 571.3 millions in 2010 and to 984.96 millions in 2011. Even though economic relations aren’t remarkable at this stage, Russia is the fifth largest partner of Afghanistan in the latter’s imports while its sixth largest partner in exports.
Northern Distribution Network and Russia’s Increasing Significance
Pakistan closed the supply routes in the south as a response to the drone attack which resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers at the end of 2011. Thereupon, NATO was obliged to pass through a route over Central Asia, Caucuses and Russia, hence the Northern Distribution Network. Created as an alternative to Sothern Distribution Network, Northern Distribution Network enhanced Russia’s role in the region. Russia plays an increasingly vital role in transporting to NATO and US forces in Afghanistan non-military equipment such as food and fuel. For 30% of the cargo entering the region in mid-2010, Northern Distribution Network was used; and 65% of those cargo were transported through Russian territory. At the end of 2011, 75% of the non-military equipment for ISAF was provided through the same network.
A total of 25,000 containers have passed through Russian soil from 27 February 2009 when transit passage was formally initiated, until April 2011. Moreover, armored vehicles of Afghanistan have been allowed to pass since the end of 2010. With the 1000th flight conducted over Russian air space by ISAF, the number of soldiers reaching Afghanistan from the US passed 150,000.
Northern Distribution Network also provides a financial resource for Russian companies. While the national railway company RZhD has been collecting levies thanks to this network, Russian airway firms such as Vertical-T and UTAIR receive nearly one billion dollars every year through transits into Afghanistan.
In conclusion, Afghanistan constitutes one of the most important examples of “selective cooperation” which emerged between Russia and the US after 2008. Russia became an indispensable partner for NATO thanks to the Northern Distribution Network. However, when ISAF retreats from the region, this situation will end. Moreover, the possibility of Taliban regaining strength in the post-2014 era is Russia’s main concern. Therefore Russian officials’ statements regarding the postponement of this process often find place among global headlines. Russia, which had no tolerance regarding military deployment of extra-regional countries in its backyard from the beginning, is for continued NATO existence – for now – in Afghanistan because of the sensitivity of the issues at concern. Because its interests require so.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies