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The Economist (UK)
December 15-21, 2001
Russia and Afghanistan
All smiles, for now
Gingerly, Russia is returning

DECLARE victory and stay at home. That, at first sight, sums up Russia's policy in Afghanistan. The caution is understandable: Russians regard the Soviet Union's ten-year war there rather as Americans remember Vietnam.

So far, Russia has firmly refused to send troops to fight the Taliban or to keep the peace. It played no significant role in the Bonn peace talks, though it praised the outcome. "The decisions made in Bonn are— excuse my immodesty—a mirror reflection of our position," said Russia's hawkish defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, last week.

Russia's first problem is that Afghanistan (unlike Vietnam for America) is too close and too dangerous to ignore. It borders on three former Soviet republics: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. All three are badly governed and potentially unstable. At home, Russia has its own problems with extremist Islam of the kind that flourished under the Taliban.

So far, the war has gone as Russia wanted. Several big pitfalls have been avoided. America has not—yet—attacked Iraq. The Taliban collapsed pretty neatly, and the new interim government includes nobody Russia really objects to. The chief ministries are held by members of the Northern Alliance, which Russia has financed and armed in past years.

Domestic opposition to Russia's stunning foreign-policy volte face that helped American troops to get into Central Asia has been muted and ineffective. President Vladimir Putin has been able to portray Russia as a trustworthy and useful ally, and the American gratitude thus won will ease future talks with the West about trade, security and finance. The Taliban's defeat also lets the Central Asian regimes breathe more freely, at least for a while. The most-feared Islamic guerrilla, Juma Namangani, who led insurgents in Uzbekistan, is reported to have been killed in Afghanistan.

The next question for Russia is how to improve its standing in a country where local memories are still bitter, and its own muscles wasted. For now, that means relief work. Despite the colossal suffering inflicted on Afghanistan during the Soviet war in the 1980s, this is not as daunting a task as it might sound. Urban and educated Afghans look back on the Soviet-backed regime as at least less bad than the chaos and bigotry that followed it. Older Afghans have genuinely warm memories of the Russian aid that used to flow into the country in the 1960s and 1970s. That included building the highest tunnel in the world, under the Salang pass. Russia is now going to mend the tunnel, damaged in 1992, and will help to clear mines. It has set up a field hospital in Kabul.

In the longer run, however, Russia has its own interests in the region. The biggest of these is keeping a large say in how the energy reserves of Central Asia reach world markets. Given a stable Afghanistan, ambitious plans for gas and oil pipelines will look more practical. Russia currently benefits hugely from the stranglehold created by the Soviet-era pipeline system, particularly over Turkmenistan, which can sell its plentiful gas only to Russia at artificially low prices.

A danger exists that, if trouble breaks out again, Russia will start meddling in internal Afghan politics, supplying favoured commanders with arms and cash. Not everything has gone swimmingly, even in recent weeks. Russia has supported the Northern Alliance more firmly than America would have liked, for example in its unexpected advance to Kabul. Soon afterwards, the speed with which Russia deployed its own large armed aid mission in the Afghan capital, through Bagram airport, left some westerners very annoyed.

Yet the American secretary of state, Colin Powell, was eager to smooth over that difficulty when he visited Moscow this week. He said it had been an "an honour and a pleasure" to help Russia use the airport. All smiles, then, for now.

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