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The Russia Journal
December 14-20, 2001
Decision time for Russia in Afghanistan
Putin must choose between working with U.S. and going it alone

The Russian authorities appear to be in some debate as to where to go from here in Afghanistan. On the day Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov gave assurances in Brussels that under no circumstances would Russian troops enter Afghanistan, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in the Tajik capital Dushanbe was not quite so categorical.

Sergei Ivanov spoke at length on what kind of mandate international peacekeeping forces could obtain. Many journalists concluded that Moscow had not ruled out the idea of sending its troops to Afghanistan.

Defense Ministry analysts seem not to have imagined the U.S. strikes would make the Taliban defenses crumble so fast. As a result, the Kremlin has found itself without a clear strategy with regard to Afghanistan. So far, Russia has cause to be happy with the way events in Afghanistan are unfolding. Russia had called the fundamentalist Taliban regime one of the greatest threats to its security and had plans to deploy a 50,000-strong group of soldiers to oppose this threat.

But now the world’s most powerful country has taken military action and has liquidated the threat itself. Washington isn’t insisting in the slightest that Russia increase its participation. Indeed, the Americans have been rather skeptical of late about the need to deploy any foreign peacekeeping contingents.

The Pentagon is aware of the risk of being dragged into a guerrilla war. "One of the lessons of Afghan history that we are trying to take into account in this campaign is that foreigners should not go into Afghanistan," said U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "And if they do go in there, they shouldn’t stay too long."

Afghanistan’s new rulers aren’t exactly overjoyed at the idea of a foreign military presence in their country, not when they have power struggles of their own looming. Gen. Rashid Dustum’s disagreement with the outcome of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan’s new government and the inter-factional fighting in Kandahar is just a taste of things to come.

Western European leaders and United Nations officials worried that the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign could diminish their status on the world stage look to be the biggest supporters of sending in foreign peacekeepers. A similar thing happened in the early 1990s when individual countries and international organizations rushed to participate in the Yugoslavia peace process only in order to strengthen their own political authority.

The Americans have not demanded that Russia take part in a peacekeeping operation. The United States is happy to have Moscow supply it with intelligence and the Northern Alliance with Soviet arms. Russia should now take advantage of the favorable international situation to concentrate on other more pressing issues, including military reform.

But instead, Russia has got the Realpolitik itch again. With the United States looking increasingly likely to remain in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for some time – U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent visit only confirmed this – Russian geopolitical strategists are looking for ways to demonstrate a Russian presence in Afghanistan. Just recall the lightning setting up of a Russian hospital in Kabul under the protection of Emergency Situations Ministry troops. Powell called Moscow the next day to clarify the situation and assure himself that this was not a new "descent on Pristina."

Given the complicated nature of the situation in Afghanistan, the Americans consider it very important that all foreign forces apply a common approach to the peace process in their dealings with the various Afghan groups and not play on the contradictions between the United States, Russia, Western European countries and a number of Muslim countries.

Russia now faces the temptation of trying to raise its international prestige by following its own course, as it did throughout the Yugoslav peace process. It looks like Russian politicians want to repeat this experience in Afghanistan. This is what Defense Minister Ivanov was hinting at. What is more, the Russian media actively discussed rumors last week that Russian military specialists were already in Afghanistan, having arrived there along with dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery equipment sent by Russia to the Northern Alliance.

But these hopes and plans (fortunately or unfortunately) have little to do with reality. Russia’s experience in the Yugoslav peace process shows this. The Kremlin thought it was following its own policy, but in reality Belgrade was making cunning use of Moscow’s desire for an independent course and was playing Russia off against the West. As a result, Russia made no gains at all. In the end, what counted was not the brave stunt pulled off by Russian paratroopers when they seized Pristina’s airport, but the financial possibilities of countries participating in the peacekeeping operations and able to take on the decisive role in rebuilding a country that had seen its infrastructure destroyed by years of civil war.

It is obvious that even if Russian soldiers did enter Afghanistan again, Moscow would not be able to play an independent role there. Above all, this is because Russia can afford no more than a symbolic presence – it simply does not have the required number of ground forces for more. And unless it makes serious investments in rebuilding infrastructure in Afghanistan (which Germany or Britain but not Russia can afford), it has no hope of gaining influence there. Finally, there is also no forgetting the history of Russia’s relations with the Afghans, which is complicated to say the least.

President Vladimir Putin now has to decide what is more important – using his opportunities to help develop a common policy within the anti-terrorist coalition and helping to back it up with his "special relations" with some of the Afghan field commanders such as Gen. Dustum, or using his limited opportunities to follow some kind of independent policy.

To take the second approach would mean that the Americans would go from seeing Russia as a partner to seeing it as an obstacle to the implementation of their own policies. Ultimately, Russia has to choose between playing a visible but nonetheless limited role in international affairs and an attempt to play the role of superpower once more. Russia’s future will depend on this choice.

(The writer is a correspondent for Yezhenedelny Zhurnal.)

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