Analysis of Russia's security reactions in Central Asia
Russia has a relatively high sensitivity towards the security developments of Central Asia and its surrounding areas. From this perspective, the developments of the surrounding areas, especially Afghanistan, as well as the non-constructive measures of the trans-regional actors, such as the United States or Turkey, have always led to a security response from Moscow. In general, Russia’s security responses should be studied either in the context of the bilateral security and defense relations with the regional countries or within the multilateral Institutional frameworks, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in cooperation with China.
By: Omid Rahimi
Russia has a relatively high sensitivity towards the security developments of Central Asia and its surrounding areas. From this perspective, the developments of the surrounding areas, especially Afghanistan, as well as the non-constructive measures of the trans-regional actors, such as the United States or Turkey, have always led to a security response from Moscow. In general, Russia’s security responses should be studied either in the context of the bilateral security and defense relations with the regional countries or within the multilateral Institutional frameworks, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in cooperation with China. In this report, we examine possible factors and contexts related to Russia's recent security movements in Central Asia which have been coincided with Joe Biden’s inauguration in the United States as well as some security developments in Afghanistan.
Joe Biden’s administration and Afghanistan’s developments
Until the last days of his administration, Donald Trump made his best to conclude the Afghan peace process in order to use it as a political privilege, just like the process of normalizing relations between the Arab countries and the Zionist regime. Donald Trump's strategy was to reduce the presence of the US troops in the region, engage with the Taliban, use the regional countries as mediators, and finally change the region’s geopolitics via connecting Central Asia to South Asia, which could significantly reduce the role of China and Russia in Central Asia. However, during the final days of the Trump administration, a different trend of developments began to happen in the region, with northern Afghanistan as its center.
Following the return of the ISIS forces to Iraq and the emergence of some overt movements in the country, there were some rumors about the terrorist group’s re-emergence in Afghanistan. Atta Muhammad Nur, a prominent Tajik figure in the north and former governor of Balkh, was among those who explicitly acknowledged the presence of the ISIS forces in northern Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the security movements of other groups, such as the Taliban, are on the rise in some northern provinces. The Taliban's recent tensions with Afghanistan’s central government also indicate that the differences are getting more serious.
The performance of Ashraf Ghani’s government in the local management of different regions is another context of the security developments in northern Afghanistan. In general, these conditions have led to the rise of security movements and developments along Afghanistan's northern borders.
Although there is no direct and formal footprint of the United States, many view the country as the main designer of these developments. According to this point of view, these developments could lead to the consolidation of the US presence in Afghanistan or better management of the peace negotiation process. On the other hand, such movements could lead to greater and closer cooperation between the Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with the United States. If the US presence in Afghanistan is reduced, one of the possible plans is to hand over the security of the border regions in the north to the adjacent countries. The expansion of interactions with the Taliban to advance the regional plans is another factor that has been raised in this regard. The presence and influence of the United States in all these processes, is the White House’s red line.
At the same time, there are serious doubts about the possible reaction of the Biden administration to these developments. The Biden administration's declared approach is the continuation of the previous peace process and the gradual withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. Restricting the presence of the US forces in Afghanistan to two bases, with the goals such as controlling China as well as maintaining a balance between the Taliban and the central government, are also among the Biden administration’s declared approach. Such destabilizing measures by the United States in northern Afghanistan during Biden’s presidency may be aimed at extending the US presence and delaying the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
The changes in Washington’s interactions with China and Russia in the Biden administration is another factor. In a significant move, the Biden administration has recently removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its list of terrorist groups, which provoked a backlash from China.
Another view is that the lobbies of Republican and groups close to Donald Trump (such as the arms companies lobbies that are considered as the Republicans’ traditional allies) may be behind the scene of these events, in order to involve private security companies and even official agencies. Delay in power transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, changes in the White House’s security structures, and limited transfer of information to Biden’s team are among the signs of this view. The pursuit of such a trend by Biden's opponents may push him towards a fait accompli in the US’ interactions with China and Russia. Therefore, failure in such an important process could, in the first place, prevent some of the achievements of the Trump administration to become an important advantage for Biden, and on the other hand, would pave the way for the 2024 elections via increasing pressure on the Biden administration and showing it as an inefficient government. Afghanistan, the Middle East and weakness in interaction with China and Russia will be the focal point of this foreign policy process.
Meanwhile, there is a third point of view, which basically envisages economic roots for the security movements in northern Afghanistan, originating in the United States. According to this view, the organized trade and transit of narcotics through the northern borders of Afghanistan is carried out via certain political, security and economic circles in Russia in cooperation with powerful local liaisons in the Central Asian republics. The emergence of instability and insecurity in northern Afghanistan could have a serious impact on this trade. Since these drug cartels are operating formally and through special channels, stability is a key factor to guarantee their revenues. This scenario, however, is weaker than the other two views.
Russia's response and Strengthen speculations
The main issues raised in the above-mentioned cases are all speculations. The official trends in the peace talks are indicating a growing number of third-party talks with the Taliban and a relative silence on the side of the Afghan government. At the same time, there does not seem to be a favorable environment for the ISIS in the northern regions of Afghanistan, like Iraq and Syria. In fact, the main platform for the expansion of the ISIS's power in Iraq and Syria was the cultural atmosphere of these countries, which apparently does not exist in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Taliban leadership's warning to the local commanders against recruiting the foreign forces - which was faced with different reactions within the group - also indicates that there are weak but serious trends in this regard. However, the behavioral factors of the Taliban cannot be considered as a clear indication of the possible occurrence of some security developments in northern Afghanistan in the spring of 2021.
Nevertheless, the reaction of the Russian government is an issue that has strengthened these speculations. Following the visit of Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov to Russia and his meeting with Vladimir Putin, Bishkek announced the agreement between the two countries over the deployment of S-300 defense systems in Kyrgyzstan as one of the most important and serious results of the visit. According to the Kyrgyz officials, a number of offensive drones are also supposed to be delivered to Bishkek under this bilateral defense and military cooperation agreement. The Kyrgyz presidential press service further noted that the delivery of the equipment is going to be done within the framework of agreements of the regional organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Union or CSTO, in order to guarantee the border security of the member states.
This comes as Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Nurlan Kiresheyev had alredy said that upgrading the defensive and offensive structures of Kant Air Base (which owned by Russia) is on Bishkek’s agenda to improve the regional security. In his statement on February 13, Kiresheyev also reiterated that the deployment of defense systems in Kyrgyzstan was an issue agreed upon during Vladimir Putin's visit to Bishkek last summer. These remarks came just a day after Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov commented on the deployment of defense systems at Kant Air Base.
The deployment of the S-300 defense system in Kyrgyzstan has proposed in a situation that this system had been previously deployed in Tajikistan in 2019. Exactly one year ago, in February 2020, Russia also began to develop the Kant Air Base via equipping it with Orlan-10 and Forpost drones. Both drones have reconnaissance capability and are not used for the offensive operations. The Orlan-10 drones are made by the Russian army and the Forpost drones are purchased from the Zionist regime. These drones had been previously stationed at Russian 201st Military Base in Tajikistan.
It also should be noted that Russia has taken similar measures in Central Asia within the framework of CSTO. Last year, several large joint exercises were held with participation of the indigenous forces of the regional countries, generally aimed at countering two types of threats: asymmetric ground threats in the context of counterterrorism, and classical threats. Meanwhile, General Anatoly Sidorov, the Chief of the CSTO Joint Staff, stated that the organization has planned four major exercises for Tajikistan alone in 2021 to prepare the country for facing the existing threats along the Afghan borders.
Should these developments be taken seriously?
The S-300 is one of the long-range air defense systems from the SAM series that are made by Russia. Depending on the ordered model, the radars of this defense are capable of detecting targets up to a distance of 360 km, and its missiles have a range of up to 150 km. The main use of this defense system is to counter a variety of fighters, bombers and cruise missiles. At the same time, it has some capabilities for facing the ballistic missiles. These features raise a fundamental question regarding the deployment of the system in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: What is the main goal behind the deployment of the system in these countries?
Naturally, there is no potential threat from the Central Asian countries against Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, or even against Russia's interests in these countries. In the case of China and Iran, it is unlikely for Russia to see such a level of threat regarding the missile or air threats. The only likely option is Afghanistan. From Russia's point of view, the most serious threat from Afghanistan is the presence of the militant groups. However, in the case of the Taliban and all the terrorist groups such as the ISIS, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and even other emerging movements, there is no threat in the form of the ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, fighter jets or even UAVs. Therefore, there is no reasonable justification for the presence of the expensive S-300 systems in these regions.
The only threat in Afghanistan that has air capabilities is the United States, which has deployed significant equipment at several air bases. Moscow seems to be sending a serious signal to the United States via the deployment of long-range defense systems in southern Central Asia. This is also the justification that the western media and think tanks envisage for such a plan.
The dominant discourse of these views generally is centered on the rivalry between Russia and the United States in the sensitive region of Afghanistan. It should be noted, however, that Russia has had a very serious experience with Washington’s air support for the militant groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. At the same time, the internal and social environment of the two republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is very similar to that of Syria from 2009 to 2011. Thus, the existing potential for instability at home, the weakening of the indigenous governments, the outbreak of armed conflict in northern Afghanistan and its spread beyond the borders of Central Asia, and ultimately a regional instability could seriously damage all of China's economic plans and divert all Kremlin’s attention towards the south and reduce its concentration on the western Eurasia (Ukraine, Baltic basin, Belarus and South Caucasus).
It should be noted, however, that the deployment of the offensive drones - the type of which is not yet known - in the Central Asian countries could be a very serious step in the face of asymmetric threats such as militant groups on the southern borders of Central Asia. This issue was also explicitly mentioned by the Chief of the CSTO Joint Staff at the last meeting of the organization. At the same time, Russia has upgraded the armored and ground equipment of Tajikistan's 201st base in recent years, and has promoted the capabilities of the Central Asian security forces. In this regard, there are even speculations about cooperation with Turkmenistan.
Although the spread of threats from northern Afghanistan to Central Asia is limited to speculations, Russia's thought-provoking response indicates that this threat, which is of American origin, is serious. Naturally, in the event of any kind of instability, the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot just watch the situation and must prevent the spread of threats to its borders and even help to stop the expansion of instability in Central Asia. Reinforcement of the security presence in northern Afghanistan and strengthening the capacity of the people in these areas, and even accelerating the transfer of experience in the fight against the ISIS in Syria to the people of this country, is an option that should be considered as a preventive measure. At the same time, this shared perception of the US threat in Afghanistan could pave the way for the development of the Islamic Republic of Iran's cooperation with the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Omid Rahimi,isa Researcher at the Institute for East Strategic Studies