BACKGROUND: Russia is a party to many, if not all, of the efforts to resolve or at least confront the security challenges originating in Afghanistan. Yet earlier this year Moscow appeared ready to forsake a political resolution in favor of a military strike or bombing raids on Afghanistan. Russia's military-political leadership went to great lengths to threaten Kabul and the Taliban and to announce publicly that it could, if it chose, emulate the United States' forceful reply to the bombing of its Tanzanian and Ugandan embassies in 1998. Yet in late September 2000 it became known that Russian emissaries had openly begun direct negotiations with the Taliban. What caused this change in policy?
The Central Asian governments most directly threatened by Afghan-inspired insurgency and terrorists have been alarmed by the fact that the Taliban held them hostage to any Russian military actions. They, not Russia, would bear the brunt of any Afghan reprisal. It seems that the leaders of Central Asia impressed upon Moscow the danger of a wider war that would then drag them and Russia into a much deeper, protracted, and inescapable quagmire. After all, Moscow would have to defend them in the event of such reprisals and it lacks the capacity to do so. Then the Central Asian nations would be the main targets of further war and some of those states might fall apart as a result.
Perhaps fears of Russian irresponsibility based on these earlier threats also led Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov to spurn Russian aid in August-September 2000 and warn against the unreliability and dangers of Russian policies. After all, many observers realized that Moscow's threats against Afghanistan were only the latest in a series of Russian pretexts in the quest for military integration, or in other words the takeover or assimilation of Central Asian militaries.
IMPLICATIONS: Pakistan, the Taliban's main external sponsor, has become increasingly alarmed that China might desert it and incline to a new-forming Indo-Russian alliance against terrorism, leaving it vulnerable on many flanks. Thus its leadership has evidently desperately sought to make contact with Moscow and open political discussions. This fact and the prospect of such talks might have led Moscow to conclude that here discretion was the better part of valor. China too probably played a role here. It has consistently shunned a military answer to the Afghan problem and counseled negotiations perhaps because it faces similar problems in Xinjiang.
It is quite likely, given the general drift of the Sino-Russian relationship where Russia has made most of the ideological and political moves towards China's viewpoint, that China so counseled Russia regarding Taliban. Beijing could have no desire to see Russian strength further erode in another endless and non-winnable frontier war that could further undermine Russian and Central Asian stability and weaken its largest "ally" still further. All these factors seem to have worked together to incline Moscow towards negotiations but they point to valuable insights.
Moscow's generals are still insufficiently controlled by their civilian masters and are too ready to adopt short-term military solutions to political issues in order to advance their own institutional and sectoral agenda. Professional military analyses published in Russia show that aerial or bombing attacks on Afghan targets would strain the Russian military, that is already tied down in an unending war in Chechnya, to the limits of its capabilities if not beyond them. This consideration, joined to Central Asian remonstrations with Moscow, most certainly led to second thoughts about the Russian military option.
CONCLUSIONS: Moscow, despite its neo-imperial intentions, still cannot unilaterally provide effective security to Central Asia. Therefore those states can maneuver on their own behalf and can influence Russia. Since China, Turkey, and the United States are rushing to offer assistance, the Central Asian countries have successfully diversified their policies to be of interest to other states besides Russia and thereby gained some freedom of action in foreign affairs.
While Russia wants to preserve its exclusive hegemony over Central Asia, it increasingly must acknowledge China and accept that it can have tranquility and security in Central Asia only on the basis of Chinese sufferance. This may not be a permanently operating factor. But the turbulence emanating from Afghanistan, on the other hand, gives every sign of continuing far into the future.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Stephen Blank is a Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The views Expressed here do not in any way represent those of the US Army, the US Defense Department, or the US Government
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