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Russia's Wary Attitude Towards Afghanistan War

27/10/09October 27, 2009

The Russians must have a feeling of déjà-vu. When the Soviet troops went into Afghanistan at the end of the 1970s, it soon became bitterly clear that their fight was going to be a tough one. In the end, they were not able to beat the mujahedeen, despite better equipment and over 115,000 troops. What is their attitude to the US-led war in Afghanistan today?

The Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 but neither side has recovered from the devastating impact of the war
The Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 but neither side has recovered from the devastating impact of the warImage: AP

No war in Afghanistan is winnable according to the Russians. So there is no question of sending in any Russian troops but generally the Kremlin is favourable towards NATO’s fight against Islamist militancy, says renowned military expert Alexander Goltz.

"Of all the threats to Russia, the biggest is from Central Asia,” he explains. “There is practically no border between Kazakhstan and Russia. If something terrible happens in the region, thousands of refugees will come to us and this also means criminals, drugs, weapons and all the other joys of this conflict.“

Schizophrenic attitude

But Moscow’s attitude is slightly schizophrenic. On the one hand, the US military presence in the former Soviet republic of Kirgizstan is viewed with suspicion. The only US air base in Central Asia is in Manas, just outside the Kirgiz capital Bishkek. It is a crucial transit point for US and NATO operations in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Moscow allows 4,000 US flights to use Russian airspace to transport weapons, troops and provisions every year. The matter was raised when US President Obama paid his first visit to Moscow, as his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev later explained.

"We talked about an important subject for which it is extremely important that we coordinate our activities,” he said. “I mean Afghanistan. Without close cooperation there will be no success in this area.“

Russia’s ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin, who is known to be a tough cookie generally, is very cooperative when it comes to Afghanistan. Moscow wants to be kept informed of the developments in NATO’s operation. Rogozin says the operation is of international interest but he is also thinking about Russian security.

Will more troops make a difference?

NATO’s top commander Stanley McChrystal thinks there is a very real possibility of failure unless more troops are sent in but Goltz does not think a surge in troops will make a difference.

"The longer this war lasts, the fewer military successes there will be,” says Goltz. “The fighting capacity of the Afghan troops is too low and they are too corrupt. To train capable fighters in Afghanistan would take several decades. The American trainers cannot do anything -- just as the Soviets couldn’t do anything. That’s the case unfortunately and I don’t know the way out.”

Not an easy situation for Russia

But he is aware of the fact that if NATO withdraws, the situation will not get any easier for Russia: “The more units leave the country, the more pressure the Taliban will exercise on the Afghan government.”

“The withdrawal of NATO troops would not be good for Russia. The central Asian states are weak, authoritarian regimes. Terrible misery is not uncommon among the respective populations. It is a good breeding ground for radical Islamic ideas. Russia is thinking about this problem.“

The last of the Soviet troops left Afghanistan 20 years ago but the devastating impact of the war is still apparent on the streets of Russia, where it is not uncommon to see crippled and alcoholic veterans trying to scrape a living.

Author: Stephan Laack/Anne Thomas
Editor: Thomas Bärthlein