When post-Soviet Russia lost its super-power status, this not only reduced its political and military role in many regions of the world but also spending on analysis, at least on the public academic level. Even Afghanistan, a country in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood, suffered that fate. Афганистан.Ру (Afghanistan.ru), a website with the sub-heading “all about Afghanistan,” has filled this vacuum and has become one of the most important sources for the Russian elite’s views on Afghanistan. AAN guest author Dmitry Shlapentokh (*) has reviewed its 2013 and 2014 articles and found changing perspectives on Afghanistan on the eve of the NATO troop withdrawal. He concludes that the website’s value does not lie so much in the information it provides about Afghanistan but in its clues about the Russian elite’s perceptions of the situation in the country in a broader geopolitical context.
Russia, and its 1921–89 incarnation the USSR, has been engaged in Afghanistan for a long time. The nature of Moscow’s engagement in Afghanistan in the Soviet times had a lot of structural similarities to what was called the old Great Game – the nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian-British rivalry in Central Asia. In that time, Afghanistan – from the perspective of expanding tsarist Russia – constituted a buffer state making sure the British empire, from its dominion in India, would not expand its own southern border. In 1868, Russia had pushed forward its de facto border to the Amu Darya by making the ancient Emirate of Buchara a vassal state (Bukhara was finally occupied and incorporated into the USSR in 1924) while, in the southwest, Britain had crossed the Indus, forcing upon Afghanistan the current border in that area, the Durand Line, in 1893. Similarly, in the 1970s, Afghanistan became a pawn in the cold war competition between the two super powers.
The Great Game, Cold War and its aftermath
While relations between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan had been mutually beneficial for many decades, this relationship hit its low between 1979 and 1989 when Soviet troops invaded the country, upsetting the balance of Soviet and US influence there. Until then recognised as non-aligned, although cooperating militarily more closely with the Soviet Union than with the US (more background in this AAN paper), Afghanistan moved into the Soviet bloc under the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) that came to power in 1978. When the new regime quickly came under pressure by the US-supported mujahedin, most likely Moscow believed that Afghanistan would lapse into anarchy and that Moscow could deal with the resistance quickly and best itself. The war lasted for ten years, driven by the same delusion that the US would have after 2001: after the collapse of organised resistance, the propped-up regime would be firmly in control of the country. Gorbachev’s reforms, starting in 1985, led to a weakening of the Soviet state, with direct implications for Afghanistan. The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, and the collapse of the USSR three years later, left the Soviet-imposed Najibullah government alone. It finally collapsed in 1992, leading to internal turmoil that ended with the triumph of the Taleban in 1996.
As a result of those events, Russia itself was extremely weakened on the international scene, losing its super-power status. Throughout most of the 1990s, it faced, it seemed at the time, an unstoppable decline with NATO filling the geopolitical vacuum in Eastern and Central Europe. The situation in Russia’s soft underbelly, the Central Asian states of the former USSR, now independent, was also quite unstable (read a recent AAN paper about their development here:). Tajikistan had been engaged in an extremely bloody civil war between 1992 and 1997 where regional interests were interwoven with local conflicts between Islamists and their rivals, mainly former communists turned secular nationalists; in addition, Islamist terrorists had become active in Uzbekistan. Russian elites feared that the Taleban, who had controlled Afghanistan since the late 1990s and harboured violent Central Asian Islamist groups, could spread Islamic extremism to other Central Asian states and Russia proper. (Read AAN analysis about this issue here.)
In this context, the 2001 US-led invasion in Afghanistan was seen by Russia more as a blessing than a curse. At least President Vladimir Putin, elected into office in 2000, made no attempt to prevent the USA from creating military bases in Central Asia. (The most important was the base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, closed only in June this year; read here.) In the beginning of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Putin assumed that he could play the role of a junior partner of the US and expected benefits from the American move. (1) First, the Kremlin believed the US would be locked down in Afghanistan and either defeat the Taleban or at least prevent them from ‘going north,’ that is, threatening or even becoming physically active in the Central Asia republics. The US and NATO were considered a formidable force and the US elite as politically sophisticated. Second, Moscow assumed that Washington would choose Russia as its partner in maintaining the global order and apparently believed that Washington would entrust it with the job of policing post-Soviet space, especially Central Asia.
Changing views in Russia
After more than a decade of this latest Afghan war, the Russian elite – this includes the government and academia – has changed its view. In the view of Russian observers, the US’ lack of success in Afghanistan, both its failure to defeat the insurgency and to stabilise the country, revealed its weakness and misconceptions; as a matter of fact, all this became interwoven in their minds.
The view that the rise of armed militant Islamism (as represented by al-Qaida as well as groups in Russia’s Northern Caucasus and China) and the dangers emanating from this for Russia are results of the US failure in Afghanistan dominates the articles published on Afghanistan.ru. This Russian internet site (with the subtitle Всё об Афганистане, “all about Afghanistan” – it also has an English-language section) has been in operation since 2002. With the collapse of the USSR, funding for fundamental research declined, improvements during Putin’s era notwithstanding. The number of specialist research journals dwindled considerably, including publications that cover Afghanistan. Subsequently, Afghanistan.ru has become one of the most important sources about the Russian elite’s views on Afghanistan. (2)
The website chronicles current political, economic, cultural and other events first of all in Afghanistan and the surrounding region (and also about the Afghan diaspora), often drawing on external sources here. (3) It combines this with analysis contributed by its own extensive list of Russian, Central Asian and Afghan authors. Its editor-in-chief, Omar Nessar, is of Afghan origin and lives in Moscow; he also heads the private Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (Russian acronym CISA, here) and is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (one of his articles in English here). Afghanistan.ru has Persian (Dari) and Pashto language services and works with two correspondents, one in Balkh province and one in Kabul.
As a review of articles published in 2013 and 2014 shows, its value lies not so much in the fact that it informs the reader about Afghanistan per se but that it provides clues about the Russian elite’s perceptions of the situation in the country in a broad geopolitical context.
The articles’ trends and hypotheses can be grouped into four subjects: First, the US departure from Afghanistan is presented as a sign of the US’ broader decline and as a reflection of increasing Russian-US tension in the geopolitical area. Second, it sees the US debacle in Afghanistan as a result primarily to problems within the US elite who are perceived as unable to understand the specificities of non-Western societies. Third, while the USA’s departure is implicitly perceived as a sign of weakness of one of Russia’s competitors and therefore something positive, many authors of this website additionally suggest that Moscow should understand that it will have negative implications for Russia because it increases instability at the country’s southern border. In addition, China – Russia’s other main competitor – will be enabled to extend its presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia and the Middle East. Fourth, in the authors’ view another negative repercussion will be that Russia, together with its allies, will need to deal with post-American Afghanistan alone, given that cooperation on this between Russia and the USA, and the West in general, is unlikely due to the worsening relationship in the context of the Ukrainian crisis.
The ‘USA in decline’ hypothesis
Reading the contributions on Afghanistan.ru, it emerges that a considerable segment of the Russian elite has developed the feeling that Russia’s military and geopolitical clout is increasing again, as demonstrated by its annexation of the Crimea earlier this spring, while the US decline manifests itself, among many other things, by the sequestration of its defence budget and its increasing appearance as an unreliable force manifested in the debacles in both Syria and Iraq.
Authors on Afghanistan.ru further point out that the US problem with Afghanistan lies in the preconceived theories that guided Washington’s approach in that country and that the US is unable to understand other cultures. According to these authors, US elites particularly believe that the American type of democracy should be the template for other states, including Afghanistan, and that the creation of democratic societies based on that model is the US’ historical duty. One might assume that the authors’ views were either directly or indirectly influenced by US neocons who indeed believe that the duty of the US is to spread Western type democracy all over the world.
In the eyes of Nikolai Pakhomov, one of the most prolific authors on the website, this also explains the Karzai government’s behaviour vis-à-vis the US in recent years, including its refusal to sign the Bilateral Strategic Agreement (BSA) between the two countries. He argues that Karzai understood that a continued overly close association with the USA would create domestic political problems for him; on one hand, he would be seen as Washington’s puppet by the Afghan majority and thus lack internal support, while, on the other hand, Washington would not be able to protect him, as the case of former Egyptian president and close US ally Hosni Mubarak demonstrated when he was swept from power without US intervention on his behalf. Logically, Karzai followed the template of the present-day Iraqi government, which originally also received its power from Washington and which had rejected a similar agreement. That Karzai refused to sign the agreement (which would legitimise the USA military presence in the country) demonstrated, Pakhomov argues, how little influence the USA has in Afghanistan despite investing trillions of dollars and thousands of American soldiers’ lives in the war, demonstrating clearly “the low level of competence of American diplomacy.”
Pakhomov also belongs to the pessimists when it comes to Afghanistan’s future and expects a collapse of the post-Karzai government citing two main reasons: the unreliability of Afghanistan’s armed forces despite its size and the absence of loyalty towards the central government, mainly because of the prevalence of ‘traditional views’ in Afghan society. (This relates to Afghans’ observance of strict sharia law and authorities based on divine blessing such as, for example, those enjoyed by the Taleban.)
Another author, Andrei Serenko, also subscribes to Pakhomov’s view that the US defeat in Afghanistan is due to its faulty policy in the country and how the US elite operates. Claiming that two thirds of Afghanistan’s population, especially in urban areas, want the Americans to stay (although he does not provide references to substantiate his figures), he expresses his belief that what he calls the more-archaic, fundamentalist people from Afghanistan’s countryside will run the country in the future and that they are absolutely immune to Western designs. This attitude, he concludes, would also affect the Afghan army. Serenko also argues that despite the Talebans’ brutality, a considerable segment of the populace supports them. The populace does not only support them in Badakhshan – the focus of the article – but, it is implied, throughout most of the country.
Some ‘silver linings’ of the US withdrawal
Not all contributors to Afghanistan.ru regard the US’ departure as totally negative for Russia. They give several reasons for accepting this scenario without alarm. Some believe that the Americans had not really fought the Taleban and had ‘used’ the ‘war against terror’ as just an excuse to harm Russia. Mariia Aleksandrovna Nebol’sina, a fellow in the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Security at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), an elite institution during the Soviet era, (4) holds the view that the US engaged in negotiations with the Taleban because it wants to remain in Afghanistan. She argues that the US is less motivated by fear of terrorism, and more by its desire to control the Middle East and Central Asia; US bases in Afghanistan would play a crucial role in this. (She provides no insight, though, on how Americans would persuade the Taleban to accept this.)
While the US departure would have some ’silver linings’ for Russia, it still would have serious negative implications – and it is this negative assessment of the US withdrawal which dominates the views of Afghanistan.ru contributors. They develop several negative scenarios. According to the first one, Afghanistan could plainly fall apart. Serenko, already quoted above, opines that the people of Afghanistan never had a sense of national identity, and strong central power was the only thing that held them together as a state. (The latter assumption contrasts starkly with notions shared by most Western observers and significant parts of the Afghan elite, that central power in Afghanistan has never been strong – a major argument for strengthening the Afghan central government.) As proof, he points to the collapse of the Najbullah regime in 1992 that immediately led to the fragmentation of Afghanistan along ethnic and regional lines and adds that only the Taleban, and later the government in Kabul propped up by the Americans, were able to arrest this process. Upon the departure of NATO troops, he argues, the Kabul government will weaken again and fragmentation will be inevitable, although it would copy the previous disintegration. It could differ from the previous disintegration, as he implied, by a new configuration among the Afghan elite.
The other options suggested by Afghanistan.ru authors would lead to a Taleban victory and the radicalisation of the country. In the opinion of Dmitry Verkhoturov this would hardly be good news, as Russia did not recognize the Taleban when in power and regarded any flirtation with them dangerous. (Of course the very fact that Russia engaged in diplomatic contacts with Taliban representatives is ignored here.) Several reasons are given for his apprehension. First, an influx of drugs would come into Russia from Afghanistan, because it is assumed that the production of drugs would increase after another Taleban victory. Second, such a victory would lead to further instability, both in Pakistan and Central Asia, and some countries are particularly concerned about the prospective spread of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan; Uzbekistan is mentioned in particular in this regard.
Perspectives on Russia-NATO cooperation and on China
Most of the website authors consider that the possibility of radicalisation and chaos in the region around Afghanistan requires that Russia and NATO continue to cooperate regardless of their other disagreements. In April 2014, the website noted with satisfaction that despite the conflict over Ukraine, NATO leadership expressed its expectation that Russia continue to cooperate with NATO in Afghanistan. Russia, website authors argue, could still allow transfer of goods through its territory, for example. Moreover Russian observers assume that the Kremlin could use the cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan as a bargaining chip. Mendkovich, for example, notes that Russia’s conflict with NATO is unlikely to lead to confrontation, as both sides have common economic interests. Still if NATO would exercise pressure in the Ukrainian context, he states, Russia could block the current and ongoing departure of NATO troops and equipment from Afghanistan through its territory. This would compel NATO to move troops through Pakistan, making them an easy target for the local Taleban.
Other Afghanistan.ru observers like Viktoriia Panfilova suggest that Russia shall deal with Afghanistan independently with a few allies through the regional Collective Security Treaty Organization – a security pact of some post-Soviet states such as Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. (Andrej Kazantsev opines that, in this relationship, actually the Central Asian governments currently instrumentalise Moscow.)
China’s role in the region is another major topic Afghanistan.ru observers examine. On one hand, some of its contributors consider China could well cooperate with Russia in dealing with terrorism, as a Taleban victory could provide further boost Uyghur separatists in China. Still China’s and Russia’s interests could collide in the wider region because China could take advantage of the US’ weakness and emerge as Russia’s main rival in Central Asia and Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, as Verkhoturov underlines, China has already obtained a strong position in the region (including more active relations with Afghanistan) and this could facilitate Beijing’s further expansion and that, with its voracious appetite for resources, it has already emerged as the USA’s major competitor in that region.
Insights on thinking in Russia
The contributions on Afghanistan.ru are important not so much to provide insight into the situation in Afghanistan but because they provide insight into the views of Russian elite’s on Afghanistan in the context of Russia’s general visions of the geopolitical universe. The very fact that in Russia, the Afghanistan.ru website is the only one dedicated to Afghanistan and not much has been written recently about Afghanistan in the country (5) indicates that Afghanistan, however, is not regarded as a geopolitical priority for Moscow. The composition of authors on this website also seems to indicate that Russia’s authors on Afghanistan are compartmentalised: those from the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Foundation, for example, who recently presented a comprehensive study about Russian interests in Afghanistan (more about it in a follow-up AAN dispatch) are absent on Afghanistan.ru.
(*) Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor at Indiana University South Bend, with interest in the former USSR and its relationship with broader Asia. He obtained his MA in history from Moscow State University in 1973 and a PhD in Russian/European history from the University of Chicago in 1988.
(1) Later, however, when the relationship between the USA and Russia worsened, he changed his mind with regard to the US’s presence in the region.
(2) The most important Russian institutes for Eastern studies – also dealing with, but not focusing on Afghanistan – and their websites:
– Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Institut Vostokovedenjia Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk), www.ivran.ru.
– Moscow State Institute of International Relations (Moskovskij Gosudarstvenyi Institut Meshdungrodnych Otnoshenii, MGIMO), www.mgimo.ru.
– Institute for the Countries of Asia and Africa of the Moscow State (Lomonossov) University (Institut stran Asii i Afriku MGU), www.iaas.msu.ru.
– Institute for World Economy and International relations (Institut Mirovol Ekonomiki i Meshdungrodnych Otnoshenii, IMEMO), www.imemo.ru.
– Eastern Faculty of Saint Petersburg State University, (Vostochnyi Fakultet Sankt Peterburgskogo Gosudarsvennogo Universiteta), www.orient.spbu.ru.
– Federal University of Kazan (Kasanskii Fedarainyl Universtet), www.kpfu.ru.
(3) It regularly fails to mention its original sources, however, such as in this recent article about the liberation of a district in the Ghor province by the Afghan armed forces (ANSF) drawing on a news item from Pajhwok Afghan News.
(4) MGIMO, in its Russian acronym, was an elite institution during the Soviet era that trained Soviet diplomats. It continued to be an important institute in post-Soviet Russia.
(5) Among the few Russian-language books about Afghanistan published in the last decade are the following:
Vladimir V. Basov, Natsional’noe i plemennoe v Afganistane (The National and the Tribal [Question] in Afghanistan), Moscow: Nauchno-issledovatel’skiy tsentr Federalnoy sluzhby RF po kontrolyu za oborotom narkotikov, 2011.
Vladimir S. Boyko, Vlast’ i oppozitsiya v Afganistane: osobennosti politicheskoy bor’by v 1919–1953 (Power and Opposition in Afghanistan: Features of political struggle 1919–53), Moscow and Barnaul: Russia Academy of Sciences, Centre for Regional Studies “Russia and the East,” 2010.
Vladimir N. Plastun, Evolyutsia deatel’nost’ ekstremisticheskikh organisatsii v strane Vostoka (The Evolution of the Activities of Extremist Organisations in the Countries of the East), Novosibirsk: Sibirskiy Khronograf, 2002.
Vladimir N. Plastun, Iznanka afganskoy voiny: Dnevniki i kommentary (The Downside of the Afghan War: Diaries and comments), in preparation.
Ekaterina A. Stepanova, Rol’ narkobisnesa v politekonomii konfliktov i terrorisma (The Role of the Narco-Business in the Political Economy of Conflicts and Terrorism), Moscow: Ves Mir, 2005.
Among earlier books, the following can be recommended for their richness of detail, including on the economy, and – some of them – for their Soviet perspective:
Yuri V. Gankovskiy, Istoriya Afganistan (History of Afghanistan), Moscow: Mysl, 1982.
Vladimir G. Korgun, Intelligentsia v politicheskoy zhizni Afghanistan (The Intelligencia in Afghanistan’s Political Life), Moscow: Nauka, 1983.
Vladimir N. Plastun and Vladimir V. Andrianov, Najibulla: Afganistan v tiskakh geopolitiki (Najibullah: Afghanistan’s in the Claws of Geopolitics), Moscow: Russkiy Biograficheskiy Institut, 1998.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020