Russia and Afghanistan: Strange Bedfellows

UFA, RUSSIA - JULY 10: In this handout image supplied by Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti, President of the Russian Federation V
UFA, RUSSIA - JULY 10: In this handout image supplied by Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, left, and President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai during the welcome ceremony for the SCO heads of state. during the BRICS/SCO Summits - Russia 2015 on July 10, 2015 in Ufa, Russia. (Photo by Host Photo Agency/Ria Novosti via Getty Images)

There has been concern in the western world for some time, and rightly so, that Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin wants to assert itself as a superpower resembling the defunct USSR. Putin has been working on this endeavor ever since he was brought to power by the late Boris Yeltsin, the founder of the new Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a former well-trained KGB agent, Putin has the temperament and skills to create an atmosphere of fear and nationalism to galvanize the Russians nostalgic for their past glory in the USSR.

In August 1999, Putin was named Russia's acting prime minister. In September of that year a number of Moscow apartments were destroyed resulting in 300 deaths and many more wounded. This act of terror was immediately blamed on the Chechen rebels, giving a pretext to Team Yeltsin-Putin to launch a brutal scorched earth military campaign in Chechnya, a Russian Federation Republic. Putin, playing on rank and file Russian emotions, was able make his presence known. In the aftermath of the humiliating USSR's collapse, the military operation was a boost to the Russians' psyche. The bombing, therefore, was the single most important event in propelling the then relatively unknown Putin to the presidency of the Russian republic. Putin and the Russian government never provided any proof that the bombings were the work of Chechen rebels. Speculation centered on the FSB (the successor of the KGB) being deliberately responsible for the bombings, thus swaying public opinion in favor of launching the bloody war in Chechnya.

In addition to a campaign of intimidation against the opposition in Russia, Mr. Putin's outward adventurism continued by invading the Republic of Georgia in 2008. The support by Russia of the Ukrainian separatists and the eventual annexation of Crimea in March 2014 are part of Mr. Putin's grand scheme to expand Russia's influence around the world. Russia is now engaged in the Syrian quagmire supporting the Assad regime. Syria has been a client state of the USSR and now Russia for many years. Mr. Putin is using this relationship and the fight against ISIS to justify Russia's direct military involvement in Syria. But Putin's real aim is to remain relevant in the Middle East by defending Bashar Al-Assad's regime.

The USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up the communist government that they had helped install in 1978 which was the beginning of the end of Afghanistan, hitherto a viable nation state. Although there is no love lost between most Afghans and the Russians because of the devastation that the USSR's invasion caused, there are signs of a new rapprochement. There have been many visits by Afghan officials to Russia in recent years. Afghanistan's first Vice President, Rasheed Dostom, recently travelled to Russia where he talked with Russian officials about military cooperation between the countries. In the wake of continued security deterioration in the northern provinces of Afghanistan and elsewhere, the Afghan government is in favor of acquiring heavy military equipment from Russia. Russia welcomes the Afghan overtures due partly to the desire to protect its interests in the former Soviet Republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan bordering Afghanistan in the north. Russia still considers these countries as part of its sphere of influence and wants to contain the spread of unrest in these countries.

The Afghan government has bitterly complained about the lack of air support to effectively fight the Taliban insurgency. The U.S. has supplied a number of MD-530 scout helicopters to the Afghan Air Force, but the Afghans are unhappy with the performance of these light helicopters. They complain that these aircraft are not capable of flying high enough in the rugged landscape of Afghanistan. They are therefore vulnerable to ground fire and not effective in the fight against the insurgency. High on the Afghan government's wish list is the MI-35 gunship attack helicopter, capable of carrying a small number of troops. Although any direct participation of Russian troops in the Afghan fight is out of the question for now, the Russians are seriously considering the Afghan government's request for military equipment, a step forward for Russia's outreach to South Central Asia.

The U.S. will maintain about 5,500 troops beyond 2016. While Afghanistan's desire to acquire Russian military hardware will not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it is somewhat disconcerting that after 14 years of shedding blood and expending treasure, the Afghans are looking towards Moscow again.