NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I used to believe that the United States and Russia could form a strategic alliance similar to the one that defeated Nazi Germany once upon a time. I thought it might be possible for Washington and Moscow to join forces, become the world’s policemen, and keep the peace.
I was wrong, and worse yet, naïve.
From 1917 onward, Moscow’s aim has been to offer the nations of the world an alternative to Western-style liberal democracy. Political and economic power are the main currency on the international stage. Moscow has always had a weak economy, so it’s been forced to pursue that aim militarily. Under Vladimir Putin, aggressive expansionism has been central to Russian foreign policy.
Afghanistan is an instructive example. For Moscow, the Central Asian republics are of vital strategic importance. Initially, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was not received with much enthusiasm by Central Asian elites, who owed their political status to the Soviet system. Suddenly faced with the possibility of their own obsolescence, these elites adopted nationalist rhetoric to stay in power. Because the Central Asian republics remained under the control of Moscow’s former clients, their relationship with Russia continued after the fall of the U.S.S.R., but the Kremlin had still taken a big hit: It no longer had claim over the republics’ vast reserves of important natural resources. One big aim of Russian foreign policy ever since has been to conserve a monopoly on the export and transportation of hydrocarbons within the post-Soviet sphere.
The independence of the Central Asian republics had another consequence: It gave the United States an opening to assert its influence in Moscow’s backyard. The republics took advantage of the new political boundaries in the region, seeking to decrease their dependency on Moscow while remaining on good terms with both sides of the geopolitical conflict. Western oil companies wanted to take advantage of the regional market and Turkmenistan wanted a pipeline built through Afghanistan to Pakistan. Washington pressured Turkmenistan to give U.S. multinational Unocal the responsibility of building the pipeline. It then took the appropriate measures to begin negotiations with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The geopolitical stakes of the gambit were high: If it succeeded, Washington would shore up its relations with Pakistan, an old ally, and maybe even gain a new, unlikely friend in Afghanistan, which had never been part of its sphere of influence. The exploitation of gas fields in Turkmenistan by an American business giant also favored the establishment of a harmonious relationship between the United States and the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
By then, the United States understood the clear importance of Afghanistan to the exploitation of gas and oil in Central Asia: The construction of pipelines through Afghanistan allowed for the bypassing of Iran, which has been a U.S. enemy since 1979. But to use Afghan territory, it was necessary to cultivate a reasonably stable relationship with the Taliban, which governed the country. Attempting to thwart America’s ambitions, Russia pursued the construction of pipelines north through Kazakhstan and Eastern Russia. Those efforts were obstructed by rampant corruption, while Washington’s efforts failed because of the worsening of relations with the Taliban.
It was only after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, that the United States came to understand the true strategic value of Central Asia. When the United States decided to invade Afghanistan, it had three choices as a staging ground for its assault: Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Central Asia was picked. The U.S. and Europe successfully pressured Russia to assist with the development of a supply channel, even though Moscow risked losing influence in a region it had considered part of its sphere of influence. Between 2011 and 2015, around half of the supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan flowed through the resulting Northern Distribution Network, even though routing them through Pakistan would have been cheaper. The U.S. thus established a military footprint in Moscow’s backyard, breaking the tradition that prohibited the presence of American or NATO troops in the Russosphere.
Russia had committed a major strategic mistake. America’s occupation of Afghanistan and the expansion of ties with the Central Asian republics that came from it threatened Putin’s ambitions. In 2003, Russia inaugurated a military base in Kyrgyzstan, pledging that it would not abandon the region to American control. The Central Asian republics have oscillated between neutrality (Turkmenistan) and intense collaboration (Uzbekistan) ever since. They are easily intimidated by Moscow and remain afraid of the potential for Afghanistan’s instability to spill over their borders. So they seek alliances to combat those same threats. For all of them other than Tajikistan — which has chosen to deepen its relationship with Russia — that has meant reinforcing ties with the United States.
It is in this light that we must view the recent revelation that Russia’s GRU allegedly offered to pay the Taliban for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan. One of the explanations offered for Russia’s apparent actions is that the Kremlin views the Taliban as a comparatively palatable bulwark against ISIS and al-Qaeda. This doesn’t make much sense, insofar as the line between the former and the latter is, to say the least, blurry. But another motivation seems obvious: Moscow wants to build leverage over the current Afghan government, leverage it would be free to use in the event President Trump achieves his goal of withdrawing American forces from the country. By supporting the Taliban, Moscow has the potential to play a role in designing Afghanistan’s future and could also dominate the transportation of hydrocarbons in the region.
Moscow wishes to expel American influence from Central Asia, thereby regaining control of its sphere of influence and continuing to dominate the Central Asian republics, which for the most part have welcomed the strengthening of relations with the United States. While our presence in Afghanistan has been far from a success, we must also recognize that ceding the country to the Taliban and the Russians would come with its own serious costs. The United States needs to keep a limited military presence in the country and in the region as a check on Russian ambitions.