With Afghan Collapse, Moscow Takes Charge in Central Asia

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — As the Afghan government collapsed this week in Kabul and the United States scrambled to speed up its evacuation effort, hundreds of Russian armored vehicles and artillery pieces were clearly visible hundreds of miles away, on the border with Tajikistan.

They were part of a high-profile military exercise taking place just 12 miles from a Taliban position, and they were there, a Russian general said, to make a point.

“They are all visible,” said Gen. Anatoly Sidorov, commander of the forces involved in the exercise. “They are not hiding.”

It will now be Russia, the exercises signaled, that will be shielding Central Asia from potential violence next door.

In the long post-Soviet jostling for power and influence in Central Asia sometimes called the new Great Game, an ever more dominant player has emerged from the chaos and confusion of Afghanistan: Russia, at least in security affairs.

“I wouldn’t say a wounded animal,” the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Tuesday of the withdrawal of NATO and the U.S. forces from Afghanistan. “But this is a group of countries that in a very painful and difficult way is giving up on the positions in the world they were used to for many decades.”
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The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in Moscow last month. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is wielding greater influence in Central Asia.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in Moscow last month. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is wielding greater influence in Central Asia.Credit…Pool photo by Sergei Ilnitsky

The strengthening of Russia’s position in Central Asian security matters is part of a broader shift brought about by the Taliban’s rise to power. Russia, China and Pakistan all stand to gain influence in regional affairs with the West’s withdrawal, while the United States and India stand to lose.

“I’m thinking of this as a post-Western or post-U.S. space now,” said Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, and an authority on Central Asia. “It’s a region transforming itself without the United States.”

And largely to Russia’s benefit.

For Moscow, the chaotic American withdrawal, while reminiscent of Russia’s humiliating 1989 retreat from Afghanistan after its disastrous 10-year intervention, was a propaganda victory on a global scale.

From Latin America to Eastern Europe, Russia has fought for influence by insisting that the United States cannot be trusted. Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, warned that America’s friends in Ukraine could soon also be disappointed.

Beyond Afghanistan, Russia still faces stiff competition from China’s debt and infrastructure diplomacy in Central Asia, a central thoroughfare of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative. And the American oil companies Chevron and Exxon have been pumping crude in Kazakhstan for years. On Tuesday, China and Tajikistan announced a joint border-patrol exercise.

But Russia’s security presence is predominant. The sprawling military footprint the U.S. established in the former Soviet states of Central Asia to facilitate the invasion of Afghanistan has all but disappeared.

As Edil Baisalov, the Kyrgyz ambassador to Britain, put it succinctly in a telephone interview: “The great hour of America in Central Asia has long since passed.”

Huge U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have long since closed down, along with a major supply line called the Northern Distribution Network that had stretched from as far away as the Baltic nations through Russia and Central Asia to northern Afghanistan.

As the U.S. military effort has wound down, so, too, has Washington’s political influence. The Biden administration made overtures this summer to four of the five former Soviet Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — offering things like aid funding and Covid-19 vaccines in exchange for taking a share of 9,000 Afghan refugees. So far it has found no takers.

Some, like Tajikistan, gladly accepted the money and vaccines while still declining to take the refugees. Today, the Moderna vaccine is available free in government-run medical tents in village bazaars in the mountain region of Badakhshan in Tajikistan, residents say.

But nearby, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers have been rumbling along the roads, kicking up dust, in an area to which Tajikistan denied the United States access during its military withdrawal.
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Russian military helicopters in Tajikistan during the high-profile exercise near the border with Afghanistan this month.
Russian military helicopters in Tajikistan during the high-profile exercise near the border with Afghanistan this month.Credit…Didor Sadulloev/Associated Press

Through the summer, Russia’s leaders made clear who was calling the shots in regional diplomacy north of Afghanistan, while undercutting the Biden administration’s two initiatives in the region, the one on Afghan refugees and another on security aid.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. They are emerging now from obscurity, but little is known about them or how they plan to govern.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost as the militants retake power.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.

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“Russia can quickly restore its position in Central Asia,” Andrei Serenko, a reporter specializing in Afghan affairs at Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said in an interview. “It will put its security umbrella up in place of the disappearing American umbrella.”

“You all have left, and everything is on fire again,” said the museum’s director, Igor Yerin, addressing Americans. “You didn’t put out the fire. The fire is only burning hotter.”

But the deputy head of the Russian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Dmitri Novikov, responding to E.U. diplomats’ concerns about rising Russian influence, said Western nations shouldn’t worry about Russia asserting itself in Afghanistan. There will be enough work to go around, he said.

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