By Gordon M. Hahn
Russia: Other Points of View
June 21, 2012

The ‘reset’ in U.S.-Russian relations is showing signs of an impending crash. This comes as the environment is increasingly being overloaded with seemingly unsolvable issues and threats to international stability; i.e. Iran’s nuclear program, Syria and the rest of the Arab winter, the U.S’ approaching withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the possible advent of a less friendly U.S. administration in 2013. This is an opportune time to consider one of the clear positives produced by the original reset: that is, the deepening cooperation between the U.S.-Russian in the war against global Islamism and Jihadism.

To be sure, the motive behind much of Russia’s cooperation in the war on jihadism is rooted in self-interest (as is the conduct of most foreign policy across the globe). Russia sees jihadism as a potentially grave threat to its own jihad-plagued North Caucasus, other regions of Russia, and neighboring Central Asia states. They wish to see the U.S. succeed against Al Qa`ida and the Taliban.

Therefore, considerable cooperation began immediately after 9/11 when Russian President Vladimir Putin moved immediately to support U.S. efforts. From 2002 Putin’s early assistance on Central Asian bases, leasing Russian heavy air transport for airlifts to Afghanistan, and sending arms to the Northern Alliance, was crucial to the U.S. initial defeat of the Taliban.

But Moscow also wishes to control the Western (and in particular the American) presence in the region especially regarding continued NATO expansion along Russia’s western and southwestern borders; hence Moscow’s tussle with Washington over its military bases in Central Asia. Nevertheless, Moscow’s cooperation is so broad that at least some of it would have been unlikely without the Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations by starting with a more or less clean slate and restraining NATO expansion.

Moscow is particularly keen that NATO forces devote considerable effort to combating Afghanistan’s narcotics trade. This trade enriches Russian organized crime groups, Central Asian mujahedin, and creates drug addicts of tens of thousands of Russian citizens. Towards this end, Russian MVD anti-narcotics units have been training Afghan drug control officers in Domodedovo near Moscow since 2006. Unfortunately, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has fired almost all of the trained officers after their arrival back in Afghanistan. This may be a service to his brother who is suspected of being the major player in Afghanistan’s narcotics business.

Russia’s greatest contribution to the Afghan effort has been the Northern Distribution Route (NDR) providing a transport corridor for supplying non-weapons cargo to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan as an alternative to the frequently disrupted Pakistan route and the air transit route through the Caspian region. Under the first agreement signed in February 2009, Russia permitted a railroad route through Russia that begins from Riga, Latvia and then traverses Russia and Central Asia. Later the same year, an additional agreement authorized the opening of an air transport corridor through Russian air space, and a supplementary agreement signed in 2010 opened up these routes to the transport of armored personnel carriers, the first foreign military equipment allowed to be transported through Russia since World war Two’s Lend lease program. These supports are unprecedented for a country that has been reluctant to have any foreign military presence on its territory and has been at best ambivalent and at worse paranoid about the U.S. and the West.

Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon reports that since mid-2010 an average of two U.S. planes per day fly over Russia carrying troops and supplies, amounting to several hundred flights transporting tens of thousands of personnel and pieces of cargo. Russia’s rail network has transported more than 10,000 supply containers. About 20 percent of all supplies for the war effort in Afghanistan traverses Russia.” This adds to the Russian heavy airlift of more than 12,000 flights supplying U.S. troops both in Afghanistan and Iraq, including 30% of the fuel used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Under a NATO-Russia Council special financing program in which Moscow defers part of the costs, Russia has sold over eighty MI-17 helicopters to the Afghan army, police, and drug control forces. Further, it has opened courses in Novosibirsk to train Afghan technicians to service the helicopters.

Additionally, Russian intelligence-sharing has supported operations both in Afghanistan and the larger, global war against jihadism. Russia and NATO are developing a new-generation explosive detector to strengthen security on public transportation systems like subways and trains, which have been attacked in mass casualty attacks both in Russia and the West.

Russia also has provided debt relief, economic aide, and investment to the Afghan government. In January 2011 Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Andrey Avetisyan, announced that Moscow was ready to aid Afghanistan in rebuilding Soviet-built infrastructure and facilities, if international financing is provided.

More recently, Moscow offered this year to open up use of its military base in Ulyanovsk for NATO supply transports to Afghanistan. This spring it sent to $2 million to the African Union to help combat the Al Qa`ida tied Al-Shabab jihadi group active in Somalia.

U.S., NATO, and Russian forces have even by engaging in joint counter-terrorism training exercises. Last year Russia and NATO trained together to escort a fictionally hijacked transport plane from NATO airspace across the Russian border in the Vigilant Skies exercises conducted in Warsaw and Moscow. Last month, American Special Forces and Russian paratroop forces carried out their first joint counter-terrorism training exercises ever. Russian reports hailed the exercises as a great success (Viktor Litovkin, “Kolorado zapomnit VDV,” Nezavisimaya gazeta – Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 8 June 2012). These first such U.S.-Russian exercises, which simulated mountain terrain fighting and were held in Colorado, will transit to Moscow next year.

In short, U.S. and NATO cooperation with Russia has been a signal success, the level of which could not have been attained without the reset policy. Unfortunately, sometimes there are dark clouds even on a sunny day. As I wrote in a scholarly paper before Obama and Medvedev took office and clicked the reset, cooperation in the war on jihadism globally and in South and central Asia is low hanging fruit. This is one area where we have a shared interest, as both countries are main targets of gobal jihadists.

In addition, the behavior of several countries threatens to undermine the Russian-Western cooperation in the war on terrorism. Great Britain and Poland have seen fit to harbor Russia’s Chechen radical nationalists, who fought alongside Caucasus global jihadists in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Georgia, which is still a prospective NATO member, appears to be assisting Russia’s so-called ‘Caucasus Emirate’ (CE) jihadists, and is definitely trying to support Circassian, Chechen, and other forms of radical nationalist separatism in the Caucasus. President Mikheil Saakasvili has called for a united Caucasus, combining both the southern Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) and Russia’s North Caucasus. Saakashvili has waived visa requirements for North Caucasians and Iranians, completing a jihadi transport corridor from the North Caucasus all the way to AfPak, and opened up a television station that broadcasts propaganda supporting Caucasus separatist ideas and other non-Russian nationalisms in Russia.

Turkey, already a NATO member, shows little interest in tracking down Caucasus jihadists traveling to and from its territory, and numerous Turks and Caucasus diaspora members in that country supply the CE with funding and even some fighters.

U.S.-Russian cooperation in the war against Al Qa`ida and the global jihadi revolutionary movement stands in sharp contrast to these practices. It remains to be seen whether it or the reset itself can survive the departure of Medvedev and possibly President Barak Obama from their respective presidencies and the pressures coming from some present and prospective NATO members as well as some American politicians and policy activists (recall Sen. John McCain’s call for American support of separatism in the Noirth Caucasus).

The death knell for such cooperation could come with the impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Should the Taliban claw their way back to power, the threat to Central Asia and Russia will rise precipitously, and some in Moscow will be inclined to accuse the U.S. of coming to the region, stirring up the hornets’ nest, then abandoning the fight, and leaving it for Central Asia’s weak states and ultimately Moscow to deal with. This will be one more reason for Moscow to stand up to American and Western humanitarian interventionism, further complicating the survival or future revival of the reset.


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