Russian Forces on Tajikistan Border: Is It Preparation for Afghanistan?

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The Taliban, which has captured a large part of Afghanistan, continues to carry out attacks against the north of the country. Tajikistan, the northern neighbour of the country in question, is adversely affected by the developments. After the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon expressed his concerns about the issue, the Moscow administration made various initiatives. In this sense, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that they will meet with his Tajik counterpart and provide military support to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. The situation in question brings to mind “Will Russia fill the power vacuum that will be created by the withdrawal of the United States of America (USA) from Afghanistan?”

In this context, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Research (ANKASAM) presents to your attention the meaning of Russia’s decision to send troops to Tajikistan and its reflections on the region, in line with the opinions received from the leading experts in the field.

Güler KALAY (ANKASAM International Relations Expert)

In her assessment on the subject, ANKASAM International Relations Specialist Güler Kalay said, “The progress of the Taliban causes some concerns in Tajikistan. The situation on the Tajik-Afghan border is also the subject of the threat perception of Russia.”

Kalay has concluded that “Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu thinks that the civil war in Afghanistan will start again. Accordingly, Shoigu said, “The development of the situation in Afghanistan requires close attention from both neighbouring countries and international organizations.” In this sense, the withdrawal of the alliance fborces may lead to radicalization and the spread of violence to neighbouring countries and mass migration.”

Kalay stated that Russia is more interested in whether the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is present in Afghanistan, rather than the Taliban. “Moscow thinks that ISIS is trying to take advantage of the situation in Afghanistan to expand its range of action.” Commented by her. She also added that with the advance of the Taliban in the north of the country, it was seen that the soldiers of the Afghan Army crossed the Tajikistan border. This is worrisome for Moscow, as it risks spreading radicalization to Central Asia and then to Russia.

Drawing attention to the situation on the ground, Kalay said, “The Taliban have taken control of tens of districts in northern Afghanistan as well as parts of the Tajikistan border (total length of approximately 1.3 thousand km) in the last few weeks.

“The Taliban, showing its power, is taking control of the most significant trade routes that connect Afghanistan with the outside world,” Kalay said. As it will be remembered, the Taliban captured the city of Kunduz and other settlements on the Tajikistan border in 2015 and 2016.

The Sherkhan-Bandar passage is a major crossing point between Afghanistan and the Central Asian and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. This situation makes it an obligation for the states of the region to negotiate with the Taliban. On July 9, 2021, a meeting took place between the Taliban Representative Mevlevi S. Delawar and the Special Envoy of the Russian President to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov. This development is sufficient to explain the seriousness of the situation. The Russian side made a call to prevent the spread of tension outside Afghanistan. In addition, in the statement made by the Russian Foreign Ministry, it was marked that the Taliban received guarantees that the borders of the Central Asian states would not be violated.

On the other side, emphasizing that the Taliban is trying to impose its legitimacy through negotiations with Russia and other countries, Kalay said, “It is possible to define the Taliban’s visits as diplomatic activities in the international arena. The target of the Taliban is not only to be an active actor in Afghanistan’s domestic politics; at the same time, to have a presence in the international arena.”

Finally, Kalay concluded her evaluations with, “On the other hand, in a phone call with Rahman, Putin stated that Russia is ready to provide assistance to Dushanbe within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). For this reason, the Taliban will pay strict attention to not to violate the border within the framework of the guarantee they give.”

Prof. Dr. Ali ASKER (Karabük University-Department of International Relations)

Prof. Dr. Ali Asker stated that it is out of the question for the Russian Army to enter Afghanistan, “Russia has a military base in Tajikistan for a long time. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the activity of the Russian Army continued in the aforementioned region. Because Moscow has established a new military base within the body of the 201st Motorized Division in Tajikistan during the Soviet Union period.” He made the statement.

Expressing that the Russians brought up the issue of military reinforcements to the base in Tajikistan, Asker asserted, “This issue has been discussed since the intelligence was received that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan. In particular, the development of air defence systems has taken its place on the agenda. The current number of soldiers here is 6,000. It should also be noted that the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border is 1,344 km long. Therefore, the actor that will be most easily affected by the developments in the country in question is Tajikistan. In addition, Turkmenistan perceives a threat because of the Afghanistan border. Moreover, Uzbekistan is also under threat in the context of radicalization. Moreover, a very important issue is the issue of dormant radical cells in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, unlike Turkmenistan. Because, as a result of the developments to be experienced, these cells can be activated. Because the possibility of civil war increases in parallel with the withdrawal of the US Army from the region.”

Asker concluded that  “I don’t think the Taliban will cross the border with Tajikistan. They will approve to substantiate their plans inside Afghanistan. Because the Taliban may find Russia against them in a border violation. Moreover, there is a possibility that China may intervene in this regard. In other words, a joint action plan may be on the agenda within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). However, there is a military cooperation agreement between Tajikistan and Russia, and the said agreement has been extended until 2042. In addition, the two countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia can also use the CSTO in its interventions in the region.”

Reminding that Afghan soldiers left their country quickly after the developments, Asker reflected, “According to the statements made from Afghanistan so far, around 2,300 soldiers have crossed into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The number of Afghan Army members who took refuge in Tajikistan was 300. Events are getting more and more intense. We will see the effects of the developments on the countries of the region in the medium term.”

Dr. Erdoğan KARAKUŞ (Retired Lieutenant General)

In his assessment about the subject, Retired Lieutenant General Dr. Erdoğan Karakuş said, “Russia has an airbase and a ground unit in Tajikistan. Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the CSTO. For this reason, Moscow is massing forces in Tajikistan by using the Afghanistan-based developments as an excuse. But it is very crucial for Russia to establish a peace force here. However, it is seen that she is still looking for an opportunity to intervene.”

“Turkey needs to be involved in Afghanistan by reason of drugs are produced in Afghanistan and ultimately these drugs are delivered to the terrorist organization PKK. The PKK also markets drugs in Europe. As it is known, the biggest income of the given terrorist organization is drug trafficking. Therefore, this income of the PKK must be cut. This is one of the most significant answers to the question of why we should be in the region. Because the issue is related to Turkey’s national security.” Expressed by Karakuş.

Said Sabir İBRAHİMİ (Temporary Member of International Cooperation Center / New York University)

Said Sabir İbrahimi in his assessment on the subject mentioned, “Dushanbe administration has deployed 20,000 soldiers on the Afghanistan border. In parallel with the advance of the Taliban, it was observed that approximately 1,000 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces took refuge in Tajikistan.. Dushanbe, on the other hand, is worried about the progress of the Taliban. Therefore, it asked the CSTO for assistance. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members of this organization. More importantly, Tajikistan requested military assistance from its ally, Russia.”

“Approximately 6,000 Russian soldiers are in Tajikistan. According to the reported information, these soldiers are preparing for the fight against the insurgency and illegal cross-border activities carried out by armed groups. Both Russia and Tajikistan fear the possibility of Afghanistan-based violence spreading to their countries. In particular, Tajikistan is afraid that the developments will be a source of inspiration for the separatists. In addition, the Afghan government has asked for help from the Central Asian states and Russia. For instance, a security agreement was signed between Kabul and Nur-Sultan aimed at increasing Afghanistan’s defence capabilities. Nevertheless, at this point, it is not possible for the Russian Army or peacekeepers to enter Afghanistan.” Expressed by İbrahimi.

Evaluating the latest situation in Afghanistan, İbrahimi said, “The Taliban is advancing rapidly. Many actors in the region wanted the Americans to leave Afghanistan. Now with the withdrawal of the US, the states of the region must become involved and stabilize the country. Afghanistan’s war is not just an internal conflict between Afghans, there are many external factors in the game.”

Mehmet KIVANÇ (Journalist-CRI Turk)

Reminding that Russia’s largest military base abroad is located in Tajikistan, Journalist Mehmet Kıvanç articulated that, “The period of utilization of the base where the 201st Motorized Division, where nearly 6,000 Russian personnel are stationed, was extended until 2042 with the agreement signed in 2012. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his statement at that time, drew attention to the importance of Russia having a long-term base here, while the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces were withdrawing. Therefore, the first step in the withdrawal process of NATO and the USA, which was delayed until 2021, was taken in 2014.”

“Tajikistan, located in the former Soviet geography and sharing a long border with Afghanistan, is a part of Russia’s long-term security strategy. Russia has the military and political capacity to take steps without hesitation regarding the security of Tajikistan, which is also a member of the CSTO” commented by Kıvanç.

Expressing that it is not possible for Moscow to remain indifferent to the chaos in Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s southern neighbour, Kıvanç expressed, “Because Afghanistan has the potential to host ISIS and its derivative organizations, which Russia sees as a primary threat. Moscow will do its best to ensure that such structures gain space in Afghanistan and do not pose a threat to Russia. In other words, it is against the interests of Russia, China and Pakistan, which have advanced cooperation within the scope of the Belt-Road Project, that radical structures in the countries destroyed by the Arab Spring move to Afghanistan and threaten the stability of Asia. This possibility and uncertainty open the door to scenarios of re-intervention in Afghanistan.”

Emphasizing that the Taliban has recently become a legitimate interlocutor, Kıvanç added that, “The Taliban have met with Russian, Iranian and Chinese officials on various platforms in the past month. The Taliban’s staff, which conveyed the message “We will not allow ISIS” to Moscow, also assured Beijing in the context of separatist movements. Calling on China to invest in Afghanistan, the Taliban gathered power on the Moscow-Beijing-Tehran line. The Taliban, trying to remain firm to get what they want at the negotiation table, prioritizes solving the legitimacy problem through meetings with foreign counterparts.”

In conclusion, Kıvanç referred to “It is seen that Russia prioritizes solving security concerns by staying in dialogue with the parties in Afghanistan. The same evaluation can be made for Pakistan. It can be said that Russia has been preparing for scenarios such as civil war since 2012 by increasing its military presence in Tajikistan. However, the ‘peacekeeping’ mission, like the one in Azerbaijan, is not a risk that Russia can take alone in Afghanistan. He concluded with his words.

Özge Eletek 1999 yılında İzmir’de doğdu. İlk ve orta öğretim hayatını İzmir’de tamamlayan Eletek, 2017 yılında Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nü kazandı. Çeşitli düşünce kuruluşlarında birçok konferans ve seminere katılan Eletek, Ankara Kriz ve Siyaset Araştırmaları Merkezi’ndeki stajını sürdürmektedir.