Russia and the CA states enjoy a “natural” long-standing cooperation in fighting irregular threats, considering shared concerns related to terrorism, extremism, separatism, and transnational organized crime, but also shared approaches to counter them. The collapse of the Afghan government and the return of the Taliban – designated as a terrorist organization by Russia – poses exceptional challenges of instability and uncertainty. Though CA is relatively stable, each country has its history in dealing with terrorist threats, and the risks of domestic and international terrorism long present in the region are particularly acute. With Afghanistan entering a new stage of instability, CA governments expect a potential spill-over of violence, penetration of borders by terrorist groups and intensification of transnational criminal activities. Mitigating such hazards requires regional cooperation and opens up a window of opportunity for Russia to strengthen its role as a security provider for the CA region and beyond. International regional organizations such as the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can now demonstrate their practical relevance to CA.
Russia’s bilateral security cooperation with CA partners
Russia has developed an extensive counterterrorist expertise by confronting domestic terrorist threats, including in the North Caucasus. Hence, Russia claimed its capacity to export this expertise in the years following 9/11, it indicated security provision as an important foreign policy objective, and it promoted its expertise in counterterrorist interventions abroad, most recently in Russia’ military campaign in Syria. Such interventions, especially in Syria, allowed to train personnel in counterterrorist operations and test new military equipment and weaponry, which will prove useful when training Russia’s CA partners in facing a potential spill-over from Afghanistan. Russia visibly intensified its bilateral and multilateral military cooperation with the CA states preparing for the consequences of the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. For instance, in August 2021, Russia conducted joint military training with Uzbekistan along the Uzbek border with Afghanistan, involving over 1,500 personnel, and with both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan at the Tajik part of the Afghan border, engaging over 2,500 personnel and military aviation. Joint exercises aimed at protecting the state border and targeting adversaries from the air, and they heavily relied on Russia’s experience in Syria. Moreover, the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan served as a legitimate and welcome pretext to strengthen and better equip Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In August 2021, the large 201st military base in Tajikistan, ‘a guarantor of stability on the southern borders of the CSTO’, received new antitank missile systems to target armoured vehicles, helicopters, and drones as well as firearms and portable anti-aircraft missile systems. In 2020, the military base in Kyrgyzstan was equipped with military drones of small and medium coverage employed for intelligence gathering and armed combat. The Afghan factor can also increase the value of Russia’s military presence for its local hosts and reinforce Russia’s positions as a security guarantor and loyal partner. Russia’s proactive standing in CA serves to reach several key objectives, including improving Russia’s positions in CA, ensuring security of the regional borders from diffusion of political violence, as well as implementing counter-narcotics measures and dealing with Al-Qaeda and ISIS remotely. Progress on these objectives can also be made through regional organizations, like the CSTO and the SCO.
Cooperation in the CSTO framework
The CSTO is based on the principle of collective self-defence and promotes the agenda of regional security and stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as of countering terrorism, extremism, and illicit drug and weapon trafficking. Three out five CA states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – are CSTO members. Reacting to the Afghan crisis, the CSTO declared the organization plans to use its full capabilities to protect its member-states from diffusion of violence from Afghanistan to CA, as well as from penetration of terrorist groups and criminal networks. However, no interventions are envisaged beyond the borders of the CSTO member-states. With 20,000 personnel in its Collective Rapid Reaction Forces, 5,000 in the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces, and a peacekeeping force of 3,000 military and 600 law enforcement personnel, the CSTO seems to have accumulated the means to mitigate regional challenges. Indeed, the CSTO enhanced its collective preparedness by organizing collective training at the political and operational levels. The CSTO conducted several rounds of the Afghanistan-themed business game aimed at developing collective political and military response to normalise the situation. In September 2021, the organization implemented the final stage of the joint counterterrorist training ‘Rubezh-2021’ in Kyrgyzstan aimed at eliminating illegal armed groups that invaded a CSTO country. Another joint training called ‘Thunder-2021’ occurred later that month in Armenia focusing on anti-drug operations in mountainous terrains. More joint military exercises have been planned in Tajikistan throughout October 2021 to practice border control measures.
Cooperation in the SCO framework
The SCO aims at ensuring peace, stability, and security, as well as good-neighbourliness and multi-dimensional cooperation. All CA states except Turkmenistan are members and, after launching the membership process of Iran, all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, expect Ashgabat, will be in the SCO. Created on the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, respect of sovereignty and independence, non-interference in internal affairs, as well as non-aggression and non-use of force, the SCO was envisioned to be primarily a political platform allowing to negotiate joint approaches and coordinate actions. Countering terrorism, separatism, and extremism stands out among the SCO’s areas of interest as evidenced in both the SCO Charter and Convention on combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism and implemented through the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS). Fighting these ‘three evils’ occurs by means of information-sharing, development, and implementation of measures to prevent, identify, and suppress these ‘evils’, but also by means of capacity-building measures for competent authorities of member states. The crisis in Afghanistan, which has an observer status yet failed to become a member, poses risks of exporting instability, terrorism, and drugs, and is thus a natural agenda for this organization. The SCO’s approach to mitigating the crisis is aligned with its mandate and cannot go beyond political efforts, including via the SCO-Afghanistan contact group, as well as preventive and capacity-building measures. As discussed at the September 2021 SCO Summit, the SCO sees its role in developing coordinated policies towards Afghanistan, supporting inclusive peace process, and preventing terrorism, drugs, and violence from crossing the borders. Russia plans to be very active in that regard. To that aim, in September 2021, the SCO organized an antiterrorist training session called ‘Peaceful Mission 2021’ aimed at containing spill-over of terrorism from Afghanistan. It was held in Russia’s Orenburg region with the military personnel from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Belarus.
The Afghan crisis as an opportunity
Russia’s increasing involvement in capacity-building measures to counter irregular adversaries is evident in CA. Russia faces competition from US security assistance and EU-led projects that provide technical assistance to competent agencies in border management and counterterrorism. Still, Moscow has capitalised on the Afghan crisis as an opportunity to strengthen security cooperation with the CA governments and reclaim its leadership role in the region. Containing the diffusion of the crisis in Afghanistan beyond its borders will test not only its operational capacity but also CA states’ ability to negotiate a joint response among themselves and with Russia and to act as united political front through regional organizations like the CSTO and the SCO.