The announcement on June 10 that the Taliban is amassing armored vehicles and anti-aircraft defense systems just 15 kilometers from the Uzbek town of Termez is likely to intensify pressure on regional governments to rally military allies. Yet authorities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in particular, appear to be greeting Russia's saber-rattling with mixed feelings.
In late May, a number of high-ranking Russian officials, including a Kremlin spokesman and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a strongly worded warning that Russia might attack targets in Afghanistan. These belligerent statements seem to have been prompted by some secret negotiations which Usama bin Laden, Taliban representatives, Uzbek terrorist Dzhuma Namangani and an envoy of the Chechen president allegedly held somewhere near the Afghan city of Mazari-Sharif. The talks resulted in the signing of a protocol on cooperation envisaging military and logistical aid to the rebels fighting in Chechnya and also to the terrorist groups in post-Soviet Central Asia.
At first blush, Russia's threat to the Taliban might appear to be a sort of political improvisation, more reminiscent of Boris Yeltsin's erratic diplomacy. This, however, is not the case. To understand the underlying geopolitical design of Moscow strategists, one has to look at the timing of the seemingly spontaneous Kremlin outburst and consider the events which coincided with this manifestation of Russia's pugnacious mood. Taken together, they suggest a deliberate effort on Russia's part to cement its military dominance in Central Asia.
Three events this year stand out. Putin personally visited Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. He sent the treaty between the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan on the further deepening of cooperation in military and military-technical fields to the State Duma for ratification. And the signatory countries to the Collective Security Treaty (known as CST or "the Tashkent Pact," uniting Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia) convened, tellingly, for the first time in four years.
During his tour of Central Asia, Putin did not fail to play up the menace of radical Islam and the regional regimes' inability to effectively defend themselves against it. This was undoubtedly intended to make Uzbekistan president Karimov and Turkmenistan president Niyazov reconsider their wary approach toward increased Russian influence in the region. While in Tashkent, Putin solemnly stated that "a threat to Uzbekistan is a threat to Russia" and pledged all possible assistance to ward off Moslem terrorists. In a couple of days not a mere coincidence -- it turned out that protective measures could include also "preventive strikes" against the Taliban.
It would seem that the major objective of tough talk in Moscow was not so much to scare the Taliban as to influence the leaders of the Central Asian states. According to Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political Studies, the Central Asian leaders and not the Taliban were the real target of Russian threats. "The main goal of these statements is definitely to reinforce a presence in Central Asia," he said in an interview with the Moscow Times newspaper.
The Kremlin's courting of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan was particularly clear at the meeting of the Council of Collective Security in Minsk. The final document adopted by the six nations there states that "the military-political relations between the signatory countries to the Treaty will have priority over military ties and contacts with the third countries which are not parties to the Treaty." In other words, Moscow seems ready to reconfigure an amorphous Collective Security Treaty into a full-blooded military-political alliance. Thus it bluntly says that those who will join the CST will have more security than those who will not.
So far, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan do not seem to be very impressed by the Russian overtures. Ashgabad, in particular, remains skeptical about possible aggression from the Afghan territory. Its leadership appears to be more afraid of the flood of refugees that "preventive strikes" might cause and prefers to keep on juggling the warring parties.
President Karimov appears to have chosen a middle-of-the-road position. "Please, tell Russia that we don't need protection," he said in an interview recently published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant [DATE OR MONTH?]. "There is no reason to spill blood for us. The Uzbeks themselves are able to go blow for blow. The other thing is that, in order to defend ourselves, we need equipment and arms." Karimov openly called the Moscow warning a "trial balloon". But after the Minsk CST meeting Belarus' President Aleksandr Lukashenko suggested that Uzbekistan's leaders were having second thoughts about their decision to withdraw from the CST a year ago. (Turkmenistan -- together with Moldova and Ukraine -- never signed the Treaty.)
To be sure, Putin's threats to bomb the Taliban had yet another political goal, namely to boost Russia's image as a major force valiantly opposing international terrorism. This interpretation may be taking hold. As Sanobar Shermatova wrote recently in the Russian weekly newspaper Moskovskie novosti, "If there are terrorist-training centers in Afghanistan producing ever more mercenaries for Chechnya, then there is reason to argue that in Chechnya Russia is fighting international terrorism."
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Regional Exchange Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995; Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; Kiev correspondent for the Paris-based weekly Russkaya mysl, 1998-2000; and is currently a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University, New York.