By M K Bhadrakumar
There was an element of hyperbole when a Moscow news service airily speculated this week that Catherine the Great's historic dream of gaining access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea was nearing realization even as Russia was getting ready to propose to Pakistan an "extensive road and rail system being largely bankrolled by Moscow" to connect Central Asia with Pakistan's sea ports.
The Moscow commentator was anticipating the agenda of discussions at the quadripartite summit of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, hosted by President Dmitry Medvedev at his vacation home in the picturesque Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday.
For good measure, the commentator added that "Any apprehension Islamabad may have over granting docking privileges [for Russian ships] in the ports of the Arabian Sea will be offset by the monetary benefits connected with the leasing rights." He then began fantasizing about the appearance of a Russian naval outpost in the Arabian Sea:
For Russia, although access to Pakistan's ports on the Arabian Sea promises lucrative economic dividends, it is tempting to ask whether the leasing privileges will acquire any sort of a military dimension.
With Russia's naval force lacking an outlet in the Middle East/Central Asian waters, a Russian naval base off the coast of Pakistan would place Moscow smack in the middle of highly unstable territory as US military incursions into the border zones between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the hunt for suspected terrorists continue unabated. At the very least, a Russian security presence in and around the Arabian Sea would help to thwart heroin shipments from reaching Russia via Afghanistan.
But all the same it underscored the thought processes that envelop Medvedev's initiative in forming a quadripartite regional forum.
Tajiks on tight leash
The Russian initiative first surfaced last year in June in Yekaterinburg when Medvedev sat down with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts. A month later, the format was expanded to include Tajikistan, and the four presidents confabulated for the first time in Dushanbe, the Tajikistan capital.
The Sochi summit on Wednesday decided that Dushanbe would be the venue of their next round also. Quite obviously, Moscow is pinning down Tajikistan to a 100% political commitment to the quadripartite format.
Interestingly, Moscow's latest Central Asian initiative bypasses the two key players in the region - Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - while it is riveted around Tajikistan, the weakest link. The delimitation of the format gives some clues as to Russian regional policy objectives.
It is at once evident that Russia wants to keep Tajikistan, where its biggest military base anywhere abroad is located, on a tight leash. Dushanbe has been of late trying to break loose from Russian domination, and the US has been astutely encouraging this trend - as indeed it has in all the Central Asian capitals. Last year, Dushanbe suddenly began demanding US$300 million in annual fees for leasing the military base to the Russians, who have been having a free ride so far. Besides, Tajikistan has been forging links with Iran, France, China and the US as a sort of counterweight to Moscow.
Moscow's quadrilateral initiative is an attempt to reverse trends that dilute the Russian influence in Tajikistan. The Sochi summit paid much attention to the four countries undertaking joint projects in the field of energy. The flagship is the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) 1,000 MW energy project whereby Tajikistan will export electricity to Pakistan via Afghan territory. CASA will export the hydropower generated by Sangtuda-1 plant in Tajikistan, of which 75% is owned by Russia.
As things stand, Tajikistan is indebted to Russia since Sangtuda-1 cannot break even without tapping foreign markets with export of electricity. In short, CASA is a win-win for all participants: Russia and keeps control of the project (which is vital to the Tajik economy), while locking in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which face energy shortages, within a regional cooperation grid that Moscow controls.
Conceivably, Dushanbe will have no option but to reciprocate to such a lifeline for the Tajik economy by accepting Moscow's lead role in regional security issues. This involves the status of the Russian military base in Tajikistan as well as an unequivocal foreign policy orientation by Dushanbe in favor of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as the principal vehicle to safeguard regional security.
A second lead project Russia is advancing within the quadripartite format is in the field of railways. Dushanbe would have preferred to build its communication links with its southern neighbors - China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran - without Russian guidance. Moscow, however, is forcefully taking charge. The proposed 1,340-kilometer rail and road system envisions connecting Pakistan's Chitral region via the Durrah Pass into Afghanistan and with Dushanbe. Russia has mooted it as an extensive road and rail link from Islamabad to Dushanbe and Ferghana valley.
Moscow estimates that the communication link will give Russia access to Pakistani ports and in return Pakistan will get access to Central Asian markets and the ''rich Siberian regions through road and rail".
In essence, this seems to be Moscow's response to the United States' so-called Great Central Asia strategy, which aims at drawing the Central Asian region away from the orbit of Russian influence. However, both the Russian and American strategies sound grandiose on paper, but at least in the foreseeable future neither seems within the realms of possibility as they seem fated to neutralize each other.
Also, the paradox is that neither the Russian nor American strategy is backed by the financial clout needed to translate the stuff of dreams into reality on the ground, whereas the one country that does have the surplus capital, China, is keeping its own plans and ideas about regional integration to itself.
Without doubt, Moscow is rattled that its influence is waning in a wide arc stretching from Kazakhstan to Iran and thinks that it must do something about it.
The latest evidence of shrinking influence is Turkmenistan's defiant decision last week to allow American oil majors into its gas sector, which might at last pave the way for the realization of the US's trans-Caspian energy pipelines, especially Nabucco, bypassing Russian territory and heading directly to Western markets - something that Moscow all along has been opposing tooth and nail.
The US has also repaired its relations with Kazakhstan. Here, the upcoming OSCE summit in Astana becomes a major forum for the two countries to work closer than ever on issues of regional security. It is a safe bet that American diplomats will strain every nerve to bring Kazakh policies into harmony with US strategy in Central Asia and the post-Soviet space in general.
Similarly, the US is steadily advancing its influence on the political scene in Kyrgyzstan even amid the extreme volatility there at the moment. The project to bring in the OSCE as the main provider of regional security has been a masterstroke in sidelining the CSTO.
The US is pushing its OSCE project while blithely ignoring Moscow's disquiet and is sidestepping the Kyrgyz public's outcry against foreign intervention in internal affairs. Unsurprisingly, in the process Washington has succeeded in getting its military base in Manas delisted as a point of controversy.
Kyrgyzstan must be counted as a signal victory for the US regional strategy of engaging Russia within the ambit of an overall ''reset'' of ties. The single biggest success of American diplomacy in Central Asia, however, has been the normalization of relations with Uzbekistan, which arguably is the key country on regional security issues.
All roads lead to Kabul
Tashkent is perceptibly warming up to the US invitation for it to play a more active role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and to the steady build-up of Navoi as the strategic hub of the so-called Northern Distribution Network [NDN] handling of military supplies for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Afghan war. Navoi as an important transshipment hub helps the US to shift the locus of the NDN away from Russia (though which it passes) toward the route through the Caucasus - via Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan - that would reduce the dependence on Moscow's cooperation.
Thus, the reasons are not far to seek why Moscow is compelled to turn to Tajikistan (rather than Uzbekistan) as the anchor sheet of its attempt to stem the drain in regional influence.
Moscow's choice of Tajikistan as its number one partner with regard to the Afghan problem cannot be faulted since Tajikistan is strategically placed and is perhaps the most crucial Central Asian player in Afghanistan, given the long common border stretching for 1,206 kilometers (as against Uzbekistan's 137 km; Turkmenistan's 744 km; or China's 76 km) and the presence of the big Tajik community within Afghanistan, which also happens to be a politico-cultural affinity that Dushanbe shares with Tehran....
Simply put, Moscow could not choose a better beachhead than Tajikistan as it gears up for its historic return to the Afghan chessboard as a grandmaster after an absence of two decades.
The leitmotif of the Russian-Tajik-Afghan-Pakistani quadrilateral format is indeed Russia's return to an active role in the search of an Afghan settlement. The Kremlin's account of Wednesday's Sochi summit acknowledged it saying that the meeting ''concentrated specifically on the situation in Afghanistan, fighting terrorism and preventing drug trafficking ... to step us efforts in these areas, including through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] and the CSTO.''
Evidently, Moscow is taking into account the huge variables in the Afghan situation and the any number of directions the current situation may take. It therefore keeps the option of working on the Afghan problem both bilaterally and multilaterally, bearing in mind the slim possibility that the US may abruptly decide on a dramatic drawdown of forces in Afghanistan against the backdrop of exigencies in domestic American politics in an election year or the high probability that Washington aims at a long-term military presence in the region as integral to its global strategies.
The status of the US forces in Afghanistan from a medium-term perspective certainly worries Moscow. This came out clearly in Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's speech at the international conference in Kabul on July 20 when he singled out that ''[O]ne of the key factors in cresting an atmosphere of good-neighborliness and cooperation in the region after completion of the international stabilization efforts here is to be the restoration of the neutral status of Afghanistan. We expect that this idea will find support among the Afghans.''
US diplomats have been soft-pedaling the idea of a ''neutral'' Afghanistan and Lavrov thought it necessary to remind Washington that ''[T]he Presidents of Russia and the United States already spoke for it in their joint statement adopted on June 24 in Washington.''
Moscow has utilized the Sochi summit to develop a ''chemistry'' with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that has been hitherto lacking, in spite of sustained Russian efforts. To be sure, Moscow has taken note that Karzai's crisis of confidence with the US is deepening and he is gradually beginning to shift his dependence onto the regional powers to help him to incrementally ease the current American stranglehold on him.
Moscow is willing to play a role here. As the Kremlin's top aide, Sergei Prikhodko, put it in a media briefing, the core Russian agenda of the Sochi summit was ''the stepping up of regional cooperation in the efforts to assist the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan and on the Afghan-Pakistan border, with the participation of authoritative organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Organization.''
Some ''chemistry'' seems to have developed in Sochi as Karzai invited Medvedev to visit Kabul ''as soon as possible, as your [Medvedev's] schedule allows it. And Afghanistan is more than happy, rather privileged, to engage with Russia in all forms of economic, cultural, and political relations.''
Most certainly, Washington will have reason to feel irritated that Moscow is inserting itself so blatantly into its Afghan preserve. It will keep a close tab on Karzai. A defining moment will be the upcoming Afghan tender for purchase of military helicopters for the army. Washington is nervous that Russia is eyeing the prospect of shaping up as the provider of equipment and weapons for the Afghan army.
To quote Prikhodko, ''The Russian side is definitely interested in this [helicopter deal]; there are no impediments on our side.'' Russia has a tactical advantage insofar as Russian military equipment has proven more suitable for the tough Afghan conditions and the Afghan army is quite familiar with them already. Curiously, even NATO uses Soviet-era weapons, especially the Mi-17 helicopters, out of the stockpiles with the erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries of Central Europe who are today participants in the war as member countries of the western alliance.
Briefing the media after Medvedev's talks with Karzai, Lavrov said:
We are talking [with NATO] about a couple of dozen helicopters with the relevant equipment. I hope that in a month or month and a half there will be more clarity on the issue ... We handed our proposals about how we would carry out the initiative to Brussels a few months ago. We are now waiting for a definite answer from our partners.Washington finds itself in quandary here as NATO would do well to acquire Russian helicopters on their merits from the operational (and commercial) angle, but then such cooperation would not only make Moscow a "participant" in the war but also might alter the overall alchemy of NATO-Russia ties. Moscow is not helping matters by offering that it is open to dealing with individual NATO member countries directly in such arms transactions.
The crux of the matter is what sort of Russian role Washington is willing to concede to Moscow in the Afghan endgame. Some time ago, in a media remark last October, Russia's irrepressible envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, who has a panache for hitting hard in the most colorful diplomatic idiom available, forecast the developing paradigm in the Hindu Kush when he said that while ''no Russian soldier will step onto Afghan soil'', Moscow would not ''sit on the substitutes' bench as regards supporting the fight against Taliban militants.''
The linchpin is Pakistan
Rogozin was prescient about the way the Kremlin was likely to think, and what he forecast is exactly what is happening. Which also explains the urgency with which Moscow is sensing the importance of forging some sort of a meaningful relationship with Pakistan on which it has been in a mode of self-denial, historically speaking, due to its apprehension that any perceptible warming up of Russia-Pakistan ties might raise hackles in the nearby Indian capital with which Moscow has a time-tested partnership of profound significance to the Russian global strategies.
The fact of the matter is that Moscow - like Tehran or Washington or London - understands that any effective Afghan policy needs to go hand in hand with a meaningful bilateral relationship with Islamabad. Ideally speaking, a degree of strategic understanding becomes necessary, but then the Pakistanis aren't easy customers. Moscow sees the usefulness of the quadripartite format from this perspective.
What Moscow needs to work on is to emulate the current policies of Iran, the US and UK to also ''engage'' Pakistan bilaterally. The Sochi summit seems to have been a step in this direction. The original plan was that Pakistani President Asif Zardari would undertake a full-fledged visit to Russia alongside the Sochi summit, but in the current emergency of the floods in Pakistan, this had to be scuttled.
All the same, the Kremlin account of the Medvedev-Zardari bilateral was exceedingly warm and indicative of a promising future period of close cooperation between the two countries. Medvedev made it clear that Moscow is making up for lost time in building a partnership with Islamabad:
I think that now, unlike in the past, we have very regular, frequent contacts, and this is good, as it enables us to promote our relations with Pakistan, our economic ties, and our contacts on security issues and regional problems. We live in an unsettled region and the way we work together is crucial for the way a whole number of complicated processes will unfold.Prikhodko was far more specific in his media briefing. He anticipated that Medvedev and Zardari would discuss ''Russia's interaction with Pakistan, Pakistan's interaction with Afghanistan and India and the situation in the region in general.'' He added:
The two leaders will consider stepping up trade and economic ties, including the implementation of joint projects in the fuel/energy, metallurgy, and railway transport sectors ... we're hoping that the Sochi meeting will give an impulse to the preparation of a full-scale visit by the Pakistani leader to Moscow.Russia has formed an intergovernmental commission with Pakistan - on the pattern of its traditional cooperation with India - and the first meeting of the commission is due to take place on September 21. Equally, the Sochi meeting has created a quadripartite format of foreign ministers within which Lavrov will have the opportunity to ''work on foreign policy coordination'' with his Pakistani counterpart in a structured fashion on a regular basis.
In sum, Moscow is not only copying the US approach to ''engage'' Pakistan but is also outstripping it by conducting such engagement within the bilateral and regional framework.
No matter what ultimately happens to Catherine the Great's dream of dipping her toes in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the regional security paradigm is witnessing a transformational phase even as the current Afghan conflict is uneasily edging toward a denouement.
Several vectors come into play. 1. Russia is showing a muscular policy to assert the legitimacy of its interests in the Hindu Kush and Central Asia.
2. The Russian ''entry'' changes the nature of the brew in the Afghan cauldron: it is no more an American concoction and Karzai has a new recipe to try for creating political space for himself.
3. Any form of long-term US military presence in the region will be severely contested by Russia (alongside China and Iran).
4. Moscow has accepted Beijing's counseling as regards the critical importance of not leaving Pakistan to the wolves.
It is now up to the Pakistani elites (civilian and military) to expand Islamabad's autonomy in regional politics so as to withstand the US's coercive diplomacy although they are passionately wedded to the strategic partnership with the US.
Finally, of course, an overarching template is appearing - a potential transformation of the Russian-Indian partnership in the event of the nascent Russian-Pakistan strategic partnership gaining traction in the period ahead. As things stand, Moscow is uneasy about the huge build-up of the US-Indian partnership in the recent years. Curiously, so is Islamabad.
Moscow's choice of Islamabad as its partner in regional security issues will not go unnoticed in Delhi. To be sure, the upcoming visit by the US President Barack Obama to Delhi in November will take place against the backdrop of a massive shift in what the Soviets would have called the ''correlation of forces'' in the region's politics.