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Sochi Summit Marks the Start of Russia’s Return to Dominance in the Northern Tier and the US Withdrawal

Sochi Summit Marks the Start of Russia’s Return to Dominance in the Northern Tier and the US Withdrawal

The recently concluded Sochi Summit has highlighted the return of Russia to a prominent, even strategically dominant, position in the Northern Tier, as the US Administration of President Barack Obama accepts the change.

On August 18, 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosted in Sochi a summit on the long-term posture in South Asia with the presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. This was the second meeting of the four leaders. The previous meeting was held in Dushanbe in the Autumn of 2009. The declared focus of the Sochi summit was on efforts to stabilize the region in the long-term and jointly confront the spread of narco-terrorism.

[Originally, the summit was to include also the acting President of Kyrgyzstan given the centrality of the Fergana Valley to the crisis. However, with the growing instability in Bishkek and the Kremlin’s fury over the August 13, 2010, decision by the interim Government to deprive former President Askar Akaev of his immunity status in violation of signed agreements to the contrary and immediately after the same interim government had invited Akaev to return and help stabilize Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was not invited to participate in the Sochi summit.]

Medvedev also held bilateral talks with each of the presidents. Medvedev told Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari that Russia was going to increase its assistance to Pakistan to help deal with the floods.

“This is a severe disaster which caused many deaths and unfortunately brought great damage. We mourn with you and are ready to provide assistance to the Pakistani people. You can count on us,” Medvedev said.  A second Russian Il-76 cargo aircraft with emergency relief was dispatched to Islamabad.

In the meeting with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, Medvedev hailed the marked improvement in the bilateral relations. “There are all grounds to state major progress in relations between the two countries,” Medvedev noted. “Russia is ready to develop economic ties with Afghan partners.” (The key issues regarding Afghanistan were discussed by all four presidents.) Medvedev’s bilateral meeting with Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon was pro forma only because Rakhmon was to stay in Russia for a three-day official visit.

The summit plenary session focused on fighting terrorism and drugs spreading from Afghanistan. Special focus was put on Russia’s willingness to assume a greater role in the dynamics of this volatile region. Medvedev emphasized that this was the second summit of the four. “This is very good, this is a normal, working regional format, and the more consultations we have the better it is,” he said. 

Medvedev articulated Russia’s approach to the regional challenge. “We would like to continue cooperating in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and international crime. That’s why everything we discussed earlier could be continued, even though there is a good political dialogue, it is very important to develop economic ties,” Medvedev said. “I hope that we will be able to continue discussing this issue now in terms of bilateral economic cooperation and four-party cooperation in a number of projects.”

Toward this end, Medvedev proposed to rejuvenate and modernize numerous bilateral and multilateral social and economic projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan launched during the Soviet era. “Resolution of a number of social issues depends on the extent to which we will be able to restart these [social and economic] processes,” Medvedev explained. The Kremlin would like to focus first on a number of Soviet-era projects in energy and social development that proved successful at the time. “I believe it would be a good idea to revisit them so as to add momentum to economic development and tackle a number of pressing issues,” Medvedev argued.

In Afghanistan alone, Kremlin officials note, Russia is already involved in efforts to refurbish more than 140 Soviet-era installations, such as hydroelectric stations, bridges, wells, and irrigation systems. These deals are worth more than $1-billion. The summit agreed that Russia would also spearhead the World Bank-sponsored program to vastly expand the hydro-electric dams in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in order to supply surplus electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The summit also announced plans to build a highway and a railroad from Pakistan to Tajikistan, thus connecting into the all-CIS railway system.

In the plenary meeting, Karzai sought anew Medvedev’s long-term help. “Afghanistan will need the support of friends and from great countries like Russia,” Karzai said.

In response, Medvedev noted that the Kremlin was interested in bolstering Karzai’s ability to sustain power after the US withdrawal in the context of the Afghan-Pakistani peace plan. Addressing the problems of Afghanistan amounted to “discussing all regional problems, including domestic ones”, Medvedev noted.

The key to resolving the precarious domestic political situation in Afghanistan lay in bolstering “the Kabul process” - the transfer of all responsibility for both the security situation in the country and the international assistance to “the Afghan authorities”.

“Russia fully supports Afghan efforts to restore civil peace in the country,” Medvedev said. Russia “naturally supports the Afghan government’s fight against terrorism, and [is] ready to provide any help needed to tackle the problem.”

Medvedev stressed Moscow’s apprehension that a Taliban return to power would destabilize Central Asia entirely and threaten Russia’s own security. Medvedev reiterated that resolving Afghanistan’s narco-terrorism problem required strong international cooperation. “It’s our common problem, a problem for all countries of the region, and we must take consistent and coordinated actions,” he said.

In response to specific requests from the other three presidents, Medvedev promised to accelerate and expand helicopter — especially Mi-17 and Mi-35 — production in Russia in order to make more helicopters available for export to the region. In a subsequent meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the possible delivery of 27 Russian Mi-17 helicopters to Afghanistan.

“We are talking 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,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov explained that Russia was ready to deliver the first three helicopters for free in order to address Afghanistan’s urgent problems. The other 24 helicopters would be part of the Russian dialog with NATO over cooperation in Afghanistan. “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,” Lavrov said.

The summit also included expanded meetings with senior officials from the four countries. These were Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko, director of the Second Asian department of the Russian Foreign Ministry Zamir Kabulov and his deputy Alexei Dedov; Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi and the State Adviser on Foreign Policy to the President Erkin Rakhmatullaev form Tajikistan; Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, the presidential national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the charge d’affaires ad interim in Russia Hafizullah Ebadi from Afghanistan; and Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, First Deputy Foreign Minister Salman Bashir, Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Haroon Shaukat, and the Ambassador to Moscow Mohammad Khalid Khattak from Pakistan.

More than anything, the Sochi summit signified the return of Russia to South Asia as a major power.

This was the beginning of implementation of the Kremlin’s decision earlier this (2010) summer to commit to long-term active involvement in the resolution of regional problems and challenges. The Kremlin was concerned by the spread of drugs and narco-funded terrorism, insurgency, violence and instability from Afghanistan via Central Asia into the heart of Russia.

The Kremlin concluded that only a comprehensive plan which not only recognized the imperative to resolve Afghanistan’s security and governance problems, but also addressed the issue of drugs-funded separatism, secessionism, and narco-terrorism at the Heart of Asia and the Greater Black Sea Basin as a major policy issue, had a chance of evolving into a tangible success.

Toward this end, the Kremlin embarked on a major initiative to secure long-term international commitment to resolving Afghanistan’s endemic narcotics problem, which meant consolidating a stable form of governance and thus eliminating the consequences of the region-wide narco-funded terrorism and destabilization.

On June 9-10, 2010, the Kremlin convened in Moscow the international Afghan Drug Production: a Challenge to the International Community forum as the launch of the international drive to resolve Afghanistan’s long-term challenges. Senior officials from all Central and South Asian states announced in the forum their governments’ whole hearted support for the Russian initiative. Thus, the Sochi summit should therefore be considered the beginning of Russia’s return to the region, significantly as a welcomed major power leading the implementation of long-term policies.

In the aftermath of the summit, Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko summed up its outcome. The Kremlin’s original objective was for the four presidents “to discuss the issues in the political, trade, economic and other fields that are pressing for the participants”.

This objective was achieved, given that the presidents discussed and committed to “the stepping up of regional cooperation in the efforts to assist the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan and on the Afghan-Pakistani border, with the participation of authoritative organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Collective Security Treaty Organization”.

Prikhodko’s description of the summit outcome amounts to announcing anew Russia’s return to the region as a dominant power while virtually ignoring - but not challenging or confronting - the United States. 

Overnight on August 18-19, 2010, the United States reacted to the Sochi summit. Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, said that the US Barack Obama Administration welcomed Russia’s cooperation with Afghanistan and Pakistan in view of the US own limited capabilities.

“Afghanistan and Pakistan are both countries with profound needs,” Crowley said. “And the United States cannot meet these needs by itself.”

At the same time, Crowley explained, the Obama Administration has “a regional strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Russia can play an important role along with other countries in the region. So we welcome this kind of interaction and we welcome the international commitment by Russia and other countries that is represented by this meeting,” Crowley said.

The Obama Administration’s reluctant and conditional welcome of the Russian return to South Asia nevertheless constitutes a major shift in US policy.

As late as the early June forum in Moscow, US senior officials acknowledged Washington’s reluctance to commit to the eradication of Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation and narco-economy, as well as objection to Russia or anybody else assuming this role for fear of engendering popular hostility and alienating the Kabul leadership.

However, with the US preparing to disengage from the region, and a Kabul-Islamabad-Taliban arrangement on the future of Afghanistan all but inevitable, the presence of Russia, given its commitment to fighting narco-terrorism and jihadism, no longer seems so threatening.

Hence, while Crowley formally welcomed a Russian participation in implementing Obama’s regional strategy, both Moscow and Washington seem cognizant that no such strategy exists.

Committed to disengaging from South Asia, the Obama Administration is suddenly discovering that a long-term Russian commitment to cooperation with the region’s states might, after all, ameliorate the profound consequences of the US hasty departure, and consequently even contribute to the Obama Administration’s own political interests.

Analysis by Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

(c) 2010 International Strategic Studies Association, www.StrategicStudies.org

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