Russia seeks Central Asian buffer ahead of US withdrawal from Afghanistan

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visiting Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to counter extremist threat

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting of Russian President with his Moldovan counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2019. / AFP / POOL / MAXIM SHEMETOV
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Russia is stepping up efforts to reinforce security in vulnerable former Soviet Central Asian states as the US prepares for a possible troop exit from nearby Afghanistan, risking greater instability in the conflict-torn country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a Central Asian tour on Sunday, on which he will meet the leadership of three nations. His first stop is Kyrgyzstan, where Russia has an airbase. The impoverished country may agree to Russia establishing a second military base, its ambassador to Moscow told state news agency Tass in an interview last week.

“We’re worried about the situation in Afghanistan, where tensions are rising and clashes are continuing,” said the Kyrgyz envoy, Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov, a former foreign minister. “There are reports of ISIS fighters in northern Afghanistan and the likelihood they will enter Tajikistan and then get into our territory is rising unfortunately.”

Russia, which has built ties to the Taliban in a challenge to the US, is now beginning to worry it will have to fill the void if US forces leave Afghanistan. Late last month, the Trump administration announced it was close to reaching a framework agreement with the fundamentalist Islamic group on ending the 17-year Afghan war, including on the withdrawal of foreign troops.

President Donald Trump has made it a goal to pull out the 14,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan. This would further weaken the embattled Afghan government and make it vulnerable to more advances by the Taliban, which once ruled the country and has been gradually reclaiming territory. The draft pact would give foreign forces 18 months to leave, Reuters reported on January 27, citing unidentified Taliban officials.

The second stop on Mr Lavrov’s tour will be Tajikistan, which has a border of about 1,300 kilometres with Afghanistan and where some 7,500 Russian troops are stationed. The Russian foreign ministry said ahead of the visit that the talks would focus on “guaranteeing regional security by helping our ally strengthen its defences and protect the southern flank” of the CIS, a post-Soviet bloc of 12 countries.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan belong to a Russian-led regional security pact. The third country that Mr Lavrov will visit, Turkmenistan, which also borders Afghanistan, does not.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in April that his country would take steps to reinforce military defences in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to prevent infiltration of militants from northern Afghanistan.

Russia says it is in talks with the Taliban that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 and describes it as a potential ally against ISIS, though it denies arming the group. The Kremlin fought a decade-long war in Afghanistan during the Soviet era, losing thousands of troops before withdrawing in 1989.