On December 11, 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized NATO’s efforts to combat drug trafficking in Afghanistan. In a press conference in New Delhi, Lavrov claimed that Afghanistan’s rampant narcotics trade fuels terrorism in Central and South Asia. Lavrov also urged the West to end the “double standards” that undercut NATO’s drug enforcement policies in Afghanistan.
Even though Russian policymakers have been concerned about the threat posed by drug trafficking from Afghanistan since the 1990s, U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to address drug trafficking in his August 21 South Asia strategy speech has caused Russia to step up its efforts to destroy the Afghan narcotics trade. The Russian government’s efforts stem from genuine security concerns relating to drug trafficking, but also serve Moscow’s broader geopolitical agenda.
By contrasting Russia’s hardline anti-drug stance with Washington’s less aggressive approach, Kremlin policymakers are trying to discredit U.S. military activities in Afghanistan, in front of a domestic and international audience. Russia is also using crackdowns on drug trafficking to strengthen security cooperation with Central Asian countries that have expressed concerns about drug-related crime and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.
Russian Criticisms of U.S. Anti-Narcotics Policies in Afghanistan
Even though Russia and the United States cooperated on curbing drug trafficking from Afghanistan in the years following the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, narcotics policy has emerged as a major area of disagreement between Moscow and Washington in recent years. The breakdown of US-Russia cooperation on defeating drug trafficking began with Washington’s decision to impose sanctions on the head of Russia’s anti-drug agency, Viktor Ivanov, in 2014.
In February 2016, Yuri Krupnov, Ivanov’s leading advisor, told the New York Times that the Obama administration “buried a promising line of cooperation” by imposing sanctions on Ivanov and that all room for cooperation on drug enforcement has been exhausted. The Russian state media also stepped up its criticisms of U.S. drug enforcement policies during the final months of Obama’s tenure.
An October 2016 UN report, which revealed a 43 percent spike in opium production in Afghanistan from 2015-2016, was widely cited by Russian state media outlets as proof of the ineffectiveness of the U.S. military’s anti-narcotics policy. This report’s conclusions were also used to substantiate Lavrov’s March 2017 claims that NATO forces have turned a blind eye to drug trafficking in Afghanistan, and facilitated the movement of illegal drug revenues into the hands of extremist groups.
Even though evidence of collusion between the United States and Afghan opium growers is based on speculative anecdotal reports and conspiracy theories, Moscow has continued to link Washington’s military campaign in Afghanistan to drug trafficking. Linking U.S. conduct to casualties in Russia resulting from the use of Afghan narcotics plays into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of rallying anti-American nationalism in Russia for regime consolidation purposes.
As Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Director General Andrey Kortunov noted in our recent interview, the statement that illegal drug trafficking caused by the U.S. war in Afghanistan has killed more Russians than the Soviet Union lost in 1979-88 war resonates profoundly amongst Russian nationalists. As the 2018 presidential elections draw closer, highlighting the detrimental impact of Washington’s ineffective drug enforcement strategy on U.S. society will foment anti-American sentiments amongst Putin’s nationalist base.
In addition, the expansion of the Taliban’s illegal drug revenues since Trump took office in January increases the credibility of Russia’s calls for a transition from the military to diplomatic phase of the Afghanistan conflict. Many Russian defense experts contend that bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table will reduce narcotics trafficking. As IMEMO Afghanistan expert Ekaterina Stepanova noted in our interview in September, Russian officials view Mullah Omar’s February 2000 crackdown on illegal drugs in Afghanistan as a benchmark for what the Taliban’s approach to narcotics might be during peacetime.
If other countries impacted by Afghanistan’s illegal drugs nexus, like China and Pakistan, accept Russia’s perspective on the link between Washington’s military intervention and drug trafficking, Moscow’s credibility as a diplomatic arbiter in Afghanistan will grow substantially. This increased respect will strengthen Putin’s position domestically and reinforce perceptions of Russian great power status.
Russia’s Expanded Cooperation with Central Asia on Counter-Narcotics Policy in Afghanistan
As Central Asia is the primary juncture point for narcotics from Afghanistan to Russia, Moscow has expanded its cooperation with its Central Asian partners on curbing drug trafficking. In addition to reducing inflows of heroin and opiates into Russia, the Russian government’s cooperation with Central Asian countries on drug trafficking has two major strategic objectives.
The first objective, exemplified by Russia’s anti-drug trafficking cooperation with Tajikistan, is legitimizing Moscow’s hegemonic projection of power in Central Asia. Challenges associated with President Emomali Rahmon’s border security initiatives have entrenched Moscow’s hegemony over Tajikistan by justifying Russia’s expanded influence over the country’s security policy.
In February, Rahmon cited Afghanistan’s booming narcotics trade as a rationale for a potential Russian upgrade of its 201st military base in Tajikistan. Putin echoed Rahmon’s argument in an April 11 interview with Mir Broadcasting Company. Russia’s increased attention to the drug trafficking threat has helped Putin frame Russia’s military presence as constructive to a Tajik populace rankled by cases of abuse of power and criminality perpetrated by Russian military personnel in Tajikistan.
The second objective, encapsulated by Russia’s increased anti-narcotics cooperation with Uzbekistan, is providing a foundation for closer security cooperation with CIS republics lying outside the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The burning of 1.4 tons of Afghan heroin and opium by Uzbek security forces in July 2015 provided a strong foundation for future Moscow-Tashkent anti-narcotics cooperation in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Russia’s expansion of bilateral and CSTO-led anti-narcotics initiatives with Central Asian countries increases its prestige as an opponent of drug trafficking. By creating a regional coalition against drug trafficking, Moscow gives the CSTO a vital sense of common purpose and increases the credibility of Lavrov’s December 4 call for enhanced cooperation between the CSTO and NATO on drug enforcement.
The Trump administration’s decision to bomb Taliban-operated opium factories on November 20 has increased optimism about NATO-CSTO cooperation on anti-narcotics policy. If Russia remains consistent in its message and maintains a cohesive Central Asian coalition against drug trafficking, the potential to re-establish joint Moscow-Washington anti-narcotics cooperation appears greater than at any point since the 2010 joint U.S.-Russia drug raids in Afghanistan.
Even though Russia’s increasingly aggressive anti-narcotics trafficking campaign is linked to rising opium harvests and heroin production in Afghanistan, Moscow’s drug enforcement policies are also closely matched to its broader geopolitical objectives. If Russia can build an international consensus around negotiating with the Taliban on drug trafficking and forge a multinational coalition against Afghanistan’s narcotics industry, Moscow could successfully pressure Washington to take more decisive action against drug trafficking in Afghanistan in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.