Russia has reportedly blocked a U.S. plan designed to help stem the flow of drugs from Afghanistan through Central Asia in a sign of Moscow's continued wariness about Washington's intentions in a region often thought of as "Russia's backyard."
A delegation of U.S. officials led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, presented the plan at a February 16 meeting in Vienna of the Paris Pact countries, which works to counter trafficking in Afghan opiates.
Washington's proposed Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative (CACI) would create task forces in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan that would coordinate with similar entities in Afghanistan and Russia.
Each task force would be comprised of some 25 people from their country's drug-control agency who would be mentored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The groups would share information, improve coordination on joint and cross-border operations, and build cases against traffickers.
Afghanistan is the world’s primary source of opium, which fuels the heroin trade and funds extremist groups. The region's problem with drug addiction is enormous.
Brownfield visited Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Russia last spring to preview the initiative and this week, Washington was hoping to gain official backing for the plan in Vienna.
Before that could happen, however, members of Moscow's delegation conducted an "explanatory campaign" with their Central Asian counterparts, according to the Russian newspaper "Kommersant." They reportedly "described all the risks that could exist for them if the U.S. plan were adopted."
A U.S. official familiar with the matter confirmed that Washington's delegation was unable to reach a final agreement at the meeting but said the plan has not been rejected.
Still, the official described the outcome as "a big surprise."
Susan Pittman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told RFE/RL that bilateral consultations with the Central Asian states would continue.
"We continue to discuss with Central Asian officials the establishment of vetted units and other types of counternarcotics assistance that the U.S. is prepared to provide," she said.
"Kommersant" quoted an unnamed Russian official in Vienna as saying, "Why create something new if Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO] structures are already in force in these countries? Why does [the United States] insist on bilateral dialogues with the Central Asian republics, demonstratively ignoring Russia's interests in the region?"
The CSTO is a regional security alliance that includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, but is dominated by Russia. Analysts say the United States and NATO are hesitant to work solely through the body due to that controlling influence.
The newspaper said another unnamed Russian official called the U.S. plan "a new tool of infiltration into Central Asia [and] a method of strengthening the military-political influence of the United States in the region."
In July 2011 Brownfield told RFE/RL that the proposal was meant to supplement existing regional structures, not replace them.
He said he expected the plan to “rise above” any perceived battle for influence between Washington and Moscow in the region, especially amid concern that the flow of drugs will worsen after U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
Brownfield also said the initiative “does not require massive presence by either the United States or the Russian Federation to support or pursue the idea."
Those arguments apparently didn't convince Russia.
Parviz Mulojonov, a Dushanbe-based analyst, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service, "We have to cooperate with the United States, but we should keep in mind that Russia has tools to impact events in the region and could negatively influence the events in Tajikistan. The U.S. has no such tools for impact. This means we have to cooperate, but keep in mind the interests of Russia."
Richard Weitz, the director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in a Washington, said Russia's apparent opposition indicates the depth of its mistrust of any U.S. role in the region.
"It's indicative of Russia still being uncomfortable with the United States having an active presence in Central Asia beyond the war in Afghanistan. What's odd about this is that Russia has been the most vocal country complaining about the U.S. and ISAF's failure to deal with the Afghan drug problem," he said.
A 2010 UN study identified Russia as having the world's highest per capita heroin use, contributing to 30,000 to 40,000 drug-related deaths in the country annually.