Russia has made a sudden shift when it comes to combatting narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan. For years, Russian officials saw US involvement in Central Asia as a greater national security threat than Afghan drugs. But now, with addiction taking a huge social toll in Russia, the Kremlin is getting behind anti-trafficking plans, even if Russian officials remain leery of cooperating with the United States.
Russia is currently experiencing a demographic crisis of unprecedented proportions. The three demons of Russia’s social apocalypse are alcohol, heart disease and drugs.
Russia’s Drug Control Service and Ministry of Interior recently released data on the truly tragic nature of the country’s drug situation. About 8.5 million Russians, or approximately 6 per cent of the population, are classified as addicted to drugs and the number is growing. In addition, 88,000 people were arrested in 2012 on drug-related charges and law enforcement agencies seized 85 tons of narcotic. Perhaps the most alarming number is 30,000 -- the number of Russians who die each year from drug-related causes.
It’s well known that most of the drugs flowing into Russia originate in Afghanistan, traveling via Central Asian trafficking routes. Yet until recently Russia blocked formation of an anti-narcotics organization proposed by the United States that would strive to choke off these routes. The Kremlin’s recalcitrance had been mainly rooted in concern that the US footprint in Central Asia would grow too big. In effect, this suspicion of US intentions caused Russia to ignore its best interests, namely taking action to stem the flood of drugs into the country.
Russian criticism of the US policy for not going after drug lords and not destroying Afghan poppy fields reached a crescendo in 2011 -- even as this drumbeat ignored what US officers serving in Afghanistan knew very well: that members of the Russian military and government were corrupt and part of the problem.
But that was two years ago. In late 2012, a light apparently came on in Moscow, one that prompted Russian leaders to set a new course on the anti-trafficking issue. It marks an improvement over the old stance, but not by much.
The central flaw of Russia’s anti-trafficking initiatives remains a preoccupation with geopolitics, rather than a desire to concentrate its energy on tackling a domestic scourge.
It’s still clear, for example, that Vladimir Putin’s administration wants to implement plans that keep the US role to an absolute minimum. Under a scheme envisioned by Russia, a newly created multinational drug agency would operate under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s auspices, and coordinate directly with individual, member states. The United States, of course, is not affiliated with the SCO.
In addition, Russia is misdiagnosing the causes of the disease. Officials, notably Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, have expressed the belief that Russia’s narcotics problem is caused by demand generated by trans-national cartels, rather than by the unsettled situation in war-torn Afghanistan, indigenous Russian demand and pervasive corruption within Russian security agencies.
The Kremlin also doesn’t seem so interested in tackling official corruption. Moscow now believes that a multilateral anti-drug agency, cooperating closely with the Afghan government, which is ridden with corruption, could be effective in addressing cultivation and trafficking issues inside Afghanistan. This belief is folly pure and simple.
The same goes for cooperation with Tajikistan. Regional analysts have long believed Tajik officials are heavily involved trafficking operations, yet both Russia and the United States provide assistance to Tajik governmental agencies that is broadly aimed at combatting trafficking. Such assistance is a waste of money, some analysts contend, adding that inviting Tajikistan to participate in a multilateral anti-trafficking organization would undermine that group’s credibility.
The creation of an effective anti-drug organization in Central Asia and Afghanistan is a lofty goal that deserves support. But such an initiative won’t stand a chance of success until key countries are willing to set geopolitical obsessions aside and undertake substantive efforts to promote Afghanistan’s economic stabilization and curb graft throughout the region. Until then, it is sadly the case that there will probably be more rhetoric and political posturing than effective anti-trafficking activity in these areas.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.