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Russia’s new great game

Russia is silently attempting to fill the void left by the US to reposition itself as a ‘third power’

By Hammad Sarfraz |
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PUBLISHED November 21, 2021

Following a hasty and disorganised withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States has its eyes set both inwards and towards what it sees as its next great power competition with China. As Washington’s interest and influence resultantly wanes in regions like South Asia and even the Middle East, Russia, like China, is looking to make inroads and forge partnerships as it reworks its way into being a third power at the global stage.

The Express Tribune reached out to Dr Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute focusing on Russia's policy toward the Middle East, to examine how Russia might fit into a new multipolar world order. In particular, the analyst, who has also consulted for a US military contractor in Afghanistan and contributed to Oxford Analytica, explains what a resurgent Russia may represent for Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the Middle East over the years and decades to come.

ET: Where do you see Russia in the new or changing world power system?

AB: I see Russia as a country that very much wants to see a change in the international system. It is a state that wants to see a multipolar world. Russian officials have been talking about it for many years. This vision was first articulated in 1996 by Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov, who held several senior positions in the Russian government, including intelligence, foreign minister, and later prime minister. He publicly outlined this vision of a multipolar world, and that vision stands as an alternative to the US-led global International System. The Russian state very much wants to see a multipolar world. I don't believe we're necessarily in that world order yet. However, I do think the international system is much more complicated than it was before. To be able to comment on it we must define power, which depends on the characteristics of a leading state such as cyber and artificial intelligence, and all those definitions are constantly shifting. But I still think we are in unipolar world order and Russia like China is very much interested in changing that and is taking steps to change that.


ET: What are your views about the role of Russia Putin particularly in the Middle East and South Asia given that the US is now looking inwards?

AB: Putin worked from the very beginning since coming to power officially in the Russian government to return Russia to the Middle East. It is a region where historically Russia almost always played a leading role. It acted as a great power, it competed with other great powers in this region historically for most of its existence as an independent polity and similarly Afghanistan in South Asia is a region that the Russian state historically views as its vulnerable southern underbelly. So, historically when the Russian state expanded, it mostly expanded west and south because China checked Russia’s expansion to the east. And it is the south – if you define the south as the Caucasus, the Central Asia part of Afghanistan and the Middle East –where the Russian state viewed itself as vulnerable and wanted to play a leading role as a great power.

Putin has done a lot to return Russia to the Middle East. He had worked on it for years even before the Syrian intervention. The Russian intervention in Syria was a game changer in many ways. It was the first Russian military intervention outside the former Soviet Union. It was something that simply Western analysts did not expect. It was a big surprise for a whole host of reasons that was a game-changer as well. It shouldn't diminish the fact that Russia was already trying to play a great power role in the Middle East before and its military intervention was the next step in that involvement.

And in Afghanistan as well, under Vladimir Putin, Russia has built connections to the Taliban and began discussions with the Taliban as early as 2007, according to some sources. However, Russian state sources say this contact with the Taliban was established in 2014. The reason why I bring this up is that the nature of engagement of the Taliban is similar to how Putin's Russia approached the Middle East. Putin’s Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, cultivated contacts with all major players in the region. So, unlike the Soviet Union that had clear adversaries and clear friends, Putin’s Russia was much more flexible and that is true if you look at most regions. This simple approach of building ties to governments and opposition movements has awarded Russia a lot more room to manoeuvre.

That said, in Afghanistan, it seems clear that the Russian government has concluded that the Taliban are the reality. If you look at Putin’s recent comments he said: “The Taliban are a reality that we have to accept.” But because the Kremlin has cultivated connections with the Taliban and has invited them for peace talks, positioning Russia as a peace negotiator – which is another key element of how Putin’s Russia approaches the Middle East. The nature of engagement and Russia's relationship with this region and is also different. It provides both risks and opportunities for the Russian state. So, this is not the Soviet Union anymore and that's the key takeaway.

Another key takeaway is that the primary motivation of the Kremlin as of now remains to be concerned about American presence. So historically under Putin, the Russian government resisted American military presence in Central Asia, and even though in the early part of the US coalition engagement in Afghanistan Putin acquiesced to this operation, he always extracted concession. So, it was never free even though historically the Taliban is anti-Russian. From a Western perspective it seems only natural that Putin would want to cooperate because American presence helped curb Taliban influence that was hurting Russia but there is a contradiction here in the Russian state approach to this that yes, they preferred that the US pushed back against the Taliban, but they were worried about American presence even more.

This kind of contradiction is an interesting feature of the Russian foreign policy where ultimately anti-Americanism tends to win over and we've seen this very clearly in recent months. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said very openly that they do not want the American military bases in Central Asia that they will push against American bases in Central Asia and this is another key feature of what Russia is doing. Another key feature is that Russia seems pretty confident because Russia like China kept its embassy open in Afghanistan, unlike western countries that were not able to operate in the same way once the Taliban regime had taken over, and that I think is a reflection of this relationship that Russia has built with the Taliban and also it just seems that the Taliban's priorities are different now compared to their iteration of the 1990s when it comes to Russia again because of this disengagement.

Another key point is Russia still retains a very strong military position in Central Asia. You're seeing China on the rise much more from an economic perspective, but militarily Putin has done a lot to entrench Russia’s security position so there are a lot of levers of influence Putin can use from the military perspective to put pressure on Central Asian governments when it comes to accepting Afghan refugees. Russia has a lot of its troops stationed in parts of Central Asia’s key strategic points.

Lastly, there's the issue of drug trafficking coming from Afghanistan because of the Taliban from which historically, not just the Russian state but people have suffered. If you look at drug flows now, the so-called northern route of opium that used to go from Afghanistan and Central Asia is now no longer the priority than it was in the previous years. Now, more drugs are coming through Iran into Europe. These key concerns that historically the Russian state had about the Taliban are a little bit different and a result of several developments all at once. One of them are the steps Putin has taken with the changing regional structure with the Taliban.


ET: You've said that what we're looking at is not the Soviet Union, this is Putin's Russia. And it's a lot different. But the one thing that remains common between Putin’s Russia and the Soviet Union, is anti-Americanism. Do you think the Russian foreign policy is still primarily crafted through the lens of anti-Americanism?

AB: Yeah, I think anti-Americanism plays a key feature in Russian foreign policy. You are correct that it is similar, not identical, to how the Soviet Union approached its foreign policy. Because if you look at key Russian security documents, for years, they've talked about NATO encroaching on Russian territory, posing a threat. NATO is broadly mentioned, but the subtext is Western countries led by the US. If you look at the speeches of Russian officials, or Putin himself, and senior officials around him, they blame the West and when they say the West, they think the US is at the helm. They continue to blame so-called American interventionism for causing chaos globally. They view the US as this destabilising force that needs to be brought to the heel. So, this is a new iteration of the Russian foreign policy. It's not coloured by communist ideology as it was under the Soviet Union. It is not the same kind of ideological global contest, but anti-Americanism indeed colours Russian foreign policy.


ET: Putin's Russia is rising, and Putin's Russia is expanding in many ways militarily and otherwise. Is this a threat to the existing Western order?

AB: The short answer is yes. Historicallly, Russia was this very contradictory kind of a weak great power and I think that remains the case to this day. In other words, defensive and offensive activity blend to the point they're unrecognisable. Russia retains several challenges that it has internally, but this does not mean that it cannot create problems for the West. So, the short answer to your question is yes and that is because Putin’s Russia is fundamentally illiberal from the liberal rules-based global order. Russian officials like Sergey Lavrov routinely say we don't understand this rule-based liberal order that is dominated by the US. So, that is their chief concern and they have the ability to create a lot of problems for the west not just through more conventional military means – the prime example of this is the war in Georgia and then in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea – but also by preventing countries that want to join the West from joining the alliance not through hard military power but other approaches such as cyber operations, through election interference, through basically undermining the liberal transparent democratic system. The way that the Russian state does this is by being cynical and by carrying the message that they're no different – that America says that democracy is different from authoritarianism but really, they're just the same. They're just using this discussion of human rights as a pretext for regime change, for carrying out very cold realpolitik.

The other reason why it can pose a challenge is that Putin’s Russia ironically unlike the Soviet Union is more aware of its limitations. So, it is pursuing a strategy of limited action. It is acting as a state that understands it has limited resources and it's resorted to non-traditional elements such as private military contractors. So, it doesn't take a lot of resources to send paramilitary forces, it doesn't take a whole lot of resources to spread misinformation to interfere in elections or attack the electric grid as Russia has done in Ukraine. Russia is using energy as a weapon in Europe. They're not true traditional means of warfare. It’s what the military tends to call the grey zone - anything short of a conventional military force, Russia has these resources in abundance. In many ways there are a lot of improvements in the Russian military as well, so it is not going anywhere anytime soon.


ET: Do you think Russia is going to reconfigure some of its relations in the region and perhaps give more importance to Pakistan vis à vis India?

AB: Putin's tone towards Pakistan has certainly changed. The comments the Russian president recently made about Pakistan are related to Afghanistan and the changing dynamics in the region. Pakistan has significant influence over the Taliban and Putin concluded that the Taliban is the reality the world would have to deal with. Hence, considering Pakistan's position and influence, he fully understands the importance of maintaining a good relationship with Islamabad.

That said, I think he is going to try to play a balancing act as he has done in other regions where he will also retain ties to India. He considers India as a very important state. There is a very important comment that Putin made a while ago that I think is illustrative of how he perceives the international system. Putin said that very few states have true sovereignty and the ones he listed as examples of those included of course Russia, China, the US, India, and I believe Pakistan as well if I'm not mistaken. But India certainly was on the list. He did not mention a lot of European countries. The reason why this statement is so important is that gives you an understanding of the International System that he sees. It is not the international system that conforms to the liberal post World War II global security architecture where small states matter. That comment especially is illustrative of how Putin sees the international system and the reason I'm bringing it up now also is because he included India in that list of countries that have true sovereignty. So, for that reason, I think he's going to try to maintain a balancing act between India and Pakistan.


ET: What role do you think Russia can play in Afghanistan? Why did Russia pull out before acknowledging the Taliban regime as the official government in Afghanistan during the last summit in Moscow?

AB: Russia wants to have a role In Afghanistan. Secondly, I think past Soviet failure in Afghanistan cannot help but colour the present in the sense that just as Putin is trying to play out the Cold War with an alternative ending that he likes, other members of Russian Security Services have not forgiven the US for winning. The failure in Afghanistan was also critical not in terms of any moral lessons but in terms of simple win or lose. I think that there's a belief that this time we're (Russia) going to win in Afghanistan. From a security perspective, I think Putin has a very cold calculated approach. He certainly doesn't want any kind of instability to affect Russia in so far as that might impact his position in power. If Russia experiences an increase in terrorist attacks, that will eventually undermine Putin's prestige and status at home and in the region. He doesn’t want his role as a leader questioned at home or abroad. That is why he ensured that Russia has a stronger presence in Central Asia and that's why he cultivated ties with the Taliban.

So, I believe he is looking for security guarantees before a formal acknowledgment of the regime is granted. As far as Russia itself is concerned, I don't think Putin cares at all about human rights abuses in Afghanistan, unfortunately. The talk about including women in government and respecting women's rights is just rhetoric. I think it's paying lip service because we've already seen how the Taliban behave.


ET: Pakistan played a very important in helping the US maintain its presence in Afghanistan for more than 20 years How important will Pakistan be in helping Russia establish its desired influence or role in Afghanistan? What is Putin thinking in terms of Pakistan?

AB: Putin is precisely thinking about Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban regime and therefore good relations with Islamabad will be increasingly important. I also doubt America’s departure was a surprise for Putin because it looks like he was preparing for the American withdrawal for several years. So, I think that aspect of the relationship will be more important now. Regardless, Pakistan plays an important role in the region and so that's simply by design something that Putin will have to continue taking into account. Because Putin also likes to position Russia as a mediator, which is a key feature of his foreign policy in this part of the world, I wonder if potentially down the line he might also be looking at positioning Russia as this interlocutor that can talk to conflicting sides whether it's arranging negotiations between India and Pakistan or Afghanistan.


ET: Given your knowledge of Russia and its foreign policy, do you think Putin would like to fill in the vacuum wherever the US is retreating?

AB: Mostly, yes. Putin's Russia very much tries to fill in strategic vacuums that The US leaves. And this region that we are discussing is incredibly important. So, I think that’s going to remain to be the pattern because again from the Russian state perspective for Russia to win the US must lose. If you examine the rhetoric again coming from people such Sergey Lavrov who has been talking nonstop about America’s failure in Afghanistan, and that American nation-building efforts failed and that America tried to impose its way of life on everybody and failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's the official Russian narrative and it caused a lot of open jubilation among Russian officials publicly. However, as mentioned before, the Russian state understands that it cannot match the US in its resources and instead it is pursuing a much more limited and flexible approach to undermining American influence.


ET: With the US out of the picture, do you see Russia forming new alliances in the region. In the Middle East clearly, Russia is way ahead of the US. Do you think Russia would like to replicate the same policies in Southeast Asia and establish an influence in this region?

AB: The US still has a robust security architecture in the Middle East and a lot of engagement with Gulf countries. So, I don't think Russia has necessarily outpaced or won over the US in the Middle East. It has a much stronger position now and it continues to entrench its position and is very much capitalising on the American retreat both real and perceived because in politics perceptions also matter just as much as reality does.

Russia is very skillful in capitalising on that and the more this trend continues the harder it's going to be for the US to get back in. In terms of alliances, I think looking at the pattern of Russian behaviour, it is safe to say Russia does not build alliances, it builds partnerships. It prefers more flexible arrangements and that I think will be the approach in this region as well because once you become an ally formally it also creates certain obligations and what the Russian government is trying to do is minimise obligations where they can.


ET: You said that Russia would like to have partnerships more than formal alliances. Does that mean that the Russian foreign policy is more about short-term goals right now than long-term?

AB: It's a little bit about both short-term and long-term commitments. The reason why I say this is because it is possible to maintain a relationship with a country for a very long time without an official alliance or treaty. For example Russia has a relationship with Syria’s Assad and the Assad family has always been a special relationship dating back to the Cold War. We've seen just how far Putin went to protect Assad, even though technically they are not calling him an ally – they're calling Syria more of a client state, sort of downgrading the status of Syria in relation to the Russian state. But having these types of partnerships allows flexibility and this can go on for a very long time. So there's certainly a long-term vision to this approach that Russia has.



ET: The US left the region, but it is still trying to retain some military influence. Will Russia block any future involvement of the US in this region?

AB: Yes, that fits with the historical pattern of Russian behaviour against the US. You can expect Moscow to present its alternative military arrangements in the region. That is one card that the Kremlin plays. Even in Afghanistan in recent weeks when Putin offered Americans to use Russian bases. Of course, that is something to watch for down the road.

In short, the way the withdrawal from Afghanistan was carried out was a complete debacle. It was a complete disaster, and it has been quite shocking to watch, and of course, American adversaries can't help but rejoice from watching this. On the other hand, American allies can't help but be extremely worried, to put it mildly. The full effects of this disastrous withdrawal will be seen more clearly in the years ahead. But certainly, American adversaries have concluded that the cost of defying the US is worth it.

Regarding President Biden’s statement on America’s ability to maintain over the horizon strike capability and so forth, I'm not quite sure how that's going to work out. I think it is going to be much harder to maintain this sort of access without this presence on the ground.

The issue with this in terms of presence that was discussed earlier is a very small contingent of 2,500 troops. To be clear, we were not talking about these extremes of all or nothing. The issue was keeping a small contingent as a deterrent mission against the Taliban. I do think that it's going to be much harder because Russia and China immediately started moving in as well as Iran and yes of course the Russians will try to limit American ability to create any kind of military agreements or arrangements in the region. When it comes to Central Asia, the Russian government said very openly that they will resist American bases in Central Asia. Hence, that makes the environment very complicated for the US to operate.


ET: How do you view the Biden doctrine? Is the Biden administration too focused on China and is ignoring Russia? And what do you think will President Biden be able to achieve in the Middle East and Southeast Asia generally, given that he's being hammered domestically?

AB: It seems that Washington’s key priority is China and a far second is Russia. I argue that, from my point of view, as an analyst, I think it's a mistake, I think we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time as the American expression goes. Washington needs to focus on both Russia and China as they present different challenges. But they're both challenges. The American foreign policy is shifting more towards confronting China. But I think it's a mistake to discount Russia. So, Washington needs to address both challenges.

We are not seeing a coherent Biden doctrine at this stage. I don't see a clearly articulated policy toward the Middle East as well. So far, this past year has not gone very well for the president. His approval ratings are at a historic low. I suspect his administration's approach will be coloured by continued disengagement from the Middle East, just as his past two predecessors have done as well. He's focused on the Iran deal in a slightly different way than the Obama administration was but, nonetheless, I'm not very positive, not very optimistic in terms of what that means for the American influence, and therefore for the stability of this region.