Russia prods Afghan, Japanese wounds
By M K Bhadrakumar
Any Russian babushka sitting in a city park would admonish that picking
scabs is a bad thing and if the scabs feel tight or itchy, find distraction in
a book or puzzle. Yet Moscow twice within a week picked at its war wounds - a
relatively new scab from the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and a much older one
left over from World War II. They were neither tight nor itchy, yet Moscow
The Russian decision to participate in a commando operation led by United
States forces against drug traffickers in Afghanistan
last Thursday and the first-ever visit by a Russian head of state to the Kurile
islands on Monday were precipitate moves that risked unpleasant consequences.
Russian servicemen stepping on Afghan soil from where they departed in unhappy
circumstances on February 15, 1989, or ratcheting up tensions with Japan over a
simmering 65-year-old territorial dispute suffused with strong emotions and
national pride is always risky. The Russian move needs to be seen against a
geopolitical backdrop that is perhaps as tumultuous in Russia's diplomatic
history as the 1945 Yalta summit: the Kremlin maneuvering to take Russia to a
nascent partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),
something unthinkable a few months ago.
After some initial confusion, Kabul and Tokyo grasped the Kremlin's complex
motivations. And they let the dust settle down. Afghan President Hamid Karzai
had reacted angrily and warned of serious consequences, but quickly realized
that Moscow meant no harm to him or to the Afghan nation.
Karzai telephoned Medvedev on Wednesday and not only supported Russia's
participation in the recent anti-drugs operation but also called for "further
expanding joint efforts in this area and increasing coordination levels ...
[and] for further intensification of cooperation with Russia and increasing its
role in resolving problems in Afghanistan, as well as the region as a whole."
Japan's reaction has been strikingly similar. An eruption of anger over
Medvedev's visit to the disputed territory and the recall its envoy in Moscow.
Then Tokyo calmly reconfirmed the scheduled meeting between Prime Minister
Naoto Kan and Medvedev on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific (APEC) summit
meeting at Yokohama on November 13-14. Interestingly, Kan instructed the
Japanese ambassador in Moscow to "increase his gathering of information and
analysis of the development of the situation in Russia". In Tokyo's perception,
the Kremlin was grandstanding.
Medvedev wrote to Kan on Thursday that he intended to "actively participate''
in the main theme of Japan's APEC presidency, Change and Action, and expressed
confidence that the Yokohama summit would provide "an optimal model of ...
development ... with an emphasis on economic and social security… [and] make a
tangible contribution to sustainable growth in the economies of participating
in the forum."
Russian participation in the commando raid in Afghanistan took place when the
troubled Afghan-Russian relationship was fast mending. Medvedev successfully
hosted a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in August to discuss
Afghanistan, which Karzai attended. The discussions even focused on
Russian-Afghan trade and economic ties. Kabul was willing to leave the bitter
memories of Soviet occupation behind and see Russia as a benefactor and a
factor of stability. Medvedev won Karzai's friendship.
As regards the second "scab", Moscow provoked Japan by scheduling Medvedev's
visit when the two countries were focusing on strengthening their economic
ties, with Japan stepping up its imports of oil, natural gas and other
resources from Russia and the latter importing Japanese cars and other
products. Moscow precipitated the tensions hardly 10 days ahead of the APEC
summit, which Russia is attending for the first time.
Soviet troops seized the 1,300-kilometer volcanic archipelago of the Kurile
Islands and merged it with Russia's Sakhalin region in the final stages of
World War II after Japan had sued for peace with the Allies. Japan calls the
islands its "Northern Territories", rejects Russia's claim and has refused to
conclude a peace treaty with Russia even 65 years after the war ended.
Medvedev's visit to the Kuriles changed nothing about the territorial dispute.
In sum, Russia acted toward Afghanistan and Japan with a deliberateness that
betrays deeper policy calculations. Russian motives are transparent in
Afghanistan. The commando operation targeted drug traffickers, but its backdrop
is Russia and NATO getting ready for improved relations. Russia and NATO are
expected to sign a clutch of agreements relating to Afghanistan in the coming
period relating to the transportation of NATO's military cargo to Afghanistan
via Russian territory by air, road and rail; supply of Russian helicopters to
Afghanistan; and providing training of Afghan pilots, special forces and
military as well as counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic units by Russian
Russia is pitching hard that the US and NATO have much to gain out of involving
Russia in the war. The narrative is that "the situation in Afghanistan will be
even worse if Russia and NATO do not work together. What's more, it's in their
mutual interests to join forces ... Moscow has no choice but to support NATO.
Even a partial withdrawal of NATO troops before local forces are fully trained
... would spell catastrophe for Russia."
The Afghan anti-narcotic operation involving Russian agents couldn't have been
timed better - three weeks ahead of the NATO summit in Lisbon where the war and
Russia's role figure on the agenda. Moscow tried to use the drug-trafficking
problem to catapult itself from the margins to the center stage of NATO's
debates over Afghanistan. It helped define Russia's place and role on the issue
Keeping the scabs moist
Moscow's relations with NATO are improving, but it so far has kept a safe
distance from the alliance's Afghan agenda and instead tried to be a "balancer"
or "alternative" to NATO - a trapeze act that Moscow handled astutely. Karzai
grasps the surge in Russian aspirations aiming to revive its influence in
Afghanistan even as the war is exhausting the US and NATO and the search for a
political settlement quickens.
On the other hand, Moscow uses its developing cooperation with NATO over
Afghanistan to crowbar its way on the far more vital question of participation
in the alliance's missile defense system (which is proposed to be linked to the
The flurry of diplomatic activity this week has been breathtaking. NATO
secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen arrived in Moscow on Tuesday to present
the proposal for Russia's participation in the alliance's missile defense
system. Rasmussen had just visited Berlin to consult German Chancellor Angela
Merkel who was fresh from a trilateral summit in October with Medvedev and
French President Nicolas Sarkozy that focused on European security and Russia's
role in it.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and
NATO's supreme commander in Europe US Admiral James Stavridis also arrived in
Moscow, while on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
meet in Hanoi last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly
Serdyukov was hosted in the Pentagon for the first time, in September.
The Russian news agency said there was "an 'all-hands-on-deck' kind of
atmosphere in Moscow" this week. Expectations run high that a momentous phase
in Russia's ties with the West is probably commencing.
This is where the Kremlin feels the compulsion to balance its ties with
Beijing. At a time when Moscow has all the need for Japanese money for
modernization, when its foreign policy priority is to integrate Russia into the
global community and when Silicon Valley apparently holds the key to Russia's
"innovation" comes this manifestly provocative act to pressure and humiliate
one of the US's key allies.
But then, China is also currently locked in a row with Japan over territorial
claims. Perhaps there isn't any Russian-Chinese conspiracy as such to needle
Japan and to keep the Japan-US alliance in check and thereby undermine US
influence in the Asia-Pacific. But Moscow's jab at the scab of its territorial
dispute with Japan pleases Beijing. Moscow showed up Japanese foreign policy as
being in disarray and that with its economy in deep stagnation, Tokyo is too
weak to do anything other than complain.
Russia asserted its status as an Asian power but Moscow also signaled to
Beijing that the potential surge in its NATO ties by no means comes at the
expense of Sino-Russian strategic partnership. A Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokesman called the Russian-Japanese row a "bilateral issue" (ie, Washington
should stay clear of it) which should be solved through "a friendly dialogue".
Moscow has strengthened Beijing's hand in any upcoming negotiations with Japan
over the East China Sea. The Global Times daily quoted a Chinese scholar as
saying, "Japan cannot afford to have tensions with China and Russia at the same
time. It's time for Japanese politicians to reflect on their diplomacy and sort
out a solution."
Besides, by highlighting its territorial dispute with Japan, Moscow may also
have underscored that involvement of Tokyo in the alliance's missile defense
system would be contrary to the spirit of Russia-NATO ties and the reset of
US-Russia ties. All-in-all, therefore, while the Afghan anti-drug operation
underscored the Russian capacity and readiness to be seen as a useful ally for
NATO, by highlighting its territorial dispute with Tokyo, Moscow reaffirmed
that strategic cooperation with China would nonetheless remain a core vector of
its foreign policy.
In short, Moscow intends to keep its Afghan and Japanese scabs moist. The babushka
will advise that a little skin massage and a bit of moisturizer rubbed into the
scab is always good to help blood circulation so that the wound heals properly.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.