Russia Bolsters Central Asia Buffer as U.S. Afghan Exit Looms

(Bloomberg) -- Russia is stepping up efforts to reinforce security in vulnerable former Soviet Central Asian states as the U.S. prepares for a possible troop exit from nearby Afghanistan, risking greater instability in the conflict-torn country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarked on a Central Asian tour on Sunday, on which he will meet the leadership of three nations. His first stop is Kyrgyzstan, where Russia has an air base. The impoverished country may agree to Russia establishing a second military base, its ambassador to Moscow told state news agency TASS in an interview published Feb. 1.

“We’re worried about the situation in Afghanistan, where tensions are rising and clashes are continuing,” said the Kyrgyz envoy, Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov, a former foreign minister. “There are reports of ISIS fighters in northern Afghanistan and the likelihood they will enter Tajikistan and then get into our territory is rising unfortunately.”

Russia, which has built ties to the Taliban in a challenge to the U.S., is now beginning to worry it will have to fill the void if U.S. forces leave Afghanistan. Late last month, the Trump administration announced it was close to reaching a framework agreement with the fundamentalist Islamic group on ending the 18-year Afghan war, including on the withdrawal of foreign troops.

President Donald Trump has made it a goal to pull out the 14,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. This would further weaken the embattled Afghan government and make it vulnerable to more advances by the Taliban, which once ruled the country and have been gradually reclaiming territory. The draft pact would give foreign forces 18 months to leave, Reuters reported Jan. 27, citing unidentified Taliban officials.

The second stop on Lavrov’s tour will be Tajikistan, which has a border of about 1,300 kilometers (810 miles) with Afghanistan and where some 7,500 Russian troops are stationed. The Foreign Ministry said ahead of the visit that the talks would focus on “guaranteeing regional security by helping our ally strengthen its defenses and protect the southern flank” of the CIS, an ex-Soviet bloc of 12 countries.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan belong to a Russian-led regional security pact. The third country that Lavrov will visit, Turkmenistan, which also borders Afghanistan, does not.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in April that his country would take steps to reinforce military defenses in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to prevent infiltration of militants from northern Afghanistan.

Russia says it’s in dialog with the Taliban that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 and describes it as a potential ally against Islamic State, though it denies arming the group. The Kremlin fought a decade-long war in Afghanistan during the Soviet era, losing thousands of troops before withdrawing in 1989.

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