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Cash Crunch, Stretched Military Spur Russian Troop Cuts Near Afghan Frontier

  • Farangis Najibullah

Russia has long voiced alarm about the potential for violence in Afghanistan -- where the Soviet Union fought a disastrous war of occupation for nearly a decade before withdrawing in 1988 -- to spill over into the mostly Muslim countries of former Soviet Central Asia.

Russia has long voiced alarm about the potential for violence in Afghanistan -- where the Soviet Union fought a disastrous war of occupation for nearly a decade before withdrawing in 1988 -- to spill over into the mostly Muslim countries of former Soviet Central Asia.

In April 2015, the commander of Russia's military base in Tajikistan said its size would swell to 9,000 troops by 2020.

But Russia reversed course last week, saying it will opt for fewer boots on the ground in a country the Kremlin sees as its bulwark against Islamic militants across Tajikistan's long and vulnerable border with Afghanistan.

The troop presence at the 201st Military Base, Russia's biggest non-naval military facility beyond its borders, will be downsized from a division to a brigade, a senior Russian general said on January 30.

The about-face may seem counterintuitive, coming against the backdrop of repeated Russian warnings that the threat from Afghanistan has grown since the rise of the Islamic State militant group and the pullout of most U.S. and NATO troops.

But analysts say it reflects a struggle by the Russian military to build or maintain strength on several fronts while contending with the need to keep costs under control at a time when the collapse in world prices for oil, the country's key export, has hit the economy hard.

The effects of Western sanctions imposed to punish Russia for its interference in Ukraine -- including the military occupation and subsequent seizure of Crimea and what Kyiv and NATO say has been ample military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine -- have added to the economic woes.

"Running an entire division is too excessive as Russia is facing an economic crisis," Russian military analyst Vladimir Mukhin tells RFE/RL.

The military has revealed no numbers and said last week it had not yet decided how many troops would remain in Tajikistan. But Aleksandr Golts and other Russian military analysts say a brigade normally consists of 3,000 to 5,000 military personnel.

Not Enough To Go Around

It's not just a matter of money, according to Golts. Russia's military is overstretched with its involvement in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, he says.

After supporting the Syrian government with weapons and advisers throughout its war against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia stepped up its military presence in the Middle East state last year and began a bombing campaign on September 30. President Vladimir Putin has put no time limit on Russia's biggest operation outside the former Soviet Union in decades.

Kyiv and NATO say that Russia has sent heavy weapons and thousands of troops to eastern Ukraine to support separatists in a war that has killed more than 9,000 people since April 2014. Russia denies it despite a growing body of evidence.

The seizure of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have sent tension between Russia and the West skyrocketing. The atmosphere of confrontation is stoked by Kremlin assertions that the United States and NATO are out to weaken Russia or even oust Putin from power.

Golts says Russia is focusing more military power in its western borderlands. In January, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia would create three new military divisions on its western flank, calling it one of the most important tasks for his ministry in 2016.

Keeping Boots On The Ground

The new array of imperatives does not mean Russia will forget about Tajikistan, where a contract signed in 2012 allows it to keep the base through 2042, or the surrounding region.

Golts says that Central Asia will remain a priority for the Russian military -- a point that the Russian authorities have been at pains to make.

The officer who announced the plans to reduce the 201st base to brigade size, General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, was quick to add that "its role as Russia's outpost and as guarantor of peace and stability in the region will remain unchanged."

He also announced organizational changes in Russia's smaller military presence in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where it has an air base, but announced no reductions there.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance that is one of several groupings Moscow uses to maintain influence in the former Soviet Union and a buffer zone in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe.

Zarudnitsky said the changes in the two countries were part of broader measures "to optimize the organizational structure" of the military, including its bases abroad.

Russia has already pulled its 149th Motorized Rifle Regiment back from the Tajik town of Kulob, just over 40 kilometers from the Afghan border, to the capital, Dushanbe.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and expert on Russian security issues, says the reorganization does not mean Russia has stopped worrying about Afghanistan. "Here in Moscow security circles seem very aware of the potential and growing risks from Afghanistan," Galeotti says by e-mail from the Russian capital.

"I suspect it is a combination of a rationalization of assets and also a sense that -- not that they would admit it openly -- maybe Tajikistan is hard to defend and that they also need to be thinking more seriously about a second line of defense along Russia's southern border," he adds.

That would fit in with statements made by Zarudnitsky when he announced the shift. He said that in 2015, Russia formed a motorized mountain brigade in the Tuva Republic, an antiaircraft regiment in Krasnodar Krai, and a tank division in Chelyabinsk Oblast. All three regions are on Russia's southern border.

Close Ties

A smaller, more consolidated Russian military presence in Tajikistan could also reduce the risk of violent incidents -- such as attacks on Tajik civilians by Russian soldiers -- that have added to tensions between the two countries, whose interdependence is sometimes a source of friction.

Russia relies on Tajikistan as a buffer, while remittances from Tajik migrants working in Russia have been a key source of money in the much poorer Central Asian country -- though that cash flow has dwindled during the Russian economic downturn.

Galeotti says how many troops Russia will maintain in Tajikistan remains to be seen. "I suspect that this plan to shift to brigade strength means [the Russian authorities] may simply say they will not be adding the extra 2,000 troops, claiming they need fewer administrative and command staff, especially with the shutting of Kulob base," he says.

Galeotti says that "the deployment to Tajikistan of extra Mi-24P attack and Mi-8MTV assault helicopters last year, and the plans to reequip this brigade, not least with BTR-82A personnel carriers" mean that "even with cuts the Russian force will be more effective."

Russia will also help equip and train Tajik troops, part of what Russian media have reported are plans to grant Tajikistan $1.2 billion in military aid in the next few years.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, who has called Tajikistan "an outpost of the CSTO" and said Moscow was "greatly troubled by the situation on the southern frontiers" of the alliance, visited Tajikistan this month and reaffirmed Russia's interest in the country.

Tajik Defense Ministry spokesman Faridun Mahmadaliev told reporters that Russian military assistance to Tajikistan and the situation in the Tajik-Afghan border dominated the agenda of February 3 meetings with Antonov.

Russia has long voiced alarm about the potential for violence in Afghanistan -- where the Soviet Union fought a disastrous war of occupation for nearly a decade before withdrawing in 1988 -- to spill over into the mostly Muslim countries of former Soviet Central Asia.

Inroads by Islamic State militants in Afghanistan and a militant offensive in the country's north last year have added to the concerns.

In October, when Taliban militants briefly took over the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, whose province borders Tajikistan, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov said he would not rule out reestablishing Russian control over the Tajik-Afghan border.

Russian border guards patrolled the mountainous, 1,300-kilometer frontier until 2005.