It had to be one of the weirdest displays the Russian president had ever seen. Laid out on a table were a mound of walnuts, a chess set, an old tire and an anatomically correct dummy all stuffed with little baggies of imitation heroin. Titled "The Deadly Harvest," the exhibit was meant to show the clever ways smugglers have of getting Afghan heroin into Russia, which has become the world's largest consumer of opiates from Afghanistan since the U.S. began its war there in 2001. President Dmitry Medvedev stared at the objects and shook his head grimly. Behind him, wearing equally somber expressions, stood a group of Russian officials who would spend the day, June 9, lambasting the U.S. and NATO for not doing more to stop these little baggies from getting into the hands of Russia's youth.
On the international stage, Russia's Afghan heroin issue has become the country's favorite crusade, and has allowed Russia to enter a global debate about Afghanistan that had previously left it on the sidelines. Its basic point is a reasonable one: NATO has fueled drug production by refusing to destroy Afghan poppy fields, which it stopped doing last year in the hope of winning the support of opium farmers. Perhaps less reasonable is Russia's belief that its heroin problem is caused not by its porous borders or its abysmal treatment of addiction (methadone therapy is illegal in Russia) but by NATO's policy on drugs in Afghanistan. Yet that is what Russian officials contend, and this week they embarked on a campaign of coordinated fuming over the issue.
On June 7, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov was in Singapore for an annual defense conference, and he used his turn at the lectern to berate NATO's tolerance of poppy crops. At a Central Asian security summit in Berlin the following day, the chief of Russia's anti-narcotics agency, Viktor Ivanov, compared NATO to Dr. Frankenstein, suggesting that its Afghan drug policy was "giving birth to a monster." Then on Wednesday and Thursday, the Kremlin's information agency, RIA Novosti, held a conference on the heroin issue in Moscow. The exhibit of smugglers' tricks was its main attraction, and at the podium, some of the Russian speakers threatened to punish the coalition if it didn't change its approach to Afghan poppies. "Further assistance to the coalition must be predicated upon a more active position in the fight against drug production in Afghanistan," Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told the delegates, suggesting that NATO's vital supply route through Russia could be cut if the destruction of poppy fields didn't resume.
In its way, Russia is making an important point. Between 2005 and 2009, Afghanistan's yearly opium output jumped from 4,000 to 7,000 tons, and it now accounts for more than 90% of global supply, according to the United Nations. Russian state statistics say that opiates such as heroin and morphine kill around 30,000 Russians every year, three times more than the total number of Soviets killed during their 10-year war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And the U.N. also says that the $65 billion earned every year from the sale of opiates partly goes to finance terrorists around the world, including the Taliban militants that the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan.
But Russia is wrong to claim that NATO is ignoring the problem. NATO's March offensive in Marjah redoubled the crackdown on drug traffickers with the aim of cutting the Taliban off from its main source of funding, and U.N. data shows that Afghan opium production has fallen by about 15% since its peak in 2007. Russia insists that is not nearly enough, and has consistently offered the help of its own military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in stemming the flow of drugs through Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Russia and the CSTO which was founded in 2002 as Russia's attempt to balance against NATO's influence and whose seven members include Armenia, Belarus and a few Central Asian republics are the only ones advocating the wholesale destruction of poppy crops as a solution. The livelihoods of millions of Afghans depend on opium farming, and at the RIA Novosti conference on Wednesday, M.K. Bhadrakumar, India's former ambassador to both Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, said poisoning the fields would only "stoke the fire of mass anger." And Prince Abdul Ali Seraj, who represents a coalition of Afghan tribes, in his speech called on the international community to "hand something of equal value to the farmers, and that way take the opium away from them." But the last word on the matter seemed to come on Wednesday from the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, who said that the coalition would not take Russia's advice about destroying opium harvests anytime soon. So Moscow's latest push in the debate has not gotten far.
Yet analysts say that for Russia's leadership, the act of pushing is an end in itself. "It is important for Russia to show that it will not be left at the margins of the Afghan issue," says Omar Nessar, head of the Institute for the Center of the Study of Modern Afghanistan in Moscow. He points out that sooner or later the Americans will leave, and Russia will be left to grapple with Iran over influence in Afghanistan. "This is the way it has chosen to make itself known, and indeed its criticism here is justified," Nessar says.
Natasha Kuhrt of the Department of War Studies at King's College in London says Moscow is also seeking to create points of contact between NATO and CSTO. So far the CSTO has not been taken very seriously in the arena of geopolitics, and Russia has been desperate to bring in new members and bolster its prestige.
To this end, "Russia needs to position itself as a competitor in the battle for Greater Central Asia," which includes Afghanistan, Kuhrt wrote in an essay published June 8 in the Russian Analytical Digest. "Russia would like to see the CSTO engage in 'global peacekeeping' as a way of legitimating this organization. In the best-case scenario, NATO would acknowledge the CSTO as a dialogue partner. Unfortunately NATO has been reluctant to accord such a role to Russia."
NATO's attitude toward CSTO could help explain the venom with which Russia has gone after the alliance over its failure to destroy poppy crops, and its insistence that the CSTO could help stop the flow of Afghan drugs. It is not yet clear whether Russia will be given such a role in Afghanistan. But as the war drags on, similar footholds are likely to emerge, putting Russia in a better position to regain influence after the U.S. pulls out.