Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why Russians explore a return to Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON -- The Soviet Union's 10-year occupation of Afghanistan cost the country more than 15,000 lives, and an additional 50,000 were wounded. Before the U.S.S.R. withdrew its forces in 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev described the Soviet efforts to fight the insurgency there as "a bleeding wound." And yet, just over two decades after leaving what came to be considered the Soviet version of the Vietnam War, Russia is now eager to return to Afghanistan.

Russian defence officials are exploring the possibility of establishing military bases on Afghan soil after the U.S. drawdown in 2014, according to Russian press reports. Sergey Koshelev, of the Russian Defence Ministry's department of co-operation, told Russia Today that the military "will look into various options of creating repair bases" to maintain the Afghan National Security Force's Russian-made equipment. Further co-operation is also being considered, according to Russia's NATO envoy, Aleksandr Grushko.

Russia certainly has an economic stake in postwar Afghanistan. In addition to maintaining Russian gear -- from small arms to armoured personnel carriers and helicopters -- Russia is also considering expanding its supply routes into Afghanistan through Central Asian countries. These supply routes, often called the Northern Distribution Network, have been a troublesome logistical lifeline for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan and will likely remain important after the drawdown.

An article in the government-sponsored paper Pravda last November touted Russia's cultural projects in Afghanistan as a prelude to new projects like those being discussed now. "It's obvious that Moscow's interest after the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan... will increase dramatically," Lyuba Lulko wrote then. "The country has always been in the zone of Soviet and Russian interests."

The article went on to recast the Soviet occupation: "After what the Americans leave in Afghanistan, the Soviet presence seems to be a blessing. Soviet soldiers are remembered with respect," Lulko added.

An Afghan student studying Russian was quoted saying, "Russia is our neighbour; we love its culture. All was well when the Russians were here."

Nonetheless, as Russia Today's report stressed, "Russian officials have repeatedly denied that Moscow is considering resuming its military presence in Afghanistan."

--Foreign Policy

See also The archetypal oligarch at wfp.to/comment

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2013 A9

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