Politics

On Strategic Depths and Near Abroads — Russia in Global Affairs


This text was originally published in the latest issue of Rossiya v globalnoi politike magazine (2022, #2, March-April). Read the full issue via this link.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan lost the traditional buffer against any conventional threat from the north, and the flank that was covered by Kabul in our wars against India became vulnerable to a hostile superpower across the Durand Line. Some of us might recall that this moment was perceived as “Pakistan having fallen in the jaws of a nutcracker.”  Soon thereafter, Zia, then heading a military regime in Pakistan, decided to support the Afghan resistance known for its tenacity. Assistance from the U.S. and its allies arrived two years later and helped both Afghanistan and Pakistan roll back the Soviet juggernaut.

When the Empire subsequently collapsed, I was heading the ISI, which along with the Mujahideen was claiming more than its share of credit. The late Yahya Effendi, one of our best historians, dampened the euphoria and warned that the Russian Federation, the demised Soviet Union’s successor state, was now all set to form a commonwealth of its former satellites. His assessment might have been influenced by the British Empire leaving behind a club of cricket playing nations, or by any vibes coming over the Oxus, the fact is that shortly thereafter the Commonwealth of Independent States came into being. Its raison d’être was explained by the New Nomenklatura as Russia’s compulsion to protect the country’s ‘near abroad’—build a cordon sanitaire around the wounded bear, in other words. In due course it was reinforced by organizations like the CSTO.   

Nothing exceptional if you ask me. One had heard of the Monroe Doctrine; though it needed a Bernie Sanders to tell us that under its cover, over the previous two hundred years, the US had hammered at least a dozen countries in the Americas to maintain its hegemony. And, nearer home, one had reasons to believe that there was something known as Indira Doctrine that could be invoked even if tiny Nepal bought six measly antiaircraft guns from China. In 1989, to drive home the lesson, Delhi denied the landlocked country access to sea for six months. Since at the time some Nepalese had clearly hinted that they were now looking towards Pakistan to rein-in the Big Bad Brother, Indian sensitivity to a Sino-Pak collusion was understandable. Presently, the shops in Katmandu do not even accept the once popular Pakistani currency.

We too are not insensitive to foreign intrusions next door. 

Afghanistan, like The Bermuda Triangle, sucks in anyone who happens to be in the neighborhood. As if on cue, a good number of Afghans join the aliens and the rest wage a guerilla war to oust them. Ultimately, this hammer and anvil tactics gets this troublesome presence vacated, but not before plenty of china in the region gets broken. Pakistan’s support to Afghan resistance can thus be understood as: helping a neighbor get rid of an occupier; restoring a safety zone in its northwest; and indeed, paying back the Afghans for denying India a second front whenever we clashed steel on the first.

After the Soviet withdrawal, our military brass who breath and ooz strategy to climb up the ladder, defined Afghanistan’s place in its security calculus: “It affords us strategic depth.” Nothing wrong with the concept. All countries need depth: within and without, military and economic, strategic and tactical, and not necessarily limited in space. Israel’s strategic depth, for example, lies in the distant U.S. It still provided the detractors of our Afghan Policy with a strategic whip. Before killing the dog, it had to be given a bad name. Strategic Depth was renamed Strategic Death; Pakistan charged with interfering in a “sovereign” country (never mind that it was under foreign occupation), and of ultimate stupidity—that we had designs to annex this quagmire; as if we didn’t know what happens to those who try.

When minds are made up and positions entrenched, explaining buffers, forward depths, ‘near abroads’, even relief-and-no-war zones—though all valid notions in proper context—was a waste of time. Relief zone, for example, often defined our relationship with Iran, where some of our strategic assets could be parked in comparative safety. One day it did happen, though not for us. Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq moved its air fleet to Iran, which now had two air forces. Even when it became clear that it was Pakistan—where millions of Afghans found refuge, livelihood, and access to the outside world—that provided quintessential depth to Afghanistan, no one was impressed.

Over a decade ago, a U.S.-based think tank described Ukraine as Russia’s strategic depth. Ever since Moscow is in trouble.

Countries obviously react when their security parameters, inner or outer, are breached or threatened. Equally obvious that the aggressors and their allies respond in whatever way they can. Raising tantrums is however what everyone can in the fatuous belief that one was on the right side of law or morality.

Whenever one moans or groans over an adversary’s “double standards”, one seems to ignore that we all have them. We clobber the countries on our wrong side for violating human rights or maltreatment of minorities, but we must keep mum on graver violations by our strategic partners. Even on Yemen, all that we do is advise the Houthis not to fire slingshots at the Saudi F-16s raining hellfire on the non-combatants.

One should therefore be grateful if an odd voice stumbles upon the truth.

In the mid-1990s, when the French carried out a series of nuclear tests in a pacific island, Kohl, the then German Chancellor, was challenged to condemn them. “One does not criticize friends” was his honest response. During the same period and on the same subject, some of my former colleagues from the German military were advising me not to give up our nuclear program. Because if we did, no nuclear umbrella promised in return would unfurl in hours of our need. Good friends too provided strategic depth that the poor Ukrainians never had, and therefore must be regretting the day they agreed to be defanged.

Some others who have helped us shed our illusions about morality in international relations also deserve our gratitude. Indeed, the Ukrainians because of their faith, color of the skin, and especially for their Weltanschauung, would be treated differently than the Iraqis, the Syrians, and the Afghans. Having watched the poor slaves suffer, whoever said the other day that one did not expect that to happen in the heart of the civilized Europe, may not have only reflected the sentiments of many of his fellow superhumans, but also spared the Untermensch of any pangs of conscious that some of them might be genuinely agonizing under. And when the plight of thousands of white war victims is streamed 24/7 on the screen, the colorful South instinctively thinks of its millions who have suffered worse fate over decades. If anyone of them therefore reacts with Schadenfreude, one may be forgiven for being only human.

One must have noticed the hue and cry in the Western camps that the Russian attack on Ukraine had violated a rule-based order. I didn’t know there was one, but I do know that the U.S. intervention that brought the war in Bosnia to an end, and may have gladdened many a heart, according to a former OSCE Vice-President, violated human rights and undermined the UN. Countries in the Middle East and Africa were attacked without much legal fuss, but when it came to NATO moving East, in violation of an earlier commitment, the counterargument is charmingly disingenuous. Since the new members, independent countries all of them, were voluntarily joining NATO, it was in fact the former East moving West. If Cuba in 1962 could also exercise its sovereign right to host Soviet nukes on its soil, was obviously another matter.

Come to think of it; the only rule-based system is that of the Jungle. Animals don’t kill for pleasure; never consume more than they must; share the rests with weaker species; and respect each other’s turf.

They also teach the humans how to deal with the marauders. A hoard of zebras is wolfed one at a time; horned genera go into a cauldron to deter the predators. The Taliban (The organization is under UN sanctions for terrorist activities. — ed. note) asked for proof of OBL’s involvement in the 9/11 atrocity that could stand in a court of law. When none came and Afghanistan was invaded, they fought for two decades to restore our strategic depth. In 2014, Henry Kissinger suggested a perfectly sensible solution to address the Russian concerns about its ‘near abroad’: make Ukraine a bridge between the East and the West. That advice was not headed, and therefore the poor Ukrainians must face the fate foretold by the Great Henry: America’s friends were doomed to die?     

It Is Not About Ukraine

Sergei A. Karaganov

This is the article ordered by Financial Times to Professor S. Karaganov. But is was not published for the lack of space. But we still believe it is worth reading.

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