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Russian Preparations for Reduced Foreign Military Presence in Afghanistan

Maksim Shepovalenko

Speaking at the West Point Military Academy on December 1, 2009, a year after his election for his first term, President Barack Obama unveiled the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The plan was to seize the initiative from the Taliban through a temporary troop surge, and inflict a decisive military defeat on the adversary. In parallel, the international coalition would train up Afghanistan’s own national security forces in order to facilitate a phased pullout of the ISAF troops starting in mid-2011. The security remit would be handed over to the Afghan government, and by late 2014 the numbers of foreign troops still remaining in the country would be below 10,000, most of them American military advisors and specialists.

It is safe to say that history is repeating itself, with some fairly minor differences. The rapid drawdown of American and coalition troops, with the remaining forces providing support rather than doing the bulk of the fighting, is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet troop pullout from Afghanistan in 1989. In the short term, the consequences for the Hamid Karzai government could be the same as they had proved for the Najibullah regime.

The problem and its consequences

If the Taliban-led opposition comes to power in Afghanistan, the country will once again become a source of regional instability, fed by a combination of international terrorism, religious extremism, fundamentalism, and drug trafficking.

Compounded by internal problems (such as ethnic rivalry, social tensions, competition for water resources and hydrocarbons, rivalry for regional leadership, and the power transfer problem), these external factors could well trigger a military-political crisis in the neighboring Central Asian states, in a repeat of the situation back in the 1990s.

The greatest potential for conflict is in the densely populated Fergana Valley, which lies on the border between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Instability could also spread to western Kazakhstan and eastern Tajikistan. There is a high risk of these territories being infiltrated after 2015 by irregular forces of the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s allies, such as:

  • the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Uzbek groups Aqromiya, Nurchilar, Musulmon Birodarlar, and Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami

  • the Kazakh group Jund al-Khalifah

  • the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Uyghur group

  • the Tajik Jamaat Ansarullah

  • and the pan-Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami and Tablighi Jamaat.

All these groups may well try to depose the Central Asian regimes and turn these secular countries into some kind of a medieval caliphate.

One indication of the likelihood of such a scenario is the frequency of armed clashes with drug couriers on the Tajik-Afghan border. There were 17 in the whole of 2012, and as many as 30 in just the first nine months of 2013.

Ways of addressing the problem and minimizing its consequences

The united forces of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their Jihadist allies in the region are opposed by an international coalition whose core consists of Russia and the Central Asian members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO): Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. China and Uzbekistan are on the periphery of that coalition. They and the five CSTO states are fellow members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — but Tashkent and Beijing pursue their own course and have their own interests in the regional security situation.

Obviously, Russia has a lot to lose from a possible breakdown of fragile regional stability in Central Asia. That is why Moscow must play the leading role in averting a military-political crisis or minimizing its consequences. The measures Russia must take to that end can be divided into two categories: military-political, and military-technical.

Military-political measures

A revision of the strategy of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan coincided with the 2008-2012 reform of the Russian armed forces. As part of that reform, the Russian forces were divided between four newly-established United Strategic Commands — OSK in Russian. The Central OSK, whose territorial remit includes Central Asia, includes two armies: the 2nd Guard Army in the Volga region, and the 41st Army in the South-Urals region. The 2nd Guard Army consists of three motor rifle brigades, one of which is light, one medium, and one heavy. The 41st Army has one medium motor rifle brigade and two heavy motor rifle brigades. Each has the standard complement of combat support and auxiliary units. The Central OSK’s reserve forces consist of a tank brigade and a heavy motor rifle brigade. In addition, the 201st Military Base, a brigade-size unit stationed in Tajikistan, is also subordinated to the Central OSK. The scenario of the Center 2011 strategic exercise held two years ago included the deployment of combined forces in Central Asia for armed conflicts of various size and scale.

Given that irregular forces constitute the main potential military threat in the region, there is a particular emphasis on special operations in the Central Asian theater. For example, during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, Army special operations units (Spetsnaz) were used in up to 75-80 per cent of the missions. In Chechnya the figure was 70-90 per cent. Each of the Central OSK’s two regional sub-divisions has an independent special operations brigade. The strategic reserve consists of the MoD’s Special Operations Center (TsSN MO). The center operates under the auspices of the Special Operations Forces Command (SSO), which was established in early 2012. The MoD is currently planning to bolster the organizational structure and numerical strength of the special-purpose brigades.

Repelling attacks by irregular forces would require rapid deployment of Russian troops in the theater. The Russian military leadership is therefore considering the possibility of setting up a special Rapid Reaction Force, perhaps in the form of a fifth OSK with a universal geographical remit. The concept of a Rapid Reaction Force (SBR) was presented to the Russian military-political leadership in early 2013, and received its overall approval. The core of the SBR will consist of the Airborne Troops (VDV). The VDV units assigned for missions in the Central OSK area of responsibility are the 98th Guard Airborne Assault Division and the 31st Independent Guard Airborne Assault Brigade. At present the VDV service is implementing a set of organizational and structural measures to bolster the fighting ability of the core of the future SBR force. As part of these measures, three independent airborne assault brigades that previously took their orders from the military district HQs have now been subordinated to the VDV HQ, and there are plans to create a fourth brigade. These units’ reconnaissance companies are being bolstered to the size of battalions, and independent regiments (special-operations and communications) are becoming brigades. The regiments are being given army aviation companies; at some point in the future the VDV service will have one or two army aviation brigades. The VDV units are also being given their own UAV companies, which will eventually become UAV squadrons. Finally, there are plans for each VDV division to get a third airborne (or airborne assault) regiment; they now have two such regiments apiece.

As part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) arrangements, Russia has contributed to the new regional and inter-regional forces. The regional force includes permanent combat readiness troops provided by the CSTO members to the Central Asian Region’s Collective Rapid Deployment Force (KSBR TsAR). The KSBR was set up on May 25, 2001 in accordance with a decision by the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Its numerical strength currently stands at about 5,000 (10 battalions). It has more than 300 tanks and armored combat vehicles, 10 Su-25 aircraft, and 14 Mi-8MTV-1 helicopters. The force’s time-to-deployment is up to 5 days. Essentially, the KSBR is an equivalent of NATO’s Immediate Response Force / NATO Response Force (NRF). The KSBR has held the Rubezh comprehensive joint exercise every year since 2004.

Table 1. Composition of the CSTO’s KSBR TsAR rapid deployment force




Three motor rifle battalions (201st Military Base) and an Air Group (999th Air Base)


Two airborne assault battalions


Two alpine rifle battalions


One motor rifle battalion and two airborne assault battalions

Source: CSTO website, media reports

The inter-regional force consists of troops provided by the CSTO members for the Collective Fast Deployment Force (KSOR), which was set up on February 4, 2009 by a CSTO Collective Security Council decision. The numerical strength of the KSOR force is about 20,000, including 17,000 of permanent combat readiness troops and 3,000 FSSN special operations units provided by the CSTO countries’ interior ministries, national security agencies, and civil defense services. The entire KSOR force is air-mobile. Its time to deployment depends on the particular unit’s country of origin; the troops provided by Russia can be deployed within 24 to 72 hours. The KSOR force is the equivalent of NATO’s Rapid Deployable Corps / High Readiness Forces (HRF).

The KSOR operational, combat and special training program includes:

  • The Interaction joint troop exercise (held annually since 2009)

  • The Cobalt joint special operations and tactical exercise for KSOR units provided by the interior ministries (held once every two or three years since 2010)

  • The Thunder joint special operations and tactical exercise for counter-narcotics and interior ministry units (held once every two or three years since 2012)

The establishment of the CSTO Collective Forces (KS) was announced in late 2012. Measures to establish the KS force include:

  • Completing the creation of a united air defense system

  • Creating a Collective Air Force (ground attack aircraft, bombers, fighters and military transports)

  • Creating a Collective Special Operations Force

Table 2. Composition of the CSTO KSOR force



Special operations units


National security

Interior Ministry


Civil defense


Battalion of the 23rdIndependent Special Operations Brigade

SNB Spetsnaz units

Police Spetsnaz units

Emergencies Ministry units


103rdIndependent Mobile Brigade


Two airborne assault battalions

Group A

Special rapid response unit of the Interior Ministry’s Independent Special Operations Brigade

Emergencies Ministry’s republican special operations unit

Two alpine rifle battalions


37thIndependent Airborne Assault Brigade; battalion of the 1st Independent Marines Brigade

Arystan Spetsnaz unit of the KNB

Emergencies Ministry units


Battalion of the 2nd Guard Independent Motor Rifle Brigade

Interior Ministry’s special rapid response unit

GSKN unit


98th Guard Airborne Assault Division; 31st Guard Airborne Assault Brigade

Units of the FSB Border Directorate; FSB Special Operations Center

TsSN SR: OMON Zubr, SOBR Rys, AOSN Yastreb

FSKN Grom Spetsnaz squad

Emergencies Ministry’s Lider unit


Battalion of the 7thIndependent Airborne Assault Brigade

AKN unit

Source: CSTO website, media reports

Military-technical measures

As part of the Russian defense procurement program, over the past five years units subordinated to the Central OSK have taken delivery of the following weaponry: BTR-82A and BTR-80A armored personnel carriers; 2S9-1M Nona-SM self-propelled 120mm gun-mortar systems with tracked chassis and 2S23 Nona-SVK gun-mortar systems with wheeled chassis; Granat-2 and Tipchak-K UAVs; Mustang and Motovoz multirole trucks (made by KamAZ and UralAZ, respectively); the Akatsiya universal field automation sets (“field Internet”); new-generation digital communication systems; the Volynets digital topography complex; the Korshun contactless explosive device detectors (to replace the old IMP-2 and IMP-S metal detectors); the Dublon personal protection suits for mine clearance specialists; and the Pecheneg-N 7.62mm general-purpose machine guns (to replace the PKM). The Central OSK’s artillery systems have been upgraded with new automated targeting and fire control systems, which have improved firing accuracy by 20-30 per cent and cut the preparation time by a factor of 6 to 10.

The VDV units are being armed with the new BMD-4M airborne combat vehicles; BTR-MDM tracked APCs and BTR-82A wheeled APCs; Tigr-M and Tayfun armored MRAP vehicles; 2S25 Sprut-SD 125mm self-propelled anti-tank guns; quadricycles; a new self-propelled anti-tank missile system; new self-propelled 120mm and 152mm artillery; the Andromeda-A automated control system; the Navodchik-2 UAVs; the Leyer-2 radio-electronic warfare system; and KamAZ-43501 multirole trucks (to replace the old GAZ-66). VDV troops have also entered into service and are taking deliveries of the new D-10, D-12 and Arbalet parachutes, as well as the Shelf airdrop system.

Special operations units have received the new Grusha, Navodchik-2 and Zastava reconnaissance and target designation UAVs. Several advanced communication, navigation and search systems have been trialed and will soon enter into service with the armed forces. By January 2016 advanced new systems should make up 30 per cent of all the hardware in service with Russian troops.

The 2nd Air Force and Air Defense Command, which is part of the Center OSK, has upgraded its Su-24M bombers. They have been retrofitted with the new Gefest SVP-24 targeting and navigation system. The bombers’ range has increased substantially thanks to the installation of the new UPAZ standard refueling pods, which enable the aircraft to refuel each other in mid-air instead of relying solely on the Il-78 flying tankers. By 2015 the 2nd Air Force and Air Defense Command will also receive the new Su-34 bombers. Meanwhile, the Army Aviation service will receive Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters.

The capability of the Russian Military Transport Aviation service will be improved substantially by the new Il-476 military transports. At this moment, the service’s 40 transport aircraft can airlift a single airborne regiment (without one battalion). Following the addition of the Il-476 transports to the fleet, by 2018-2020 the service will be able to airlift an entire airborne division.

The Caspian Flotilla is formally a part of the Southern OSK, but it is also used to support the Caspian flank of the Central OSK’s 2nd Guard Army. The flotilla has recently taken delivery of the Dagestan, a Project 11661K light frigate; two Project 21630 gunboats; two Project 21631 small guided-missile corvettes; and two amphibious landing boats (Project 11770 and Project 21820). By 2015 the Caspian Flotilla will also receive another three Project 21631 guided missile corvettes. The Project 11661K and Project 21631 missile ships are armed with the Kalibr-NK cruise missile system, which has a range of up to 2,600 km against ground targets. By 2020 the flotilla will take delivery of up to 16 new combat ships and boats.

As part of cooperation in the CSTO framework, Russia supplies fairly large amounts of weaponry to three Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The arms trade between Russia and Kazakhstan was worth 141m dollars in 2004-2007 and 382m dollars in 2008-2011. The target announced for the 2012-2015 period is 258m dollars. New defense hardware Russia has been supplying to Kazakhstan includes the BMPT tank support combat vehicles; the TOS-1 heavy flamethrower combat vehicles; the BTR-82A APCs; and the Mi-17V-5 helicopters. Russia has also been repairing and upgrading the Kazakh fleet of military planes and helicopters. It has provided technical support in building a series of Project 20970 small missile and artillery ships at Kazakhstan’s national shipyard. There are plans for deliveries of Project 10750E harbor minesweepers.

Russia has announced that it will provide 1.1bn dollars worth of military assistance to Kyrgyzstan in 2013-2025. The figure will includes deliveries of used helicopters, APCs, armored vehicles, Uragan MLR systems, artillery, small arms, communication and reconnaissance systems, a broad range of auxiliary equipment, and various systems used by the border service. The hardware will be supplied from the Russian MoD surplus.

Russia has provided an estimated 411m dollars worth of military assistance to Tajikistan in 2005-2013. It has been announced that a further 150-200 million dollars worth of military assistance will be provided in 2013-2025, including deliveries of used Russian aircraft, communication systems, artillery, SAM systems, and small arms. Russia will also help Tajikistan to equip its border with Afghanistan.

Every year up to 1,000 servicemen from the CSTO countries enroll on various training courses at the Russian MoD schools and academies.

Likely military scenarios

The more likely scenario of Russian-led military action in Central Asia includes special operations to interdict and neutralize irregular forces ranging in strength from 30-60 to 3,500 fighters. The KSBR and KSOR units will take on the irregulars, while the FSSN will restore law and order, and deal with the aftermath of any terrorist attacks.

The less likely scenario is the participation of CSTO allies in a local or regional war — including operations to repel an attack by regular armed forces of a neighboring country. One of the possible adversaries under this scenario is Uzbekistan, which aspires to the role of regional leader, and which has various ongoing disputes with every single Russian ally in the region. Besides, the country is politically unstable and is facing a problematic power transfer period. In such a scenario, we cannot rule out a rapid escalation of the potential conflict to a large-scale war, with the entire available range of conventional weapons brought to bear. In such a situation, deploying the KSBR and KSOR forces will not be enough; Russia and its main ally, Kazakhstan, will have to initiate a much larger troop deployment in the Central Asian region.


The security situation in the Central Asian states is very likely to deteriorate sharply in the foreseeable future.

Once the ISAF drawdown has been completed, the armed opposition in Afghanistan has a significant chance of achieving a complete or partial victory (with the country splitting in half in the latter scenario). After coming to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban and their allies might well set their sights on Central Asia.

Given the fragility of the Central Asian states, a combination of internal and external factors of instability could plunge the region into chaos, with outbreaks of mass rioting degenerating into armed conflicts. The humanitarian consequences of such conflicts would be grave.

In the event of a sharp deterioration in Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, Russia is likely to intervene on a fairly limited scale. But if Kazakhstan is in danger, Russia will launch a full-scale intervention.

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