Russian Bounties in Afghanistan | An Expert Analysis
In the last week of June 2020, major US newspapers began reporting on a series of allegations based on an intelligence report that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American troops. We recently asked several of our experts to weigh in on this developing story and answer a few questions:
1. What should we take away from these news reports? If true, why would Russia do this? What else should we be paying attention to?
2. What response, if any, do you expect from the United States and from Russia in turn? If the United States imposes additional sanctions on Russia, are those likely to result in changes to Russia’s behavior? What US response would you recommend?
3. What are the longer-term impacts of this episode, in terms of the situation in Afghanistan, US-Russia competition and conflict more broadly, and the US-Russia relationship as an issue in both US and Russian domestic politics?
Click Below to Read Each Expert's Analysis
Jason Gresh, US Army Foreign Area Officer Eurasia Fellow, Kennan Institute
1. While the news of alleged Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to kill Americans is disturbing and escalatory, it should not be surprising. For approximately fifteen years, the Russian regime under Putin has been steadily eyeing the United States as a threat to Russian stability, not only at home but in its professed sphere of influence. A series of events, from Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, to its annexation of Crimea and overt support for separatists in Ukraine in 2014, to its information warfare directed at Americans, most prominently in the 2016 presidential election, have all been steps leading to an increasingly acrimonious and hostile relationship between the two countries. The Kremlin unfortunately sees the United States as its main threat and rival—a trend that has continued unabated, aside from a brief period in the 1990s, since 1945. Putin views US foreign policy as destabilizing for global order and will go to great lengths to delegitimize our actions, as well as the Alliances we support. Sadly, it is part of an ingrained “zero-sum” mentality that the Kremlin possesses: if the United States loses power and prestige, Russia can benefit. The latest reports of bounties paid to the Taliban mark an escalatory step for Russia. But it is also not one-sided. It’s not just Russia trying to undermine our efforts in Afghanistan—it takes two to pull this off. We should be equally focused on the Taliban’s complicity in undermining a nascent peace process that, if enacted and complied with, will introduce stability and peace to all Afghans.
2. The phrase attributed to Leon Trotsky, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” aptly sums up the current relationship. While the United States is committed to keeping this dynamic as “great power competition,” Russia takes actions contravening US interests that are quite provocative (Russia also accuses the United States of doing the same). It is helpful to frame this latest development (and any response) against the backdrop of a long proxy war between our countries. Although the Cold War was more ideological, and we were facing the Soviet Union, feelings and memories run deep. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan we supplied mujahedeen fighters with billions of dollars’ worth of US assistance in the form of Stinger missile systems and other weapons to kill Soviet troops. If the United States were to openly retaliate by military means today, we would be abandoning our own strategy of restraint, and we shouldn’t let Russia bait us into such actions. Yet I expect the United States to respond in some way that still adheres to our desire to avoid open conflict. It would be best if the United States employed more of its “gray zone” tools to hurt Russian interests while advancing our own. For example, while many remain skeptical of lasting solutions for both Syria and Libya, the United States can still positively affect the outcome in both these conflicts. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Russia is not carrying out actions in either of those situations to substantively seek lasting peace. We should and could change that, and our toolkit contains much more than conventional military means (or economic sanctions) to do so.
3. This latest episode represents a not insignificant data point as to the lengths to which Russia will go to thwart US interests abroad. But it is not new or surprising. In 2018, Gen. John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, revealed that Russian weaponry was making its way to Taliban fighters. And Russian actions are not solely confined to US interests abroad, as our recent 2016 presidential election witnessed. In this way, this report demonstrates to the American public how steadfast Russian aims are. The US military is doing everything to ensure force protection of our troops abroad as they perform missions vital to American interests. But the United States should also use this opportunity to reevaluate its broader strategy for dealing with malign Russian activities that disrupt our interests and those of our allies. Where do we want this relationship to head? What are our interests in the broader relationship with Russia? Which tools can we use to advance our values abroad, and protect our interests smartly and effectively? How can we best contain and curb this activity while not completely damaging our diplomatic relationship with Russia and Russians? Russia is doing what it knows best—employing the “sharp” tools spearheaded by the military-intelligence-arms export nexus. But the United States has many more sophisticated tools to ward off this irritant. We should be calm, and carefully and quietly apply them.
The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.
Jeffrey Edmonds, Research Scientist, CNA and Global Fellow, Kennan Institute
1. If true, Russian security services offering bounties for killing American soldiers underscores the lengths the Russian government is willing to go in its attempt to offset and undermine the United States’ interests abroad. The Russian leadership, and much of the country’s population, for that matter, see the current international order as one led by the United States and intent on weakening Russia and ultimately effecting regime change. Although Russian asymmetric or “gray zone” activities designed to weaken the US role in the international order often involve other types of information operations, this revelation should remind the United States and its allies that Russia will not shy away from using lethal means to achieve its goals.
2. Members of Congress are already calling for sanctions against Russia, reaching once again for the closest and easiest tool we have—the relative strength and global position of the US economy. The problem with using sanctions at this point is that we have already used them in such a dizzying array that anyone in Russia susceptible to behavioral change has lost the causal connection between sanctions and any desired change in behavior. If the imposition of sanctions is intended to deter certain behavior through punishment, then the entity deterred must understand and perceive that it has a choice, that if it ceases the behavior in question, the sanctions will go away. At this point, Russians simply do not believe that sanctions are anything less that the United States attempting to keep Russia weak and undermine the Russian leadership—a long-running narrative in Russia.
If reports of Russian bounties on US soldiers is true, US leadership must respond. To not do so would be a violation of the trust of those we send overseas and put in harm’s way. But the most ready instrument we have for leverage is the one that has lost credibility as a tool for behavioral change. First, the United States needs to expose Russian behavior. All too often this comes from leaked classified documents, which are first, illegal, and second, lack a certain level of credibility. If the government is unable to mitigate or change the behavior of another state through classified means, then perhaps it needs to entertain the option of openly exposing the behavior with enough of the evidence to be convincing, not only to the state in question but also to the larger international community. Second, and this should go without saying, the United States needs to take every measure feasible to protect US soldiers overseas, regardless of who is posing the threat.
3. Regardless of whether the intelligence about Russian bounties turns out to be true, this episode should remind us that we are locked in a long-term struggle with Russia over the international order and each country’s place in that order. All too often one hears in the United States and in Russia that each country is on its way out, whether through a declining economy, bad demographics, or whatever your critique of choice. It’s as if we are locked in some death embrace, tumbling from the world of international relevance. Of course, this isn’t true of either country, but it does make for easy talking points and short-sighted policy. The US leadership needs to understand that the challenge Russia poses to US national security interests is not going away any time soon and do the hard work to clearly define those interests and what it is willing to do to defend them.
Katie Stallard-Blanchette, Fellow, Wilson Center
1. The Russian leadership believes it is in a global contest with the United States, in which Washington has no compunction about using hybrid warfare tactics to harm Russian interests, such as orchestrating “color” revolutions in former Soviet republics and stoking the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East to effect regime change. In this context, it is not particularly surprising that the Kremlin would seek to use all available means to promote its own interests, although the alleged tactics in this case would seem to be particularly extreme.
While Russia initially cooperated with the United States on Afghanistan and has no interest in seeing the country become a base for groups such as the Islamic State that pose a threat to its own security, it has been accused of supporting the Taliban with weapons and funding in recent years and may be seeking to cultivate influence with the group after the US withdrawal as the least bad option in securing the country against further infiltration by more radical groups. Hastening the departure of American troops, sowing domestic discord in the United States, and having the coalition military operation end as ignominiously as possible all run in accordance with, not counter to, Russian interests in Afghanistan.
If true, the next question is how to respond in such a manner that the cost of these actions is seen to go at least some of the way toward outweighing the benefits in the Kremlin’s calculus. We should also bear in mind that these allegations relate to all coalition troops, not just those of the United States.
2. I was based in Moscow during the Ukraine crisis, and I remember hearing the argument that the most helpful thing the West could have done for Vladimir Putin was to impose sanctions—instead of explaining why the economy was stagnating and where all the oil wealth had gone, Putin could simply point to the familiar specter of an external enemy, led as ever by the United States, determined to keep Russia down and prevent the nation from reclaiming its rightful place in the world.
Of course, this is an oversimplification, but the danger is that in the rush to be seen to respond, sanctions can seem like an attractive option to demonstrate resolve while failing to produce the desired effect. This is not to say that sanctions can never be effective but that they should be specific and imposed with a clear end goal in mind. If credible information is uncovered about the specific unit involved and mode of operation—for instance the New York Times reports on financial transfers from an account linked to Russia’s military intelligence agency—then targeted sanctions against linked individuals and financial institutions should certainly be considered. It is essential that any sanctions response is coordinated with US allies so that it is seen as a unified stance.
3. In the short term, if these allegations are true, then the immediate US priority must be sending a clear message that such actions are unacceptable and will incur a cost, but Washington should also give serious consideration to its medium- and longer-term goals in what is an increasingly troubled relationship.
While Vladimir Putin doubles down on a domestic narrative that he alone can defend Russia’s interests (and has just secured changes to the constitution that would potentially enable him to remain in power until 2036), the United States should push back against this, seeking to demonstrate the economic, strategic, and environmental blunders that have taken place under his rule. Russia is not China, and while the Kremlin has strengthened its control over traditional media, the dominance of these outlets is increasingly being challenged, at least among the younger generation, by internet and social media platforms, thus allowing the exchange of information and ideas. The United States should stress the importance of a free press and avoid public statements that undermine the credibility of critical, independent journalism. Labeling media reports as “fake news” only strengthens the Kremlin’s hand. And while Russian aggression must be deterred, opportunities to engage with Russian civil society more broadly and to cooperate in areas of mutual interest should be welcomed, particularly in the context of the escalating rivalry between the United States and China.
Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director, Asia Program
1. While the tactics would be particularly brutal this time around, the idea of Moscow paying militants to target American soldiers would fit right into the broader Russian playbook of aiming to undermine the United States and its interests around the world. In Afghanistan, Russia has a high-value target (a large US military presence in Russia’s broader backyard) and an attractive partner (a Taliban organization that may repeatedly emphasize its nationalist credentials but is happy to receive support from foreign states, including Pakistan and Iran, that clash with America). By covertly financing the killing of US troops in Afghanistan, Moscow also succeeds in badly undermining a simple yet fundamental and oft-stated Trump administration foreign policy goal: protecting American lives overseas.
Furthermore, Moscow benefits from plausible deniability, as well as from the soft spot that President Trump appears to have for President Putin. To be sure, the Russians may have made a major gamble that Trump would give Russia a pass for something as egregious as sponsoring hits on US troops. And yet Trump’s repeated rejection of the allegations suggests the Russians were right.
3. Theoretically, this episode could jeopardize a fledgling Afghan peace process. If these allegations are true, then the Taliban—or militants or others close to the group—would have been agreeing to take out American troops at the very moment when US officials were negotiating a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban. That deal, finalized this past February, stipulated that formal peace talks would begin between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Those talks are expected to begin in the coming weeks. During the final stage of those US-Taliban negotiations, the insurgents agreed to stop attacking US troops—a pledge that largely remains in place now.
The bounty allegations would appear, at the very least, to violate the spirit of the peace process at the very moment when it is on the cusp of taking off.
And yet Washington’s official denials of the allegations, coupled with its business-as-usual approach to the peace process, suggest the immediate-term impacts will be minimal. Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US official focused on Afghan peace and reconciliation issues, just concluded his latest trip to the region to promote peace talks.
However, looking to the longer term, this episode, and the US nonresponse, will embolden the Taliban, with troubling implications for the peace process. The insurgents can rightly conclude that Washington won’t be deterred—no matter what might be thrown at it—from pursuing its sole objective in Afghanistan: preparing for an inevitable withdrawal. Consequently, the Taliban have a strong incentive to simply wait America out. And when the US forces have left, the Taliban—left with a major battlefield advantage—can step up their fight and try to overthrow the Afghan government by force.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Peter Zwack, Global Fellow, Kennan Institute
1. It’s still difficult to determine exactly what occurred in 2019 in Afghanistan. Intelligence threat streams—apparently corroborated at different levels—indeed point to Russian operatives making bounty payments to kill American and allied personnel. Whether this translated into actual attacks and deaths, I simply don't know. Nonetheless, the mere intent to do so is a stark transgression. As a former senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan (2008—2009), I and my colleagues 24/7 tracked the numerous threat streams facing US and Allied forces and agonized, based on analysis of various reports, over whether to send forward the most credible assessments. I trust that the intelligence community conducted painstaking analysis and corroboration effort first from the field, then through the interagency to the White House. I am deeply troubled that, even if the reports are not 100 percent verified (field-collected intelligence often is not), this possibility may not have been specifically briefed to the president, and if not, it was a major process breakdown and a huge affront to our deployed personnel.
If the allegations are confirmed, for the Russians to trust the Taliban to hold such incredibly sensitive activity secure was reckless and a mark of terrible tradecraft. While Moscow challenges US equities and interests globally, such a malign effort only rachets up the dangerous tensions between the two countries and hardens the positions of Americans who believe that restoring some type of credible, cooperative US-Russian relationship is critical for both our existential futures. While trying to curry long-term Taliban favor for what Moscow likely sees as an eventual failed Afghan central government, Moscow weakens itsr position worldwide by such actions.
2. Key to this final assessment is that, after senior intelligence agency briefings, there is bipartisan agreement within the US body politic, especially the "Gang of Eight" (the top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, plus the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees) that the preponderance of intelligence indicates this indeed occurred. If deemed so, several things ideally should happen. First, before any public statement or recommended actions, key US Resolute Support Mission coalition allies should be consulted on US findings and should discuss joint diplomatic and other responses.
Additionally, ambassadorial-level démarches, followed by direct verbal complaints from the US president and involved coalition leaders to Russia’s president, and also from the US secretary of state to Russia’s foreign minister, must occur. These should NOT be public discussions but discreet, frank, and on the record.
Added targeted sanctions aimed at specific Russian individuals and organizations or enterprises linked to these activities should be considered, and G-8 reentry thoughts suspended. The withdrawal of 9,500 US troops from Germany should be curtailed, and improving frayed relations with Europe should be made a priority. Despite certain veto, a Security Council resolution censuring Russia for these activities should also be put on the table in the United Nations. Strong, balanced media messaging must occur throughout. What must NOT be on the table is letting the New START treaty expire in February 2021, as it regulates both US and Russian strategic civilization-ending nuclear weapons and maintains a rare potential confidence-building mechanism between the United States and Moscow during this very tense period.
3. To reiterate, the United States and involved coalition allies need to definitively determine beyond any reasonable doubt that this dangerous activity occurred. There must be bipartisan US consensus leading to the president about this, from which collectively appropriate reaction can be credibly undertaken. It cannot, dare not, be domestically politicized.
This clearly shakes an already deeply distrustful, edgy relationship between Russia, the United States, and coalition allies. If the bounty allegations are confirmed, there could be several regional outcomes. Foremost, such confirmation could either accelerate the withdrawal of US-coalition forces from the Resolute Support Mission or, on the contrary, deepen the resolve to maintain the current mission to prop up the Afghan government with further training to support its beleaguered forces and continue the in-country counterterrorism mission.
If the United States and its coalition partners decide to ultimately terminate their mission, the expected resultant turmoil in Afghanistan will surely become a major long-term challenge for Russia in particular, but also for Iran, Pakistan, and even China, which slightly borders Afghanistan and whose growing Belt and Road Initiative threads in part through bordering and vulnerable Central Asia. This is likely a major reason why, besides disrupting US regional interests, the Russians thinking long-term, rekindled links with the local anti-ISIS Taliban, whom Moscow, remembering its scarring post-1989 experience, sees as the likely inheritor of most of Afghanistan.
This unfortunate episode needs to be definitively and credibly resolved. There must be a direct, “eyes-wide-open” US, Allied, and Russian dialogue on this matter in which the Russians are confronted directly with the evidence and given an opportunity to rebut. If unconvincing, then response measures as described should be undertaken.
Sharyl Cross, Director, Kozmetsky Center, St. Edward’s University and Global Fellow, Kennan Institute
A serious risk exists of further deterioration in the already troubled US-Russian relationship if there is any truth to recent press reports based on US intelligence sources indicating that Moscow has offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The reports have generated immediate bipartisan outrage from Congress and questions about what US president Donald Trump knew about activity on the part of Russia potentially jeopardizing the lives of American service members. The US president has been vehemently criticized for recently suggesting to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin that Moscow might want to come back to the G-7 when it is presumed that he must have been aware of Russian actions targeting American soldiers.
US president Donald Trump promptly dismissed the reports as “fake news” or “another fabricated Russia hoax.” The White House denies that either President Trump or Vice President Mike Pence were informed about the alleged Russian activity, and the Pentagon states that “corroborating evidence” has not been found to support the allegations. US intelligence officials indicate that findings were presented in the president’s daily security briefing; former US national security adviser John Bolton claims that he briefed President Trump on the matter in March 2019 and that the intel has evidently been shared with NATO allies. The Kremlin’s official spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has discounted the allegations as “lies” and “bullshit,” and the Taliban, of course, have denied the claims.
Intelligence findings pieced together from human, signal, and other sources can be difficult to validate to ensure reliable conclusive assessments. The US military intervention in Iraq, prompted by concerns about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, makes clear the costs of pursuing policy based on invalid intelligence assessments or selective interpretation of information.
Given the sharply divisive and polarized political climate in the United States in the context of an upcoming presidential election, combined with the lack of trust and dysfunctional relationships between the White House and the intelligence agencies and Congress, ascertaining the validity of the reports, especially in the current “fake news” information space, will be quite a task, if even possible. However, in order to avoid proceeding in ways that could be counterproductive to American interests, every effort should be made to rigorously follow up to try to corroborate the information.
Moscow has a long history of costly involvement in Afghanistan and strategic interests in the exit of the US and NATO forces and the outcome of the US-led military withdrawal and peace process. Afghan militant jihadist links to Central Asia and the Caucasus and regional drug networks continue to pose significant threats to Russian interests. Moscow’s perspective is still influenced by the experience of American support for mujahedin insurgents challenging the Kremlin-backed regime in Afghanistan, which ultimately contributed to withdrawal of Soviet military forces after an invasion that turned into a prolonged insurgency struggle and occupation (1979–1988/89), exacting a heavy toll for the Russians in casualties and resources. The Kremlin has been cultivating ties and providing support to the Taliban, most likely as a means of securing leverage to safeguard Russia’s interests in Afghanistan over the long term. Perhaps Moscow was aiming to cloud or complicate the US-led peace process in Afghanistan that would end a two-decade US-coalition commitment, ensuring a greater role for Russia in brokering future political outcomes in the country. In the broader strategic competition with the United States, targeting US forces might have been seen as a way of thwarting images of the United States emerging from the long Afghan campaign declaring successes.
Moscow has rekindled relationships with former Soviet allies over the past several years as a means of restoring Russia’s status and influence on the world stage. Afghanistan is only one of several US-Russia flashpoints. The Kremlin has demonstrated willingness to challenge the United States and resist yielding to Western influence in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Eastern Europe, Venezuela, and elsewhere.
Factors beyond circumstances in Afghanistan or Moscow’s drive for renewed global influence could also account for Russia’s actions. For example, it is certainly possible that Moscow might have been prompted at least in part by the desire to retaliate for losses suffered in 2018 involving a Russian private mercenary force (the Wagner Group, which has ties to the Kremlin) drawn into clashes with American forces in eastern Syria, resulting in significant casualties.
Should it come as a shock that the Kremlin would engage in the heinous activity of offering bounties on the lives of US service members? Not necessarily. Asymmetric military campaigns in tribal Afghanistan have been characterized by the use of a range of tactics that might include periodically cultivating ties with criminal-linked groups, arming competing militant forces, or providing significant financial transfers or cash incentives to gain favor and influence outcomes. Russia’s GRU (military intelligence agency) has been implicated in reports based on varying levels of evidence to include poisonings, targeted killings, a coup attempt to unseat a pro-Western government (in Montenegro), as well as interference in elections in the United States and European democratic societies. Such provocations, combined with recent US-Russian geopolitical clashes, have led to speculation about whether the Kremlin seeks to be more than a competitor or rival of the United States and may instead be advancing an undeclared war against American and Western interests.
The sanctions imposed on Moscow in response to intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have done little to influence Kremlin policy or behavior, and this recent escalatory activity will undoubtedly generate even greater congressional pressure for more aggressive responses against Russia. Voices in Congress have already reacted with calls to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, which would be coupled with significant legal restrictions. Beyond imposing more painful sanctions, US responses could include retaliation against GRU intelligence agents responsible for offering bounty incentives or perhaps intensifying challenges to Russian forces operating in Ukraine or Syria. The United States could reverse its plans, welcomed by Vladimir Putin, to draw down US forces in Germany. Given the likely outrage and potential spiral of retaliatory measures that could ensue from Kremlin or military intelligence funneling payments to kill American service members, it does seem questionable on some levels that Russia’s president and his colleagues could calculate that such an action would actually benefit Moscow interests.
America’s armed forces understand the risks in military service, but the president of the United States and commander-in-chief certainly has an obligation to seriously consider reports offered by US intelligence professionals that indicate threats to the lives of American troops.
President Trump might have raised this issue directly in his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past several months. In conversations concerning priority issues on the bilateral agenda, including arms control, G-7, and regional conflicts, he might have asked President Putin outright what considerations might prompt Moscow to employ such tactics against US service members. The presidents might reinforce the point with one another that the behavior of the United States and Russia helps establish the rules for managing the global security environment and that neither nation has an interest in fueling a complete collapse of global order toward a state of chaos or barbarism. Moscow’s foreign and defense policy officials have repeatedly said that the current climate is more dangerous than the period of the Cold War since the rules of engagement are ambiguous, but if there is any doubt, it could be made absolutely clear at the bilateral presidential level that placing bounties on US troops serving in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world by any nation-state or proxy is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.
In the past, US and Russian presidents have been able to reach common ground even in circumstances where there are geopolitical differences, but President Trump has been so constrained by reports of Moscow’s involvement in our elections that American policy toward Russia features nothing more creative than imposing successive rounds of sanctions, which have not been successful in achieving outcomes.
Both the United States and Russia share a common fundamental interest in securing a stable postwar Afghanistan that would no longer offer a haven vulnerable to exploitation by militant extremists seeking to use the country as a base to export regional and global terrorism. It should be obvious to competing forces within Afghanistan and to US and coalition and Russian policy officials that any long-term viable peace settlement for the nation of Afghanistan will require that the United States and Europe and Russia not be working at cross purposes in the country.
We have no well-conceived policy and strategy coordinated with our allies for managing America’s relationship with Russia. Critical issues on the US-Russia bilateral agenda, including recently resumed discussions on the New START treaty, with the existing agreement set to expire in February 2021, remain vital for US, Russian, and global security. The United States should develop a carefully crafted policy strategy for Russia not only designed to effectively counter challenges emanating from Moscow and eliminate uncertainties regarding acceptable rules and norms but also formulated in a way to move the entire bilateral security agenda along a more productive trajectory. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic might further incentivize desire on the part of both the United States and Russia to better manage the US-Russian bilateral relationship and underscore the importance of broadening options for managing threats coming from China.
Unless the formation of US policy toward Russia can be separated from American domestic politics, which seems highly unlikely at this point, reports of Russian bounties endangering the lives of US service members could lead to an ill-conceived retaliatory response or reprisals that are likely either to be ineffective or to contribute to an escalation of existing tensions, which could ultimately end in major power confrontation.
Dr. Stacy Closson, Professor, National Intelligence University and Global Fellow, Kennan Institute
Russia’s alleged use of bounty payments to Afghans to kill active duty US military personnel may be new, but it is in line with emerging trends in Russian doctrine and geopolitical strategy. If true, it is surprising that Russia would take measures that could undermine its strategic southern buffer zone. However, the US response is unlikely to be swift or harsh.
As for current Russian doctrine, in Ukraine, Libya and Syria today, Russia employs a variety of tactics, including grey operations in which private military companies fight Western-backed forces that, while traceable, offer a veneer of deniability. Particularly in the West, Russia wages war by less costly means with sometimes equally damaging effects, using finance, energy, media, cyber, and electoral interference. Russian security forces are also increasingly aggressive, murdering opposition in Europe and beyond.
As for a geopolitical strategy, although the Russian government was initially supportive of the US fight against the Taliban, Russia is unnerved by the growing instability in Afghanistan and its effect on trafficking of heroin into Russia through Central Asia, as well as the growing presence of the Islamic State. Since 2015, Russian-Taliban communication has increased, including suspected arms and aid transfers, as well as peace talks.
From a policy perspective, it makes little sense for Russia to engage in bounty killings. Putin may recall US support for Afghan irregular fighters that contributed to Moscow's forced withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1980s and an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that used bounties against Russian soldiers. However, given that Taliban power will likely exceed the Government of Afghanistan forces over time, particularly as western forces withdraw, it could put a hostile faction in power along Russia’s southern buffer zone, and free up the United States to focus on Russian threats elsewhere.
There is unlikely to be a public response from the US government, due in part to efforts to implement a peace agreement with the Taliban. The US preferred choice of sanctions has not been particularly damaging to Russian security interests, although individuals may be targeted. The damage appears more in US public opinion just before a presidential election; according to the latest Economist/You Gov poll almost half of Americans believe the Russians paid bounties and seven in ten Americans do not like President Putin.
William Hill, Global Fellow, Kennan Institute
The reports that appeared in major US newspapers the week of June 29 alleging that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American troops are a “new-old” story. The specific allegations that agents acting on Russia’s behalf provided payments for attacks on Americans are new. However, reports that Russia is providing material support to Taliban forces fighting against US troops have been around for at least a couple of years.
The sensational allegations in leaks of highly classified intelligence, the unwillingness of most sources to speak on the record, and the alternating White House claims that this is “fake news” and the intelligence was not solid enough to brief to President Trump—all these prevent determining with any real confidence what actually happened. The fact that key US government intelligence agencies are apparently not in full agreement suggests that even if it were possible to see the intelligence in question, a firm conclusion might not be possible.
The key fact we know with some confidence is that over the span of a decade, Russia has gone from assisting the US military effort in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network to both tacitly and actively supporting America’s foes in Afghanistan. The key unknown is Russia’s motivation. It seems unlikely that the Kremlin desires a Taliban full victory (though some in Moscow may have concluded this is unavoidable). Perhaps Moscow hopes to maintain influence in a future Afghan government that includes the Taliban? Or perhaps Putin simply desires to create difficulties for the United States and NATO in extricating themselves from Afghanistan and thus keep their attention and resources tied up there, rather than turned elsewhere.
The proper US response depends a lot on how solid the intelligence is; for those outside government evaluating the response, much depends on whom you believe. The Trump White House seems at this writing inclined to dismiss the press reports and to do nothing. With the 2020 presidential campaign now in full swing, it seems unlikely the administration will take significant action, absent new, unequivocal revelations. There is pressure from both sides of the aisle in Congress for a strong response, with the discussion so far pointing toward additional targeted economic sanctions. Moscow, of course, denies everything, and my guess is that further sanctions will have the same effect on changing Russian behavior in Afghanistan as have previous sanctions on Russian behavior in Ukraine.
What Washington can and should do right now is to address the issue of Moscow’s support for the Taliban at a senior level in both diplomatic and military channels. The precise nature of the intelligence will to some degree determine the content of our exchanges with our Russian counterparts. However, there is enough clear evidence over the past few years of Russian support for Taliban actions against American troops that we need to make clear the following: (1) we know about it; (2) we need an explanation from the Russians; and (3) we are prepared to respond if they do not cut it out. For the last point, the US government needs to review where and how we can respond to the Russians in a serious, proportionate manner while avoiding undue military risk and damage to those areas of cooperation with Moscow we still value. (There are some unconfirmed reports that the US government may have conducted such an exercise early this year.) Our response may require something other than additional economic sanctions; it need not be symmetrical with the alleged Russian actions.
Many readers may consider these suggestions hostile and aggressive, but I would argue that it is the best way to pursue any ultimate aim of actually improving US-Russia relations. For all of the Trump administration (and I would argue also to a lesser extent during the Obama administration), US policy toward Russia has been inconsistent and vacillating. After Crimea and the Donbas incursions in 2014, Moscow has been pushing the envelope, testing the limits of Western tolerance of its deployment of military and information power in a growing number of theaters around the globe. There are numerous examples one could cite, but let the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election suffice. Moscow has yet to pay any real price for these actions; given the political divisions over the issue in the United States, there would seem to be little reason not to try again in 2020.
President Trump often claims he has been tougher on Russia than any president before him. It is true that during his administration significant addition economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia, lethal military assistance has been provided to Ukraine, and a new National Security Strategy openly labels Russia a great power competitor. However, it is Congress and the career bureaucracy that have done much of this, and Trump’s approach has been inconsistent, even appearing deferential at times in his personal dealings with Putin. Meanwhile, he is letting the sole remaining bastion of strategic stability with Russia, the New START treaty, expire despite Putin’s expressed willingness to renew it without conditions.
Make no mistake: the United States needs to cooperate with Russia in a number of vital areas, with nuclear arms control, climate change, and disease control among the most important. However, unless Washington consistently and credibly makes clear to Moscow its red lines and willingness to enforce them, the United States will spend too much time bogged down in disputes over Kremlin activities where our interests conflict. Recent Russian behavior suggests to me that the Kremlin has concluded Washington will dither and do nothing in response to most of its actions. To correct this impression, the US government needs to get its own act together sufficiently to present Moscow with a clear choice: cooperation in important areas will be both possible and welcome, but only if clear, agreed-on rules of the road are observed.
About the Authors
United States Army
Research Scientist, Center for Naval Analyses
Former Asia Bureau Chief, Sky News
Peter B. Zwack
Former U.S. Army Brigadier General, served in Moscow from 2012 to 2014 as the U.S. senior defense official and attaché to the Russian Federation
Distinguished Professor and Director of the Kozmetsky Center, St. Edward's University
Stacy R. Closson
Associate Professor of Russia/Eurasia and Polar Security, National Intelligence University
William H. Hill
Former Professor of National Security Strategy, National War College, Washington D.C.