Russian Peacekeepers Unlikely in Kabul

Itar-TassRussia has peacekeepers in other areas, such as these pictured in Kosovo last month.
Russia will probably not be among the countries that the UN Security Council picks to deploy peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, an exclusion that should please both Moscow and Kabul, experts said.

But even without peacekeepers, Russia will maintain a military presence in Afghanistan, they said. Its military will continue to orchestrate intelligence gathering there, escort and protect humanitarian aid efforts and provide equipment and training to the Northern Alliance.

What's more, Russia will continue to have thousands of peacekeeping troops on watch in neighboring Tajikistan.

Moscow itself has sent mixed signals about whether it wants to ship peacekeepers to the country that Soviet troops withdrew from in defeat just over a decade ago.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov hinted that Moscow may send troops earlier this month. But when asked about it this week, he firmly ruled out the possibility.

"No Russian servicemen will take part in any armed action on Afghan territory in any form or in any way," Ivanov said in Brussels on Monday, Interfax reported.

Britain has been charged with rounding up participants, a task that began when the United Nations Security Council promised to provide a multinational peacekeeping force as part of an agreement on an interim Afghan government, which is scheduled to take power Saturday.

The Security Council is currently debating the duration of the mission and how much force the soldiers will be authorized to use. A decision is expected Thursday.

Russia does not appear to be on the list of candidates. Its representatives were absent from recent London meetings between military officials from 17 countries that have offered to send peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan, a British Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Participants included the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Canada, Turkey, Jordan, Denmark, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and even the United States, which is not expected to contribute any troops.

Russia's recent history in Afghanistan makes it unlikely that Afghans, Russians or the West want it to dispatch peacekeeping troops there, experts said. Memories linger on about the Soviet Union's promises of short-term military deployments in 1979 that stretched on for a decade.

"We have an Afghan syndrome that is even more powerful than America's Vietnam syndrome," said Alexander Konovalev, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessment in Moscow. "We're still recovering.

"Plus, Russia knows that it already has a military presence in Afghanistan," Konovalev said.

Indeed, Emergency Situations Ministry troops have already marched into Kabul to oversee the establishment of a hospital. Similar deployments are expected to accompany the humanitarian aid Russia is shipping there.

In addition, Russia says it plans to continue providing the Northern Alliance with military equipment -- which is widely believed to be sent along with Russian military experts to provide instruction on how to use it.

Also, an estimated 20,000 Russian peacekeeping troops are stationed next door in Tajikistan, and they will continue to keep an eye on both the border and northern Afghanistan.

"Russia can sit in Tajikistan and say, 'If anything goes wrong, we'll stop you on the border,'" said Alex Vatanka, editor of Jane's Sentinel Russia CIS in London.

For the time being, Russia's skeletal presence in Afghanistan shouldn't ruffle any feathers, experts said.

"If the political coalition stays strong, than everything should be fine," said Celeste Wallander, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But if it doesn't, then the interests of all countries that have been participating will be thrown into question."

A possible conflict between Russia and the United States could surface if the Afghans receiving military assistance from Moscow start acting out of line, a diplomatic source said.

During negotiations over the new interim government, representatives of the Northern Alliance first objected to and then begrudgingly approved the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.

Some experts predicted that Afghans will feel uncomfortable with even a limited Russian military presence.

"Even the sight of Russian soldiers escorting humanitarian assistance could cause troubles," said Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center.