Taking Aim at Russia’s ‘Underbelly’

Exclusive: While loudly complaining about “Russian aggression,” the U.S. government escalates plans for encircling Russia in a modern “Great Game,” writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Two hundred years after the “Great Game” for domination of Central Asia began with the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813, Washington is maneuvering to increase its military presence on Russia’s underbelly, this time through a “counterterrorism partnership” with Tajikistan and its neighbors.

Last month, the Pentagon announced plans for $50 million in new military aid to Central Asia — with a focus on Tajikistan — to “counter the Taliban, ISIL [an acronym for Islamic State], and other regionally-based terrorist groups, and to promote stability in the region.” The aid will also help the U.S. military get its feet in the door by enabling “interoperability and collaboration” with local partner armed forces.


The program comes at a time when the United States and NATO are trying to counter Moscow by providing billions of dollars in new aid to Russia’s neighbors, from the Baltic States and Ukraine to Georgia, and stepping up naval exercises in the Black Sea. The announcement follows a visit last November by Secretary of State John Kerry to Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics in the region, where he pledged “U.S. security cooperation.”

It also represents the first major escalation of U.S. military aid to Central Asia since the Pentagon sponsored an intensive training program for special forces in Kyrgystan and Tajikistan in 2012 and 2013. That operation, ostensibly aimed at boosting narcotics enforcement, was criticized by researchers who noted that it would simply eliminate competitors of the country’s biggest drug trafficking rings, which are led by high-level politicians and state officials.

The new military aid program, if approved by Congress, aims to offset reverses suffered by Washington in the region in 2014. That year the government of Kyrgyzstan closed a major U.S. air base, which had been implicated in notoriously corrupt dealings with the country’s former president. Kyrgyzstan also joined the Eurasian Economic Union, a common market that includes Russia, and terminated an aid agreement with Washington.

The United States is not Tajikistan’s only suitor, however. The chief of staff of Pakistan’s army, General Raheel Sharif, met earlier this month with Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, to discuss “cooperation between national armies and law enforcement agencies of Tajikistan and Pakistan in the fight against modern threats and challenges, including terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking.”

His visit came just one day after a leading Chinese military official told President Rahmon that Beijing was ready to “enhance military cooperation and multilateral counter-terrorism collaboration with Tajikistan.”

Tajikistan is already a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which promotes military cooperation and intelligence sharing with China, Russia and other member states. Tajikistan is also a key transit country for a huge new gas pipeline slated to run from Turkmenistan to China. China’s longer-run plans call for Tajikistan to become the first link in a planned commercial route from China to Europe’s markets, called the Silk Road Economic Belt.

For now, Russia still enjoys the strongest presence in Tajikistan. It stations several thousand troops in the country to support border security. Moscow recently earmarked $1.2 billion to train and equip Tajikistan’s army and plans to hold major joint exercises in coming days. Russia hopes to prevent Islamist insurgents from moving out of Afghanistan and destabilizing other Muslim countries on or near Russia’s southern border.

All of the governments courting Tajikistan are turning a blind eye to the corruption and brutality of the country’s regime — which even the Russian media note is becoming “totalitarian.” This May, voters in Tajikistan will almost certainly approve a referendum to anoint President Rahmon “Leader of the Nation” and amend the Constitution to exempt him from the two-term limit.

Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in February accused the Rahmon government of “arresting, imprisoning, and torturing members of the country’s peaceful political opposition” and even kidnapping critics who live abroad.

One critic of the Rahmon regime was shot dead in Istanbul; another was seized in Moscow, where he had lived for a decade, and flown home to serve a 13-year prison sentence.

Said one senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Tajikistan is in the midst of the worst political and religious crackdown since the end of the country’s civil war,” which claimed the lives of up to 100,000 people in mid-1990s. “Hundreds of people [are] landing behind bars for no other reason than their peaceful political work. Tajikistan’s human rights crisis is expanding by the day, but the response of Washington, Brussels, and other international partners has fallen seriously short.”

Human rights groups called on the Obama administration to “designate Tajikistan a ‘country of particular concern’ under the International Religious Freedom Act, for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious and political freedoms without further delay.”

So far, however, the Pentagon’s plans for a closer “counterterrorism partnership” appear to be trumping the cause of human rights in Washington. And the European Union, also hoping to wean Tajikistan away from Russia, pledged 251 million Euros for development funding.

For millions of people suffering under corrupt, repressive regimes in Tajikistan and the other “Stans” of Central Asia, such interventions perpetuate the “Great Game” that foreign powers have played at their expense for two centuries. From the U.S. perspective, perpetuating our mindless military competition with Russia in such distant lands is both counterproductive and inhumane. It’s time for Washington to stop playing the Game.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; andHidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.”]

15 comments for “Taking Aim at Russia’s ‘Underbelly’

  1. barneyfife
    March 21, 2016 at 03:56

    Shame about this site….with conspiracy fevered comments by the likes of trowbridge ford who has read one too many spy novels…..well just too silly really. ie: kursk sunk by u.s. …give me a break.

  2. March 13, 2016 at 10:50

    Airbrush2020, quite sensible comment except for overlooking that MAD has been overtaken by space and sea based weapons which American laser satellites, its Boeing X-37B, special attack subs the USS Jimmy Carter and Connecticut, and HAARP can supply.

  3. Airbrush2020
    March 11, 2016 at 22:03

    It’s true that NATO is trying to box-in Russia. The question is: Why? Russia has a large nuclear arsenal. Russia is strategically aligned with China. Why would NATO be so obvious in it’s intentions? The risks far out-weigh any perceived advantage. Why would the West risk a confrontation with the East? Can it be said that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is no longer assured? It just doesn’t seem to make any sense.

  4. Rick Patel
    March 11, 2016 at 19:16

    Hillary Clinton will give the neocons the world war they have been itching for.

  5. Michael Kenny
    March 11, 2016 at 14:51

    Like Syria, Central Asia is a sideshow. The main game is in Ukraine. By invading Ukraine, annexing part of its territory and fabricating a fake “rebellion” in another part, Putin has violated the rules of the international community, specifically, the Helsinki Final Act. By doing so, he made himself untrustworthy and thereby rendered himself irreversibly disfunctional as Russia’s president. Given the physical size of the Russian Federation, a maverick wildcard at its head is a permanent threat to the whole world. Nobody can tell what he’s going to do next. Indeed, no Soviet leader ever did anything so stupid. Given that, the international community is going to do all that it can to force Putin back within his own borders (at very least) or better yet, force him from power. The US has a particular problem inasmuch as Obama’s weak reaction to the invasion has discredited NATO, whose continued existence is part of the US dispositions for the defence of Israel. NATO’s credibility needs to be re-established, and that means bye, bye Putin. A interesting point: why didn’t Putin simply re-establish Yanukovych in power in Crimea instead of annexing it to Russia? Indeed, what has become of Yanukovych? He simply vanished into the night!

    • Erik
      March 12, 2016 at 09:33

      Readers here know too much to believe that narrative without fact.
      1. Have you any evidence that Russia “invaded” Ukraine? Invisible armored divisions again?
      2. Are you aware that Crimea was part of Russia and USSR until recently?
      3. Are you aware of the history of factions and ethnicities in Ukraine?
      4. Are you aware that Yanukovich was democratically elected and overthrown by a minority?
      5. Are you aware that those who did not accept this, the ethnic/linguitic Russians of East Ukraine, might better be termed loyalists?
      6. Are you aware that he US sought overthrow of the elected Yanukovich tather than support an alternative?
      7. What would the US do if Russia overthrew the government of Mexico or Canada?

      You should consider the discordant facts before simply repeating a counterfactual narrative from the mass media.

  6. Dieter Heymann
    March 11, 2016 at 13:47

    There exists another Russian underbelly namely the Black Sea. It was clearly against the Russian national interest that Ukraine with the Crimea would join EU and NATO. The Black Sea would have become a NATO lake and Sevastopol a NATO port/base. That was prevented by Putin.
    The underbelly of the “Stan’s” is probably less worrisome for Putin. From history he knows how unreliable these nations are as allies.
    On the Black Sea again. Candidate Trump seems to be the only one who understands and accepts that Russia has national interests. All others, sadly including Mr. Sanders, are totally blind on this issue. They keep demanding that Russia must return the Crimea to Ukraine.

  7. March 11, 2016 at 11:20

    To blame everything being done against Russia on Obama and Hillary is most unjustified.

    We have a government with many institutionalized special interests, like the military-industrial complex, the so-called intelligence community, special contractors for all kinds of agencies, foreign covert partners, etc., and neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Clinton had much to do, if anything, with what the West, especially NATO, did to Russia.

    Don’t think either of them even knew about the overthrow of of Yanukovich, or the attempted assassination of Putin.

    Interesting that everyone goes bonkers about her reaction to Gaddafi’s assassination which MI6 had been attempting for nearly a generation, and she finally helped achieve.

  8. March 10, 2016 at 11:34

    And, can you believe it, I forgot the West’s attempt to assassinate Putin, the Ukrainian military mistakenly shooting down MH17, thinking it was the Suhkoi 100 carrying the Russian President back home.

    And then there was the sabotaging of the plane itself by flying it into that Indonesian volcano during the cockpit chaos due to yet another breakdown of its air-conditioning system which FBI Steve Ivens wanted to inform Obama of when he visited Burbank on a presidential fund-raiser, but he was set up as another LHO, and murdered instead.

    You really need to carry a vomit bag these days when you try to make out what is happening.

  9. March 10, 2016 at 10:21

    Then there is no mention of the sinking of the unsinkable Kursk by the USS Toledo in the hope of overthrowing Putin, Georgia’s attempt to seal off Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Russia in the hope of reducing its hold on the Black Sea, taking over security of the Winter Games in Sochi in the hope of getting a foothold there, the coup against Viktor Yanukoviich in the hope of breaking its hold on the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, etc., that have yet to be disclosed.

    Washington always gets a free ride no matter what it does to Russia.

  10. Erik
    March 9, 2016 at 20:42

    As the US right wing seeks against Russia what it so long claimed the USSR was doing to the US – seeking a foothold in its hemisphere – it would be well for Russia and Chine to counter this by seeking much bigger and closer footholds around the US. A Russia/China plan for development aid to Mexico might be w good start. Give the US right wing something to fear in their backyard, and do a lot of good for Mexico into the bargain. Start a bidding war for development aid there.

    Russia and China aid to black and hispanic ghettos in the US might follow.

    • Peter
      March 11, 2016 at 04:34

      Right Wing? You mean Obama? you mean Hillary? You mean the neocons who want to jump to the Democrat Party with Hillary if Trump is nominated?

  11. Tom Welsh
    March 9, 2016 at 15:09

    ‘…to “counter the Taliban, ISIL [an acronym for Islamic State], and other regionally-based terrorist groups, and to promote stability in the region.”’

    Yes, because that worked so VERY well in Afghanistan.

  12. Tom Welsh
    March 9, 2016 at 15:08

    “Last month, the Pentagon announced plans for $50 million in new military aid to Central Asia…”

    In other words, as a retirement plan for Central Asian politicians and bureaucrats.

  13. March 9, 2016 at 12:17

    You left out the Reagan administration trying to destroy not only the Soviet Union but also Russia itself by confronting it with such a degradation of its nuclear deterrents after it was made to look like it had assassinated Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme – what was only prevented by the Western spies Moscow had developed, and the counter measures it took against the threats.

    The collapse of the USSR only stopped the process for a while.

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