Post-exit from US anti-drug pact, Russia eyes CSTO to fight Afghan drug threat

Some 20 percent of the world's heroin is consumed in Russia. Source: Reuters

Some 20 percent of the world's heroin is consumed in Russia. Source: Reuters

Russia has been grappling after the Soviet collapse with a huge drug-trafficking menace, exacerbated by its proximity to routes in the Central Asian countries from Afghanistan.

After officially pulling out of a decade-old pact with the United States on cooperation in fight against drug-trafficking and crime last week, Russia plans to focus on a greater role to the regional security group, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to control the anti-drugs trade from Afghanistan. Russia’s move to scrap the pact came in a tit-for-tat measure after Washington withdrew from a joint working group with Moscow on Civil Society, in a sign of further worsening of relations between the two countries.

Russia has been grappling after the collapse of the Soviet Union with huge drug-trafficking menace, exacerbated by its proximity to major trafficking routes in the Central Asian countries from Afghanistan. Much of the heroin enters the territory of the former Soviet Union through Afghanistan's northern borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It then travels westwards across Kazakhstan, before entering the central and Ural regions of Russia, where there are large numbers of addicts.

About 5 million Russian addicts consume about 70 tonnes of Afghan heroin annually. Some 20 percent of the world's heroin is consumed in Russia, where 30,000 to 40,000 people are killed by drugs annually.

Since the operations by the US-led NATO coalition forces began in the country, Russia frequently accused the US of failing to use its influence in Afghanistan to tackle drug-trafficking effectively. Experts believe here that after the withdrawal of US forces, in 2014, the drug-trafficking threat may even assume an alarming proportion, as the two countries were carrying out joint anti-drug operations in Afghanistan over more than two years.

Russia’s pulling out of the anti-drug pact, also came following the head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) Viktor Ivanov, recently praising Russian-US anti-drug cooperation in Afghanistan. Ivanov travelled to the US in December to attend bilateral meetings on combating drug trafficking and money laundering.

Following the scrapping of the pact, Russian Federal Drug Control Service said in a statement on January 30 that a new agreement on Russian-US cooperation in fighting drugs is currently on the anvil and that bilateral “relations in the anti-narcotics area are at a high point” and only getting better.

Commenting on the Russia’s cancellation of the agreement, an unidentified high source in the Russian law enforcement authorities told Interfax news agency that Moscow will not stop anti-drug cooperation with the United States.

“Same as in the previous years, cooperation will centre on the suppression of drug trafficking from Afghanistan,” he said, stressing the two counties have had a number of successful operations against drug labs in Afghanistan  in the past few years, in particular, with intelligence data provided by Russia.

Earlier, in January, Ivanov told reporters in Moscow that FSKN uncovered another ten drug labs operating in northern Afghanistan.

“The scale of drug production in Afghanistan shows no sign of shrinking. Ten new industrial-type drug labs, located in northern Afghanistan in the immediate proximity of Tajikistan, have been found in the past six months. The drug labs allow residents of these countries to smuggle drugs in the guise of border cooperation,” he said.

Ivanov also proposed to refer the problem to the UN Security Council. “The only solution is to eliminate drug production and fields of drug-containing plants. It is necessary to draw the UN Security Council's attention to the fact that drug production has been growing in Afghanistan despite the ten-year-long presence of NATO's contingent there,” he said.

In May 2011, According to Ivanov, dozens of Russian and US drug agents seized about $110 million worth of drugs and weapons in Afghanistan.

On October 28, 2010, for the first time, Russian and US drug control services carried out a joint anti-narcotics operation in Afghanistan, destroying 4 drug labs and 900 kilograms of heroin worth more than $250 million. The labs were located about three miles from the Pakistan border at an important drug-trafficking crossroad. The raids were based on intelligence Russia had shared with the US.

Although the joint operation was an obvious success, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had angrily reacted to the raids. He issued a strongly worded statement, calling the Russian-US raids a blatant violation of Afghan sovereignty and international law. He claimed he had not been informed about it and had not given his approval for the participation of Russian agents. However, within a week, Karzai and the-then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed during a telephone conversation increasing cooperation in fighting illicit drugs, noting especially the recent Russian-US anti-drug operation in Afghanistan.

After the first Russian-US joint operation in Afghanistan, Russia's Federal Drug Control Service vowed to offer more support, including money, for the anti-drug programmes in Central Asian countries including Afghanistan.

Over 300 Afghan drug enforcement officers have already been trained in Russia over the past five years, as part of the NATO-Russia Council’s anti-drug project, according to the Federal Drug Control Service.

The Russian-US Presidential Commission has been carrying out joint anti-drug operations in Afghanistan since last year. Russia maintains relations with Afghan agencies in the training and arming of Afghan drug law enforcers.

According to the US 2012 National Drug Control Strategy, the strengthening anti-drug cooperation with Russia remains a priority of the US Administration. The document urged the countries to “enhance the relationship” developed under the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s Counternarcotics Working Group (CNWG).

“Since the creation of the CNWG, US and Russian law enforcement authorities have conducted cooperative enforcement operations and engaged in numerous joint training activities,” the document said.

Moscow has always advocated the close cooperation between the CSTO and NATO as an effective means of fighting drug-trafficking from Afghanistan, as the US-led coalition forces have been operating inside Afghanistan and the CSTO has troops all along the Afghan borders.

On December 20, 2012, Russia’s permanent representative at the UN, Vitaly Churkin declared at a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Central Asian country that together with CSTO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), remain committed to cooperation with NATO in combating drugs in Afghanistan.

Churkin, in particular, pointed to the importance of effective measures to “destroy drug crops and labs, prevent supply of precursors to Afghanistan, include drug dealers on the UN SC sanctions list.”

He said the CSTO international operation "Kanal” (Canal) launched in 2003 has already been effective in seizing over a million tons of drugs, making it the largest and most effective effort to combat the Afghan drug threat.

Last year, the CSTO launched the “Kanal-Vostok” (Canal-East) international anti-drug operation aimed at fighting against smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and China.

As part of the operation, work is going on to stop the supply of precursors and interrupt the work of drug laboratories in the Russian Far East. At the same time, seizure of weapons, ammunition and explosives is being conducted. Measures are being taken to prevent legalising proceedings from drug sale.

The international coordination staff and drug control agencies in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are taking part in the operation. The authorised representatives of law enforcement agencies in Afghanistan, China and Mongolia as well as financial surveillance units of the countries in the Eurasian Group on Combating Legalisation of Criminal Income and Terrorist Financing are also involved in the operation.

Meanwhile, special services of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries have also proposed a new tactic to resolve the problem. According to the plan, the SCO countries will fight drug trafficking on their territories, while NATO will deal with destroying poppy fields in Afghanistan.

Dadan Upadhyay is an Indian journalist based in Moscow.

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