ARE the Russians offering bounties to the Afghan Taliban to target American troops? This rather extraordinary claim emerged a couple of weeks ago, and has since then fed into the partisan political debate in the United States, amid claims that Donald Trump was briefed on the available intelligence but chose to ignore it.

Investigative reporting by The New York Times has identified an Afghan middleman, Rahmatullah Azizi, as a key player in this plot, allegedly hatched by GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency. The details are murky, based in part on the assumption that this is some kind of revenge for the massive American effort in the 1980s — in collusion with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among others — to fund, arm, train and motivate the mujahideen to attack the occupying Soviet forces.

If there is any truth to this improbable but not entirely implausible narrative, it’s clearly a case of tragedy repeating itself as farce, given that the sources the NYT cites link “at least one US troop death” to the bounties. That would count as a pretty dud investment by any standard.

It is not impossible, of course, that such an initiative could be part of the broader current geopolitical context, which extends from Ukraine to Syria, with Moscow’s interests colliding, sometimes violently, with those of Washington and its allies, and includes Russia’s long-standing consternation at being hemmed in by Nato on its western flank.

Russian contacts with the Taliban are hardly a secret, nor are they entirely illogical, given that what comes next in Afghanistan inevitably matters more to its neighbours than it possibly could to the US or Europe. At the same time, there are obviously considerable risks involved in relying on the Taliban to serve as part of a bulwark against the likes of Al Qaeda and IS.

Anyhow, notwithstanding the targeted killings associated with the GRU in other parts of the world, even the NYT concedes the unlikelihood of President Vladimir Putin having personally signed off on the supposed Afghan plot.

Putin undoubtedly keeps a sharp eye on global developments, but it’s highly likely that his primary concerns at the moment are domestic. As in many other countries, Russia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been found wanting on both the health and economic fronts.

A delayed military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and a delayed plebiscite on far-reaching constitutional additions and amendments provided something of a comeback moment for Putin after a period of relative self-isolation.

The commemoration of what has been known since Soviet days as the Great Patriotic War provided Putin with a platform to glorify the past and remind the world of the USSR’s dominant role in defeating Nazi Germany. Which is fair enough, not least because in Western discourse the conclusion of that contest tends to be saluted as mainly an Anglo-American triumph.

On the other hand, any dispassionate account of the war would also make note of the Stalin-Hitler pact and the USSR’s consequent lack of preparedness when the Nazis attacked. One wouldn’t expect Putin to mention it, but he’s sufficiently well-tutored in history to recognise the price that must be paid for monumental miscalculations by all-powerful leaders.

The week-long constitutional plebiscite that concluded last Wednesday covered a lot of ground, from enshrining the official interpretation of history (always a mistake, in any country) to emphasising ‘family values’, ruling out gay marriage and enshrining Russia’s ancestral ‘faith in God’. No wonder Putin is viewed as a hero by a segment of deeply conservative Christians in the US and Europe, some of whom are old enough to have been railing against ‘godless Russia’ a few decades ago.

The constitutional change that has received the greatest attention internationally is inevitably the one that resets the clock for presidential terms, which means that if Putin chose to run again four years from now, after what would be 24 years at the helm, there would be no barriers to hold him back.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that he intends to do so. For the moment, what’s important for him is not to be seen as a lame-duck president going through the motions during his final term. Under the new laws, he could potentially remain in power until 2036. If he decides not to do that, chances are he will be able to handpick his successor.

For the moment, what matters is how well the Putin administration can cope with the immense challenges thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic. So far, the response has been dismal, and in some parts of Russia it has been abysmal. Partly as a consequence, the president’s pretend heroics no longer impress the young.

But then, as a student of 20th-century history, Putin must be aware that Russia is prone to unexpected, earth-shaking cataclysms.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2020


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