RUSSIAN commandos board a helicopter during the military drills.—AP
RUSSIAN commandos board a helicopter during the military drills.—AP

MOSCOW/DUSHANBE: Russia has increased arms and military hardware supplies to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan amid fighting in Afghanistan, Interfax news agency quoted Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov as saying on Thursday.

Gerasimov, who was in Tashkent to attend joint Uzbek-Russian military drills near the Afghan border, provided no details such as what arms were being supplied.

Russia is also carrying out drills in Tajikistan, another former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan, this week. For the Uzbek exercise, Moscow said on Thurs­day it would even deploy four strategic bombers.

The security situation in Afghanistan has rapidly deteriorated since US-led forces began a withdrawal due to be completed by September, prompting a Taliban insurgent offensive that has made significant territorial gains.

Drills begin on border

The Russian military’s chief of staff arrived in Central Asia on Thursday as Russia held military drills in two ex-Soviet countries bordering Afghanistan where Kabul is struggling to contain a ferocious Taliban offensive.

Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s General Staff flew into Uzbekistan — Central Asia’s most populous country — to observe joint Russian-Uzbek military drills.

Both armies also took part in separate exercises with neighbouring Tajikistan on Thursday.

During a meeting with Uzbek counterpart Shukhrat Khalmukhamedov, Gera­simov said the drills took place amid a worsening situation in the region and “to practise actions to repel terrorist threats.” “The main threat to the Central Asian region today comes from the Afghan direction,” said Gerasimov, who was expec­ted to meet with other top Uzbek officials, according to a Russian defence ministry statement.

Moscow has positioned itself as a bulwark against potential spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia, while casting a suspicious eye on military cooperation between the countries of the region and the United States.

The joint exercises at the Kharb-Maidon training ground just 20 kilometres from the Tajik border with Afghanistan involve 2,500 troops from Russia, Tajikis­tan and Uzbekistan.

A further 1,500 troops are involved in the drills that began at the end of last month at Uzbekistan’s Termez training ground.

Fighting in Afghanistan’s long-running conflict began to intensify in May, when US and other foreign forces began the first stage of a withdrawal due to be completed later this month.

The Taliban already control large swathes of the countryside and are now challenging Afghan government forces in several large cities.

Uzbekistan, which maintains Central Asia’s largest standing army, quit the Russia-led Collective Secu­rity Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military bloc for the second time in 2012.

Tashkent has not rejoined the group that consists of six former Soviet states but has increased its bilateral military cooperation with Mos­cow under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been in power since 2016.

Russia maintains major military bases in Central Asia’s two poorest countries, Tajikistan and Kyrgyz­stan.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2021

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