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In an effort to strengthen relations with Central Asia, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev hosted the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan on Wednesday in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi. Though much of the meeting focused on flooding in Pakistan, security issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan were at the core of the talks.
Instability in former Soviet Central Asia is seen as a threat to Russia's security, and Russia has expressed concern about the spread of militancy from the two countries. Russia would also like to curb Afghanistan's production of illegal drugs, much of which passes through Russia and is fueling an addiction to cheap Afghan heroin.
This is the second meeting between the leaders of all four countries in a year.
“Russia firmly supports all efforts on the part of Afghanistan to restore peace in the country. We also support the Afghan government’s fight against terror and are ready to provide any help needed to tackle the problem,” said Mr. Medvedev in an article by RT, a Russian news service.
Russia has promised development assistance to Afghanistan, reports the Press Trust of India. However, Medvedev went on to say that the drug trade is linked to terrorism and poses an unacceptable threat to Russia’s safety. He said the trade must be combated on all levels, including destroying illicit crops and launching military strikes.
Moscow's drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, has in the past claimed that Russia is being flooded with cheap heroin, according to The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Ivanov has charged that the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan are reluctant to pursue a drug war that could drive poppy farmers into the arms of the Taliban.
"Of course the struggle against terrorism should take precedence," Ivanov said in May, "but what about liquidating drug production? How does it happen that almost 10 years after NATO occupied this country, Afghanistan is not only the world's largest producer of opium, but also of hashish, surpassing the traditional global leader, Morocco?"
There are at least 2 million heroin addicts in Russia, put some put the estimate as high as 6 million.
For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai seemed receptive to Medvedev’s message, inviting the Russian leader to visit him in Afghanistan “as quickly as possible and when [Medvedev’s] busy schedule allows,” reports Russia’s RIA Novosti.
To date, Russia’s main support for NATO and US operations in Afghanistan has come in the form of allowing railway shipments of non-lethal goods to pass through it’s territory and allowing planes carrying weapons to Afghanistan to pass through its airspace. The Associated Press reports that NATO has been pressuring Russia to provide helicopters and flight training to Afghanistan, which Russia appears increasingly willing to do following the conference.
If Russia does begin selling helicopters to Afghanistan, UPI reports that it will present a rather “ironic” turn of events, as only 30 years ago Russia depended heavily on its air superiority in Afghanistan to battle the Mujahideen.
Meanwhile, helping Pakistan regain stability following flooding may also prove critical to Russia’s interests in the region. Already there is concern that militant groups within Pakistan are using the floods as an opportunity to garner support among the population by providing aid to flood victims, reports The Wall Street Journal.
In talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Medvedev promised that Russia would continue to provide “all possible support to Pakistan,” reports the Times of India. A second cargo plane of aid for flood victims will arrive in Pakistan tomorrow.
“This is a severe disaster which caused many deaths and unfortunately brought great damage. We mourn with you and are ready to provide assistance to the Pakistani people. You can count on us," Medvedev said in the Times of India. “We would like to continue cooperating in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and international crimes.”