January 6, 2016
Translated from Russian by Kristina Rus for Fort Russ
Alexander Sternik: the issue of recruitment into ISIS in Central Asia is acute
Director of the Third Department of CIS countries of the Russian Foreign Ministry spoke about the possibility of infiltration of ISIS militants to Russia through the CIS countries and about the work on prevention of recruitment into the ranks of terrorists
Director of the Third Department of CIS countries of the Russian Foreign Ministry Alexander Sternik told Veronica Vishnyakova in interview to "Interfax" about the measures taken to strengthen the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan with Afghanistan due to increasing threat of ISIS (a terrorist organization banned in Russia), the possibility of penetration of militants into the CIS countries, the strengthening of Russian military bases in the Central Asian region, as well as on joint actions to counter the terrorist threat.
- In recent years, the situation in Northern Afghanistan near the border with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan has exacerbated. Does Moscow plan to participate in the strengthening of the border?
- Not only planning, but also is making the most active contribution to this work. Since announcing the plans of the international security assistance force of Afghanistan, it became clear that the armed opposition in this country will seek to fill the "vacuum" of security, to take advantage of the fragile situation, especially – important to us - Northern areas adjacent to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. We work with allies in the CSTO and are exchanging information on this matter with contacts in Tashkent, Dushanbe and Ashgabat. The training of border and other specialists to defend against threats from the South is ongoing.
Tajikistan has the longest Afghan border with difficult terrain. A thousand kilometer sections of mountains climb up to four thousand meters! Of course, we coordinate practical steps to strengthen the Tajik border, coordinate activities in case of escalation at the most dangerous sections.
With respect to Turkmenistan, our partners come from the fact that the situation on their border with Afghanistan is safely controlled. We know about the efforts of Ashgabat on strengthening border security. Most of Afghanistan's neighbors, including Central Asian countries, however, prefer a joint effort, involving the time-tested partners, who have no other agenda, except to ensure stability in the region. Russia is one of them. We are sincerely interested in this. After all, Central Asia is the "southern gateway" to our common security zone. In any event, Ashgabat can be sure of the readiness of its friends to assist it, and without any political reservations or hidden intentions.
- Does Moscow plan to place troops on the Tajik-Afghan border to protect or to expand the presence of its 201 military base in Tajikistan and to strengthen it due to the threat of ISIS from Afghanistan?
- There are no plans to deploy a full contingent, to my knowledge. Let me remind you that in August 2005, the Tajik authorities decided to provide their own border security. Nevertheless, we maintain a high level of border cooperation. In the CSTO at the request of the official Dushanbe a set of measures to strengthen the Tajik-Afghan border was developed. These measures were considered at the session of the Collective Security Council of CSTO on December 21 in Moscow. We also allow the possibility of using coalition troops of Russia and Tajikistan, if the situation calls for it. For this purpose the structure and layout of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan was optimized. Its combat readiness was improved. At the present stage, taking into account the situation on the border, it is the most effective model of cooperation.
- How likely is it that ISIS militants can penetrate into the CIS and Russia through the Afghan-Tajik and Afghan-Turkmen border?
- According to our partners, resources for strengthening these sections of the border with Afghanistan have increased substantially. We highly appreciate it. Of course, there are objective difficulties which are not easy to cope with for any state. First of all, it is the length of the border. In the case of Tajikistan, its length exceeds 1300 kilometers, Turkmenistan - 745 kilometers. Complex natural relief in the first case seems to help prevent the breakthrough of large forces, but at the same time, it is extremely difficult to block all the "goat trails" from the infiltration of small groups. To increase the level of security, the Tajik authorities, with our support, are using modern means of surveillance of the border situation.
The Turkmen border goes through mostly flat terrain. Here the risks of breakthrough can be higher, and more resources are required for a tight cover, than say, in the case of the Uzbek-Afghan border of 137 km. Therefore, Russia, the neighbors of Turkmenistan, its CIS partners are following the efforts of the Turkmen friends to strengthen our common southern borders with due attention. I am confident in our readiness to provide more specific support if necessary.
We inform Turkmen partners about the work we do with the border services of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They were aware of the CSTO decisions on this account. As associate members of the Commonwealth our friends, I am sure, are watching the work of the Council of Commanders of Border Troops of the CIS. In conditions when the situation in Afghanistan is far from stable and there is a fragmentation of the armed opposition forces, it is extremely difficult for front-line states to build its security model alone.
-How would you assess the recruitment of people to ISIS in the Central Asian region? How great is the danger for Russia?
Indeed, ISIS is a new factor on our "doorstep". But so far it is affecting the situation in Afghanistan. The direct influence of ISIS on Central Asian states I would say is limited. Nevertheless, it is necessary to monitor the growth of ISIS capabilities, especially in light of the fact that a number of radical extremist organizations had already pledged allegiance to it. In their ranks there are many ethnic immigrants from the Central Asian states and Russian regions. The combined capabilities of these forces, coupled with the plans for external expansion draws a considerable amount of attention from the intelligence services of Central Asia and Russia in cooperation, of course, with the Afghan authorities. Law enforcement agencies of the Central Asian countries not only record, but also neutralize ISIS supporters among the local population. Our competent authorities are working together to dwarf the growth of extremist "metastasis" in depth and in breadth. Indeed, the Islamists are planning to conquer the territory of many countries, including the Russian Volga region into their Caliphate
- As you said, ISIS plans to capture a large enough geographical area and make it a Caliphate. The plan is also to capture Pakistan, which has nuclear arsenal. Can Islamabad ensure the security of its nuclear weapons from ISIS and other terrorist groups? Is Moscow ready to help protect Pakistan's nuclear Arsenal?
- I don't deal with Pakistan but I can say that this question has arisen before, and not in connection with ISIS. I am sure that the nuclear powers are aware of the potential risks in this regard. I have no doubt that everything necessary is being done to prevent these threats.
- Returning to the subject of recruitment: is there data, how many people from Central Asian countries join ISIS?
- The data on the number of persons recruited by ISIS is constantly updated. Our president recently talked about at least four thousand immigrants from Russia and other CIS countries. Through our competent authorities we share information and it shows that the problem is acute. This is due to generous financing and ISIS propaganda among the most disadvantaged segments of the population. Usually it is those who do not see for themselves any prospects in life, for example, in economically depressed areas. The false effect of temporary successes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria played a role. Unfortunately, for a year and a half the so-called coalition led by the United States only tinkered with ISIS without causing it serious damage. Our air-space forces in several weeks did what the coalition was unable to do for the entire period of its existence. Despite this, the process of replenishing the ranks of ISIS continues.
Equally dangerous are the calls of the Islamic state to carry out the "Holy war at the place of residence" - that is, without going to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. We must attend to this threat together. Of course, priority will be given to security methods, but it is important not to forget about its socio-economic component.
Attention is required for the healing of the "wounds" from inter-ethnic quarrels and conflicts in the region. The issue of employment in the densely populated Fergana valley is acute, creating favorable conditions for trade development between the border regions that require priority development. This was the course our government chartered in the North Caucasus. The social basis of separatism was tempered by the use of a purposeful socio-economic policy and investment.
- Is there interaction between Russia and Central Asian countries on combating the recruitment of people to ISIS?
- Between the agencies, of course, the corresponding work is being done. In addition to ISIS, as far as I know, there are other radical extremist groups. The efforts in this direction bring together allies in the CSTO. In the CIS there are meetings of heads of special services, joint anti-terrorist activities are developed. I note the fulfillment of Russia's obligations to equip the armed forces of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Part of our material-technical means may be used for the needs of special forces and border services. The combat potential of our military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has been increased, aviation component, including air surveillance on the southern flank of the zone of CSTO responsibility.
-How serious is the issue of recruitment to ISIS among migrants from Central Asia coming to Russia? Is work being done to counter this phenomenon?
The problem is control of those who under the guise of migrant workers come here with the purpose to cover their tracks and quietly transfer to the zone of armed conflict. We are aware of some of the chains of transfer of such "recruits". I believe that the scale of this problem will ease as the implementation of new immigration legislation and in cooperation with foreign countries. In particular, we prepare for transition to the organized recruitment of foreign workers coming to Russia without a visa. With this system you can get more precise information about the purpose and place of employment of each separate alien, about his employer, and the like.
- Just over a month ago U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made his first tour of the countries of Central Asia. How could you comment on this trip and its results? How does Moscow view this initiative? How zealous was the reaction at the Foreign Ministry regarding a visit to the countries that are, so to speak , in the sphere of our interests?
Central Asia is attractive with its obvious benefits. It allows shorter and cheaper transit of goods between Asia and Europe than by sea. The region is rich in resources and possesses capacious markets. Not only the U.S. but also China, Japan, India, South Korea, the European Union are well aware of it. The Central Asian states are aware of their importance from the point of view of geopolitical alignment and economic forecasts. They skillfully use this in the interests of security and development. Of course, we perceive this order of things adequately and with understanding. Our main task is to maintain and strengthen our trading and investment positions. Russia's share in foreign trade of Central Asian countries is very impressive. Our trade is unique in that it is highly structured. We retain considerable investment niches not only in energy but also in the manufacturing sector, in telecommunications. Russian model of secular education remains attractive, which in terms of "price-quality" is very competitive. We continue to assist the development of some countries in the region. Over the past six years it has exceeded five billion dollars. It is very impressive by the standards of international donations.
With regard to the visit of U.S. Secretary of State, behind it, apparently, is the need to touch up tarnished reputation in the region. Of course, we do not have any jealousy. On the contrary, we are open to constructive cooperation. For Russia the red lines will be the attempts to impede integration processes in the Eurasian space, undermining stability in our neighboring states, discrediting the policy of Russia, its cultural and humanitarian value for the region, adjacent to the Muslim world, which is going through, as we see, the stage of rapid transformation.