In October 2010 joint US-Russian raids on Afghan drugs laboratories near the Pakistani border in which more than a tonne of heroin and opium was destroyed made it into the headlines.
The raids followed years of criticism in Russia of what it saw as the NATO-led coalition’s failure to eradicate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, resulting in the exponential growth of opium production since the start of the military operations in 2001. The Russian leadership had also long been calling for closer cooperation with NATO to eradicate the drugs threat from Afghanistan.
Drug use and its consequences are one of the biggest threats to Russian national security today. The country has one of the largest populations of injecting drug users and the fastest growing HIV/Aids epidemics in the world. Russia has emerged as the largest single-country market for Afghan heroin; and 90 per cent of all opiates consumed in Russia originate from there. Russia’s assessment that it has suffered most from narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan can therefore be understood.
The 2010 raids indicated that Russia had finally made some inroads into forging cooperation with the West in reducing the drugs threat from Afghanistan. However, the establishment of formal ties with NATO to systematically reduce this threat remains a distant hope.
Like many ‘new’ security challenges the drugs trade transcends national boundaries and its solution requires cooperation rather than rivalry between states. Vladimir Putin acknowledged this in his opening address to officers of the Russian drug enforcement agency created in 2004: ‘The drugs trade is international. And so constant exchange of information, and coordinated activity with colleagues from other countries, can greatly increase the effectiveness of the war on drugs’.
To date Russia has signed agreements for cooperation in the fight against drugs with more than 30 countries. Most Afghan heroin enters Russia via the Central Asian states, so this region has become a key focus of its international cooperation. Russia’s major vehicle for counternarcotics cooperation in Central Asia is the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Large-scale multinational counterdrug operations carried out under the auspices of CSTO since 2003 have yielded increasingly impressive results. While less than 2 tonnes of drugs were seized in 2003 this figure grew to almost 116 tonnes by 2009.
Russia, then, has come a long way in building international ties to fight its war on drugs. But problems remain. In particular, Russia remains indignant that NATO forces in Afghanistan have failed to consider the harmful effects of rising opium production on Russian security and national health. They also feel that Russian efforts to encourage the establishment of ties between CSTO and NATO have not been taken serious in the West.
Whilst observers from individual NATO member states have attended Kanal operations, NATO as an organisation has so far appeared uninterested in establishing formal relations with CSTO. The Russian leadership believes this is, because some of the new NATO states in Central and Eastern Europe do not want to see CSTO treated as an equal partner for political reasons. Whilst the strengthening of bilateral relations between Russia and other states, such as the US, is a step into the right direction Russia maintains that only formalised cooperation between NATO and CSTO will lead to a truly effective international response to Afghan heroin.
Given that the international drugs business knows no frontiers the strengthening of formal cooperation between NATO and CSTO would be in the interest of everybody concerned. As I argue in this article, in addressing this vital issue it is not the Russians but NATO that seems to be the awkward partner. Is it time for NATO members to rise above Cold-war sentiments in order to start fighting this truly global threat?