Thursday, April 28, 2016

4500 ISIS Militants Now in Central Asia, Russia’s GRU Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 28 – General Sergey Afanasyev, deputy chief of the GRU, the Russian military’s intelligence service, says that approximately 4500 people in Central Asia have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and that they constitute a problem for the countries of the region and ultimately for Russia as well.

            In reporting his remarks, “Moskovsky komsomolets” asked Azhdzar Kurtov, the editor of the “Problems of National Strategy” journal issued by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) for his reaction (

            Kurtov expressed a certain skepticism about the number Afanasyev reported.  “It is in general strange,” the RISI editor said, “to think about where this number came from because now GRU officers can collect information only in Syria and Iraq but not in Central Asia.” Moreover, it is necessary to make distinctions between loyalists and activists.

            That there are ISIS loyalists and activists in Central Asia is beyond question, he continued. “More than that, according to certain parameters, the situation in Central Asia is very similar to the one which preceded the appearance of ISIS in the Middle East” – poverty, brittle authoritarianism, and explosive demographic trends.

            At the same time, Kurtov argued, there is no chance at present that ISIS could expand into Central Asia as it has in Syria.  That would require the further destabilization of the states involved and the influx of more radicals from Afghanistan, many of whom are Islamists but not followers of ISIS.

            In his view, even though the borders between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, on the other, are relatively poorly defended, the armies of at least the last two of these states are strong enough to counter any visible threat, especially given that it is likely to remain divided and fragmentary.

            Kurtov concludes by noting that for the time being, the ISIS radicals and the Taliban are fighting one another even more than they are working to extend Islamic influence.  “Certain Russian diplomats have even proposed cooperating with the Taliban in the struggle with the Islamic State because it is the lesser of two evils.”


Bowing to China, Moscow for First Time Ever to Build Railroad with International Gage Tracks

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 24 – Since tsarist times, Russian governments have laid railroad tracks 1520 millimeters apart and not the 1485 mm that is the standard gage almost everywhere else, a difference Russian officials see enhancing their national security in the case of invasion but one that adds to the costs moving cargo across Russian borders.

            Now in a concession to Beijing, Moscow has agreed to build an international standard gage rail route between the Chinese border and a Russian port, a move that is unprecedented and will be of concern both to those who fear expanded Chinese influence in the Far East and to those who may now conclude that Russia will make similar adjustments elsewhere.

            Russian officials have played down the implications of this move, noting that it involves only 100 kilometers of track between the Chinese border and a Russian port, but as Anastasiya Bashkatova, the deputy economics editor of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” notes, “Beijing is not inclined to underrate the importance of this precedent (

            But even if Russian officials try to play down the significance of this concession, she continues, others will not. The Russian gage tracks have always been viewed in that country as “a question of state security’” and “however close Russia’s economic ties have been with Europe, the European gage never appeared” on Russian territory.”

                Vladimir Savchuk, a senior researcher on railroad transport at the Moscow Institute of Problems of Natural Monopoly, said this special agreement with China was appropriate especially since Moscow will be able to add a third rail so that Russian-gage trains can use it as well.

            Such a three-rail system, he pointed out, exists in Belarus near the Polish border and in Russian near the Chinese border at Grodekovo. 

            But Chinese officials are delighted with what they call “Moscow’s initiative” because it “’means the appearance of big chances for Chinese entrepreneurs who want to enter the Russian markets.’” And as Bashkatova points out, “no one is giving any guarantees that in the future China will not begin lobbying for the extension of its railroad network inside Russia.”


Are Some of Russia’s Federal Subjects on the Road to Self-Liquidation?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 28 – Valentina Matvienko has pulled back her suggestions about regional amalgamation in the face of widespread opposition (  and, but he possibility that Moscow will  restart Vladimir Putin’s effort to combine federal subjects to reduce their number continues to agitate many. 

            One of the most intriguing is offered by philologist and blogger Nikolay Podosokorsky who suggests that the Federation Council chairman’s words were a trial balloon and that Moscow likely will move to join together some of the smallest and weakest federal subjects in the near future (

            He argues that the Russian authorities “even before any crisis are seized by ‘a mania of combining’ (according to the precise expression of philosopher Aleksandr Rubtsov): the optimization of hospitals, schools, universities, libraries, museums, theaters and other institutions.”

            “At a higher (all-Russian level),” Podosorkorsky suggests, “this mania is expressed in the fusion of institutions at the federal level,” and “at the international level, in territorial expansion (South Osetia, Abkhazia, Crimea and the Donbas).” Indeed, “one could say that geopolitics in the heads of our leaders overwhelms everything else.”

            Russian leaders, he says, “are dissatisfied with any variety because where there is variety, there is always the danger of competition, differences of opinion, the display of initiative from below and the growth of centrifugal forces, and above all [the Russian] powers  fear this more than fire and therefore strive to unify and amalgamate everything.”

            “Undoubtedly,” the commentator continues, “now the idea of liquidating a number of subjects of the federation by joining them to others has economic causes.”  But combining the federal subjects will save less money than most imagine and may even end up costing the country even more.

            However, the impulse to unite is coming not just from above but is also being driven by demography: a large share of the regions of Russia are losing population. Indeed, 40 regions, according to Rosstat figures from earlier this year have lost significant shares of their population since Vladimir Putin first became president.

            Among the hardest  hit have been Tula, Novgorod, Arkhangelsk, Vladimir “and other oblasts of the Central and Northern portions of Russia plus several regions in the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East, Podosorkovsky says.  All of these would be candidates for amalgamation with their neighbors.

            According to the blogger, among those regions which have lost population to the point that they are likely to fall below 500,000 residents and which do not have strategic importance for other reasons are the very most likely candidates for amalgamation because they have no other importance for the center except economics and the draft.

            Podosorkovsky says that in his view, Moscow will continue the liquidation of autonomous districts with the exception of petroleum-rich Nenets and Yamalo-Nenets AOs and also will “unify a number of oblasts like Novgorod.  For the Kremlin,” he says, “this will mean a reduction in expenses; for residents, a further degradation of their territory.”

            What makes his argument so intriguing is that it points to the amalgamation of predominantly ethnic Russian regions rather than the combination of non-Russian and Russian ones. If he is right, then that would mean that the relative share of non-Russian republics in the federal system would increase as the number of Russian regions fell.

            That seems almost unthinkable given Putin’s values; but stranger things that this have happened – and it is worth noting that this idea is out there.