The U.S.-Russian relationship throughout Central Asia is one of intense rivalry, albeit with occasional politically opportune collaboration. As the two powers pursue their own political and military objectives, the relationship can often appear contradictory and confused, as co-operation exists simultaneously alongside competition, involving vocal condemnation and criticism. This rivalry is especially evident in Afghanistan, and particularly in relation to the enormous levels of opium cultivation in that country since the invasion.
For both the U.S. and Russia, exploitation of the drugs issue has been an important means of achieving their respective aims. Washington’s proclaimed “war on drugs” is quite transparently an aspect of counter-insurgency and shows little regard for the actual level of drug production. In light of domestic policies, Moscow’s claims of concern with Afghan opium flowing into the country are clearly disingenuous. The “drugs threat” instead serves as a mechanism for increasing Russia’s engagement with Afghanistan and the Central Asian states.
As the U.S. seeks to establish a permanent presence, secure the authority of a client state in Afghanistan, and exert control over the future of the region, Moscow is using bilateral and regional mechanisms in an effort to counter Washington and become an influential player in Central Asia. Recent developments suggest that this “New Great Game” is approaching a crucial moment, with significant geo-strategic implications.