Staunton, April 10 – A great deal of attention has been given to Chechens, Buryats and other non-Russians going to the Donbass to fight for the pro-Moscow “peoples republics” there, a flow that Russian propagandists have played up as evidence that support for Vladimir Putin’s “Russian world” is broader than just among ethnic Russians.
But much less attention has been paid to what may be a far more important and dangerous influx: the arrival of young fighters from Afghanistan and other Islamic countries, at least some of whom may be seeking as many of their cohort are in Syria, Yemen or Iraq to acquire military skills for Islamist jihad.
The reason for that concern is obvious: The pro-Moscow territorial formations in eastern Ukraine set up as a result of Moscow’s intervention have many of the characteristics of failed states. And as a result and just other failed states, they may be safe havens for and breeding grounds of international terrorists.
That danger, created by Vladimir Putin’s invasion and his failure to establish effective state power in these regions even as his forces block Kyiv from restoring order there, makes what the Kremlin leader has done far more threatening to the international community and requires a more vigorous respond to his actions from it than has been forthcoming so far.
The exact size of this threat is unknown, but given the often hair-trigger response major Western powers have shown to the appearance of terrorist groups in failed states elsewhere, one has to ask why they have not shown more concern about an analogous case in Russia’s “failed statelets” in eastern Ukraine given the risks involved.
Moreover, and what is particularly worrisome is that in some cases such people in those pro-Moscow statelets not only have links not only to terrorists like Al Qaeda but also have ties to the Russian and before that Soviet security services, a pattern that suggests Putin may even be using the two “peoples republics” as safe havens for terrorists he controls.
Information about this shadowy world is understandably sparse, but some information has been in the public domain for some time. At the end of November last year, Krasnaya Zvezda, the weekly supplement to Komsomolskaya Pravda reported on Abdullah, an Afghan relative of the infamous Gulbedin Hekmatiyar and someone fighting for pro-Moscow forces in eastern Ukraine.
Two of the Moscow newspaper’s journalists, Aleksandr Kots and Dmitry Steshin, met with him in the Donbass where Abdullah was serving as a guard accompanying Russian nationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov who was visiting the region and who earlier wrote a classic novel on that conflict, A Tree Grows in Kabul.
Abdullah talked about his background, his reasons for coming to Russian-occupied Ukraine and his plans to use violence elsewhere to promote his ideas.
The son of the governor of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, Abdullah says he was from the Alokazay family and closely related to Hekmatiyar, the leader of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan that the US declared a terrorist organization a dozen years ago because of its support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
After his father was assassinated in 1985 leaving him an orphan, Abdullah said he was taken to the USSR as part of “the semi-secret Watan program,” which brought the offspring of pro-Soviet officials in Afghanistan there to provide them with secular education so that they could play leading roles in a Sovietized Afghanistan.
The Watan program, he continued, had both Russian and Afghan teachers. He and his fellows studied secular subjects as well as religion, and “we were even taught Islam. According to Abdullah, some 1,800 Afghans went through the program, although about half of them are no longer among the living.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, he and they were left to their own devices, not given citizenship or any documentation, and told to go home. But there in power were already “alien people,” precisely those “against whom we had been prepared” to fight. And many could not fit into the new world.
Speaking of the parallels between Afghanistan and eastern Ukraine, Abdullah said the two conflicts were “just the same” in that the US had destroyed his country and was now working to destroy others. The Americans, he said, “want Russians to bomb the mother of Russian cities, Kyiv.”
“Except for geography, mentality and religion,” those fighting the Americans in Afghanistan and those fighting them in Ukraine “are identical.” In his unit, Abdullah said, “there are boys who served in Afghanistan…Sometime they helped my people. But now I have a chance to help. I do not want them to destroy your people as they did mine.”
His words up to that point are perfectly consistent with Moscow’s propaganda, but then Abdullah said something which shows that he is prepared to engage in terrorist acts in the future. He said that “there will not be a peaceful life for [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko or anyone else. They will always be waiting for an attack, even in emigration.”
Like the single passage in Prokhanov’s Afghan novel which showed his understanding that the mujahideen would fight to the death against the Soviets, Abdullah’s threat demonstrates that he and one doesn’t know how many others are gaining skills and taking on attitudes in the Donbass that they may deploy against the civilized world.