There are some indications that Russia might be doing more than simply warning Turkmenistan about the threats spilling across its border with Afghanistan.
Unconfirmed reports suggest there may be some Russian soldiers present in Turkmenistan along one part of the Turkmen-Afghan border.
A correspondent for RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, went to the Kerki and Koytendag districts in the southern part of Turkmenistan’s eastern Lebap Province on December 23 to check on reports of increased military activity to deal with possible border incursions.
The correspondent met the same day with a border guard who told him, on condition of anonymity, that the troops there had “significantly strengthened security” due to warnings about possible attacks from militants in Afghanistan.
The border guard said “dozens” of Turkmen warplanes had recently started making daily reconnaissance flights along the border, “at least five flights along the border between Serhetabad [in Mary Province] and Koytendag.”
The timing of these flights is interesting because on December 18, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev said “more than 2,000” militants from the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) were strengthening their positions in northern Afghanistan, preparing to use those areas as a launching point for an “incursion into Central Asia through Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.”
The Azatlyk correspondent contacted a known source in the State Border Guard Service on December 27 to check on the reported military activity along the Afghan border.
The official, again speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russian and Turkmen troops were already operating together along the frontier with Afghanistan and that Russian troops had been in Turkmenistan for more than a year.
“Such cooperation is kept quiet, it is a state secret,” the source told RFE/RL.
The border guard’s statement could not be independently verified, and Turkmenistan’s government has never said anything about Russian troops being stationed along the border with Afghanistan.
But the Turkmen government has also never admitted there was a problem along its 744-kilometer border with Afghanistan, even when reports from inside Afghanistan indicated there was fighting on the Turkmen border and that Turkmen troops had been killed in the clashes.
Turkmen authorities have repeatedly stated that the country has UN-recognized neutral status and needs no outside help because there is no threat to it.
But Russian officials have repeatedly talked about threats from Afghanistan for Central Asia and about increasing cooperation with the militaries of those countries.
On December 26, 2018, the then-commander of Russia’s Central Military District, General Yevgeny Ustinov, spoke about increased cooperation with the Central Asian states and mentioned “renewed preparations with the militaries of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.”
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the only two Central Asian countries not in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Ustinov’s comment came after the director of Russia’s second Asia department, Zamir Kabulov, warned on September 30, 2018, that ISK militants were getting prepared “to destabilize the political situation in Central Asia,” and CIS border guards noted on November 14 there was a deterioration in security in northern Afghanistan along the border with Turkmenistan, which Ashgabat on November 16 called “unfriendly” and a “distortion” of the facts.
Acting CSTO General-Secretary Valery Semerikov added to the speculation when he said on November 23 there was a threat from extremists assembling along the Tajik and Turkmen borders.
Interestingly, Gazprom chief Aleksei Miller visited Turkmenistan at the end of November 2018 to discuss the possibility of renewing Russian purchases of Turkmen natural gas that were suspended early in 2016.
The Kremlin may have been dangling an economic lifeline in front of threadbare Turkmenistan in return for cooperation in allowing Russian advisers to be deployed along its border with Afghanistan — the same way Russian military advisers are operating along Tajikistan’s Afghan border.
Did a desperate Turkmenistan accept the offer?
The Koytendag and Kerki districts are on the other side of Afghanistan’s Jowzjan Province. A mutinous Taliban commander named Qari Hikmatullah briefly raised the black flag of ISK in the Darzab district of Jowzjan Province in 2017 until he was killed in April 2018. His unit, which fought against government and Taliban forces, seemed to be comprised of similarly disaffected Taliban fighters and essentially mercenaries, militants roaming northern Afghanistan who hook up with groups as the opportunity arises. After Hikmatullah was killed his unit seems to have been scattered.
The Taliban remains the dominant militant group in northern Afghanistan and for more than five years they have been fighting against government and paramilitary forces (Arbaky) in Jowzjan, including in the Qarqeen district that borders Turkmenistan.
As usual, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening inside Turkmenistan.
But it does appear Turkmen troops in Lebap are on heightened alert.
Apparently in the Mary Province to the west, security along the main roads was recently increased.
And Russian-Turkmen cooperation is certainly better now than it has been for a decade. Russian border guards were stationed in Turkmenistan until 1999, so the Russian military is very familiar with Turkmenistan’s Afghan border.
Turkmenistan’s acceptance of Russian troops on its territory — if that is what is happening — would be another indication that Turkmenistan is falling back into the Kremlin’s orbit.