Why Putin Might Blame the U.S. for Russia’s Drugs Problem

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Another record poppy crop in Afghanistan, already the source of 90 percent of the world’s heroin, threatens to exacerbate the drug problem in Russia and stoke tensions between President Vladimir Putin and the U.S.

As the biggest market for illicit opiates, Russia is in the front line as the U.S. withdraws its troops from Afghanistan after spending an estimated $7.6 billion in a failed attempt to curb narcotics production.

Russia now faces a public health crisis and a rise in crime stoked by the flow of Afghan heroin, Yuri Fedotov, executive secretary of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said Nov. 12 at a briefing in Vienna. The U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, visited Fedotov this week to give his assessment of the lost drug war.

“This failure in Afghanistan affects what I call the new Cold War with Russia,” said Robert Legvold, who led an effort by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to reformulate U.S. policy on Russia. “It supports the views expressed by Putin and his circle that U.S. foreign policy has been intentionally destructive.”

As the U.S. grapples with Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine, government officials and advisers say the failure of the Afghan drugs effort helps explain Russian sensitivities. While U.S. forces withdraw from a 13-year Afghan war that cost 2,350 American lives, more than 7,000 Russians die annually from heroin overdoses.

Police Growing Poppies

Russians, who already account for about a fifth of the $70 billion global opiate market, are unlikely to see a reduction of supply in the foreseeable future, according to the UN. A reduced North Atlantic Treaty Organization presence in Afghanistan may encourage more poppy cultivation.

“With their departure, many jobs will be lost, so that could be one incentive to increase cultivation of opium,” said Fedotov, a former Russian diplomat. Delayed government salaries have already forced people to abandon jobs like law enforcement for poppy cultivation, he said.

Afghan land under poppy cultivation hit a record 224,000 hectares (554,000 acres) last year, according to the UN. Opium production rose about 17 percent to 6,400 tons while the number of fields eradicated by security forces plummeted 63 percent to 2,692 hectares.

Underlining the U.S. counter narcotics failure, opium production rose faster in the areas where the U.S. and U.K. targeted $56 million of aid to help farmers switch from growing poppies to pomegranates than it did in areas that received no money, the UN said.

G-8 Statement

Still, policy makers in Washington are now asking themselves whether reducing involvement in the Afghan counter narcotics fight may actually improve the situation, according to two U.S. government analysts who asked not to be named because the debates are private. Without U.S. funds that can be diverted for corruption, the Afghan traffickers may face financial constraints, they said.

This year’s increase in opium production followed a June 2013 call for efforts to curb production made by the Group of Eight leaders at their summit in Northern Ireland. Before Russia was kicked out of the group for its Ukraine land grab, it joined in on a communique urging “further measures to reduce” poppy cultivation and “tackle more effectively” Afghanistan’s drug problem.

Afghan Dependence

Countries shouldn’t expect Afghanistan to kick its habit anytime soon, according to Pakistan’s former central bank governor, Shamshad Akhtar, who now leads a UN office promoting economic development in Asia.

“Afghanistan has a dependence on one product,” Akhtar said in an interview in Vienna, where she was attending a UN meeting convened to help landlocked countries like Afghanistan diversify their economies. “The switch from one product to multiple products is not an easy one, especially in a situation where you have one very high-return product.”

The Afghan drug failure is more than a public-health disaster, according to Legvold, who spoke in the middle of a joint seminar he was giving to aspiring American and Russian diplomats about strategic rivalries. It also fuels the growing distrust between the two powers.

“It has unleashed in Russia the notion that there’s more to this failure than they might have thought,” Legvold said. “For Russia this is a very serious issue and the discontent about what is and isn’t being done is long standing.”

With the U.S. cutting the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan by more than half before next year -- to only 9,800 in a country the size of Texas -- Russia may reassert its presence in the region, according to Ross Eventon, an analyst at the Global Drug Policy Observatory based in Swansea, U.K.

“Russia is increasingly picking up on international drug policy,” Eventon said in an interview. “Their policy in Central Asia is expected to mirror what the U.S. did in Latin America where they built military bases.”