Russian President Vladimir Putin places his hand on an official match ball for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, named "Krasava"
Is Russia prepping military operations in Libya?
03:23 - Source: CNN

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The US military thinks Russian wants to bolster the Taliban's to undercut NATO

Moscow has denied the accusation

Washington CNN  — 

The Kremlin’s ambitions in the Middle East reach far beyond Syria, according to US officials.

From Afghanistan to Libya, US Pentagon officials are increasingly concerned by mounting Russian military and diplomatic activity they believed is aimed at undermining the US and NATO.

Some of the actions Moscow is accused of participating in include sending operatives to support an armed faction in Libya and providing political legitimacy – and maybe even supplies – to the Taliban in Afghanistan. These moves come on top of their overt dispatching of warplanes and ships to target the political opponents of its ally in Syria.

“It is my view that they are trying to increase their influence in this critical part of the globe,” Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees US forces in the region, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

RELATED: US officials warn Russia could be interfering in Libya

Military commanders and analysts see Moscow’s efforts as aimed at taking advantage of the geopolitical turbulence in the Middle East to re-establish Russia as a major player in the region and by extension the world stage.

The Soviet Union maintained a substantial military presence there during the Cold War, propping up an array of anti-Western regimes to counterbalance American partners and extend its geopolitical sphere of influence.

But shifting alliances, including a rapprochement between the US and Egypt, as well as the collapse of the USSR in 1991 caused Russian troops to mostly depart the Middle East.

“Russia is certainly expanding its influence and trying to reestablish itself as a superpower,” Bill Roggio of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told CNN.

Russian imperialism?

Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal, said the efforts were a new form of “growing Russian imperialism” that were also intended to “undermine the US and NATO.”

“What all these Kremlin actions show is that Putin cares more about dividing and undermining the West than anything else,” Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told CNN.

In Afghanistan, US intelligence agencies once backed an insurgency aimed at ejecting Soviet troops in order to weaken an overextended Moscow. The Soviet Union’s costly 1979 invasion of Afghanistan involved tens of thousands of ground troops and resulted in a damaging withdrawal in 1989 that many historians view as precipitating the fall of the USSR.

Now American military officers see a growing Russian effort to bolster the Taliban’s legitimacy and undercut NATO’s military effort there, seemingly disregarding the harsh lessons of its previous invasion – or perhaps seeing a chance at ironic form of revenge for America’s Cold War efforts.

America’s top military officer in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, said Thursday that Russia had increased its support to the Afghan Taliban, including potentially the provision of supplies.

“I’ve seen the influence of Russia of late, increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban,” Scaparrotti told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Scaparrotti, who is also NATO’s top military commander, did not specify what kind of war materiel the Russians might be supplying to the Taliban.

Moscow denied the accusation Friday.

Moscow: False claims

Zamir Kabulov, a Russian Foreign Ministry official, told Russian state media Ria Novosti, “It is an absolutely false claim, we have reacted to this multiple times. It doesn’t deserve any reaction as these announcements are inventions, designed to justify the failure of the American political and military campaigns. We cannot find any other explanation.”

Votel and the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, have both previously said that Moscow is trying to undermine the government in Kabul and provide political legitimacy to the Taliban by saying the insurgent group was fighting ISIS, a notion that experts and NATO military officials reject.

Roggio said that while there had been reports of Russia arming the Taliban in the past, he called Scaparrotti’s comments the “first significant” official remarks on the issue.

Of particular concern to US officials was a series of meetings held in Moscow in December concerning Afghanistan’s future, which included neighboring countries with Taliban representatives reportedly on the sidelines but no representation from the internationally recognized government in Kabul.

Moscow’s actions in Afghanistan in particular are seen as part of a bid to undermine NATO and to better their position in the case of a Taliban victory should the US withdraw from the country.

In Libya, US military intelligence has detected Russian forces at an airbase in far western Egypt close to the Libyan border, a deployment that US officials see as part growing Russian interference in that civil war-torn nation.

While the US would like to see the UN-backed Government of National Accord in the country’s west prevail over, Russia has been reaching out to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a military commander who exercises control over the country’s east as well.

Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of US troops in Africa, called Russian activities in Libya “very concerning” while appearing on Capitol Hill alongside Votel earlier in March.

“They are on the ground, they are trying to influence the action, we watch what they do with great concern,” Waldhauser elaborated while speaking to reporters at the Pentagon Friday.

“In addition to the military side of this, we have seen some recent activities in business ventures, whether its oil, whether its weapons sales,” he added.

It’s a concern recently echoed by the NATO Deputy Secretary General, Rose Gottemoeller, who drew attention to Moscow’s presence in Libya.

“I am very concerned about Russian forces seemingly gathering to influence the situation there. It troubles me very, very much,” she told an audience in Brussels on Saturday.

Russia engages both sides in Libya

Russia has engaged repeatedly with Haftar, even going so far as to fly him out to a Russian air craft carrier for a formal visit. But the Kremlin also recently hosted the Prime Minister from the rival Government of National Accord.

“Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya,” Waldhauser said earlier this month, saying that Moscow was trying to replicate what it had achieved in Syria, where it has amassed considerable influence by being the military savior of the embattled regime.

Analysts see Moscow’s support of secular strongmen in Syria and Libya while simultaneously offering some support to the Taliban in Afghanistan and working with Iran in Syria as indicative of Russia’s willingness to forgo ideology as it seeks to expand its influence.

Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute, who focuses on Russia’s role in the Middle East, added that Moscow appears particularly interested in the Mediterranean, and through its diplomatic efforts and stationing of military assets, is seeking to boost its presence there, as it’s traditionally been a stronghold of NATO.

But faced with an economy battered by low oil prices and international sanctions over its actions in Ukraine, Russia interventions are being waged largely on the cheap.

Outside of Syria, Moscow has largely avoided a robust military intervention, preferring clandestine aid and diplomatic maneuvers.

“Putin appears quite cognizant of his limitations and is avoiding a second Afghanistan scenario for Russia,” Borshchevskaya said.

The less ambitious involvement, according to Roggo, means that, “For now it appears to be costs they can absorb.”

And experts see Moscow’s actions as taking advantage of what Putin viewed as a US pull back from the region following Washington’s decision to not intervene in the Libyan or Syrian civil wars and its drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Broadly speaking, Putin has been stepping into vacuums wherever the West retreated,” Borshchevskaya, said.