Russia worried about the Afghan drug trade, which could worsen Russia’s crippling heroin epidemic. Far from declining, the production of Afghan drugs increased by almost 40% last year.
On September 28, the Afghan Taliban, in what was described as its biggest victory in 15 years, seized control of the city of Kunduz, the country’s fifth-largest city. While the Afghan army was eventually able to regain control, the fall of Kunduz, however brief, was a cause for major concern not only in Afghanistan, but in Afghanistan’s neighbor to the north, Tajikistan.
The reason had to do with Kunduz’s location. The city lies a very short distance from the Panj River, which forms most of the roughly 810-mile border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
This border has received a lot of attention in recent years, mostly as a potential source of instability and insecurity. And there are real reasons for concern. Heroin—of which Afghanistan is a major supplier—regularly crosses this border in huge quantities en route to Russia and Europe. The recent events in Kunduz also evoked the specter of extremist fighters seeking to gain a foothold across the river.
Having Afghanistan—producer of over 90% of the world’s heroin—on the doorstep, porous post-1991 borders with states like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (forming the “northern route” of the Afghan opium trade) soon made Russia the world’s largest heroin consumer, with the United Nations putting it at number one in absolute numbers in 2010.
According to Viktor Ivanov, the head of the Federal Drugs Control Agency (FSKN), 90,000 people aged 15-34 die of drug overdose in Russia annually, down from 140,000 in 2003. Earlier this year, Ivanov estimated over 7 million drug users nationwide, with around 1.5 million of them heroin addicts.
According to The Lancet medical journal, Russia has the highest rate of injecting drug users (IDU) in the world, at 1.8 million, with the UNODC putting the number at 2.29% of the population. Among these, some 90% are also infected with hepatitis C. At 24.6% of HIV prevalence, it currently accounts for about a third of global IDUs living with the disease, one of the highest rates outside Sub-Saharan Africa.
Prior to the Ukraine crisis, both countries had slowly increased joint operations in the region. For example, back in 2010, Russian and American authorities seized approximately $60 million worth of opium during raids on four drug laboratories near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
According to official data from the Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation (FSKN), such cooperative operations continued through 2012, yielding a total of seven FSKN-DEA operations in the country. These operations resulted in seizures of 2.5 tons of opiates, 3.5 tons of hashish, 1.5 tons of morphine and 5.5 tons of precursors — along with the destruction of 10 drug laboratories.