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Putin: Russia needs stronger defense against Afghan threats

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference after talks with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Kremlin in Moscow Apri
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference after talks with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Kremlin in Moscow Apri

By Alexei Anishchuk

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday Russia must beef up its defenses in the south and work with Central Asian allies to protect itself and neighbors against the threat of extremist violence emerging from Afghanistan.

Russia, which backed the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has voiced concern that threats to its security could increase following the planned withdrawal of most foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Putin told a meeting of his Security Council that U.S. and NATO-led forces "have not yet achieved a breakthrough in the fight against terrorist and radical groups" in Afghanistan and that these groups have become more active recently.

"We need to strengthen the security system in the strategic southern area, including its military component," Putin said. Russia, he said, must work with fellow members of two regional security alliances, one of which includes China.

"There is every reason to believe that in the near future we may face a worsening of the situation. International terrorist and radical groups do not hide their plans to export instability," said Putin.

He further said "international forces have done practically nothing to root out drug production in Afghanistan" and ignored Russian proposals, apparently referring to its calls for more efforts to eradicate crops of poppies used to make heroin.

Russia is one of the world's largest per capita consumers of heroin, with addiction and death from drugs and AIDS from needle-sharing contributing to a decline in the population since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin said Russia, which is separated geographically from Afghanistan by the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, should step up migration controls on its southern border and "exponentially increase the effectiveness of work to stem drug trafficking".

REGIONAL CHALLENGE

He said the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an alliance of six former Soviet republics including three in Central Asia, should speed up efforts to better arm and equip a rapid-reaction force that had done little so far.

Russia has contributed some 12,000 paratroopers to the CSTO, according to Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based military expert.

But he said Russian security efforts faced difficulties including a lack of participation in the CSTO by Uzbekistan, which is the most powerful of the three Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan but has suspended membership in the CSTO.

Russia has an air base in Kyrgyzstan and more than 6,000 soldiers in Tajikistan, its largest deployment abroad.

But Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, has not yet ratified an October agreement extending Russia's lease on the base where the troops are stationed beyond the end of this year.

Russian border guards used to patrol the Tajik frontier with Afghanistan but left in 2005. Turkmenistan, the other ex-Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan, calls itself neutral and shuns alliances.

Putin said the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Russia and China as well as the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, should be involved in efforts to improve security, but gave no details.

(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Jon Hemming)

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