What are we to make of the reports that have surfaced in the past few days that Russian military intelligence agents were offering money to Taliban fighters to kill US and possibly other Western service personnel? How true are these reports? Can they be substantiated? And what is their real significance?
For a start, we have a triple denial from all of the main parties involved. The Russian government has dismissed the story out of hand. So too have the Taliban.
And US President Donald Trump has vehemently denied any knowledge of the matter – with White House sources telling the US press that the subject never reached as high as the president or vice-president because there was no consensus in the intelligence community about the veracity of the reports.
However, serious US news outlets are carrying a range of reports quoting a variety of sources, suggesting that an intelligence assessment that Russian agents were offering bounties to the Taliban for the killing of US or coalition troops had been around since March; that significant amounts of cash had been seized in US raids; and that some US personnel may indeed have been killed as a result.
These sources also indicate that the intelligence assessment was indeed briefed at the highest levels, including mention at the president’s own daily intelligence briefing.
Mr Trump’s critics – not least the Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden – have seized upon these reports to highlight once again their view that Mr Trump is not up to defending US interests.
But perhaps more interestingly, even some key Republicans are raising questions – Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming asking the inevitable question of who did know about the assessment and when did they know it?
Why, though, might Russia promote such action? Potentially, it has multiple motives.
Russia maintains close links with the Taliban for good reason. It sees the US involvement in Afghanistan winding down. It is deeply concerned about the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the region spreading in its direction. And it sees the Taliban as one potential bulwark against this.
Moscow is believed to have supported key Taliban leaders with arms and money. And while it also maintains links with the Afghan government and in broad terms supports the putative Afghan peace deal, it is effectively hedging its bets, fearful of future Afghan instability.
But Russia is also waging a “grey” or undeclared war against the West. This has many elements: cyber-attacks; disinformation campaigns; electoral interference; the funding of extremists in Western countries and so on.
At times, this has even resulted in direct action: for example the use of nerve agent in the bungled assassination attempt on a former Russian intelligence officer in the British cathedral town of Salisbury, and a full-scale assault by Russian military contractors on a US position in Syria during which US air strikes are reported to have killed significant numbers of Russians.
Russia under President Vladimir Putin has smarted from every perceived indignity suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union. It was, of course, US support for Afghan irregular fighters that contributed to Moscow’s forced withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
And there are suggestions that some in the Russian hierarchy might not be averse to paying the Americans back for both past and more recent setbacks.
This episode also throws a stark light on the current state of US-Russia relations. US policy towards Moscow is suffering from a kind of schizophrenia.
On the one hand, the US is wary of Russian nuclear modernisation and suspicious of its broader plans in the Middle East and elsewhere; but on the other, this administration is strangely accepting of Russian denials, for example concerning its alleged intrusion into the US election campaign.
Much of this ambiguity is down to the person of President Trump himself, whom many see as rather admiring of strong, dictatorial leaders.
And to this extent, the handling of this intelligence report casts another light on the whole foreign policy process within the Trump administration.
It will add weight to those critics from both the Democratic side of politics and more hardline Republicans, like the former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who argue in their different ways that there is no strategic direction, no joined up thinking, and no leadership from the top.
This is a delicate story at the best of times and it is not going to go away. If even partly true and if any deaths can be ascribed to the paying of bounties by the Russians, it would mark a new low point in US-Russia relations since the Cold War ended.
The fact that it comes in the midst of a re-election campaign where Mr Trump is having to deal with plunging popularity amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations gives it an added edge.
For there is a factor here that Washington’s friends and enemies alike have to contend with: there is at least the possibility now that President Trump could lose his re-election bid. Even beyond the dramatic medical, social and economic impact of the pandemic, there is a lot going on now.
The Russians and the Chinese are seeking to assert themselves as regional powers, though Beijing’s ambitions may go further. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering the possible annexation of territory in the West Bank.
The UK’s government is seeking to realise what it sees as the benefits of Brexit and to rebrand its foreign policy under the banner of “Global Britain”.
For the next few months, all of these actors are going to have to factor into their plans the likely response of two US administrations: the one that is there now, and another which may take over in January.
And a Biden administration will be much more likely to call out Russia if the Afghan bounties story is ultimately revealed to be true.
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