NEW DELHI: Moscow has its eyes set on Afghanistan, as the war-torn country takes a turn for the worse with increasing violence and civilian casualties. The Afghan government, in turn, is reaching out to its once-upon-a-time ally, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asking the Kremlin for artillery, small arms and Mi-35 helicopter gunships.

The renewed ties come as NATO presence in Afghanistan was reduced and US financial aid to Afghanistan cut. Although US-led NATO troops continue to remain in Afghanistan, and will remain till at least the end of 2017 in a recently announced change of strategy, an opening has been created for the Russians, who are moving in quickly and thereby stepping up the potential for confrontation with Washington.

Last week, Russian President Putin, addressing a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Kazakhstan, said that the situation in Afghanistan was “close to critical”. Terrorist groups were gaining more influence and not hiding their plans for further expansion, Putin said.

The CIS summit agreed to create a joint task force to monitor and respond to fighting along the Tajik border with Afghanistan. Moscow, reports indicate, has begun sending military reinforcements to Tajikistan military base, where the Russian army’s 201st Motorised Rifle Division is stationed.

The rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan has been a key point for Russian officials. Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan, said there were 3,500 Isis militants in the country and the number was rapidly growing. “There are several camps that train people from Central Asia and some regions of Russia,” Kabulov said.

Russia’s defence minister Anatoly Antonov echoed the above in Beijing recently, saying Daesh and similar groups were targeting the predominantly Muslim autonomous region of Xinjiang in northwest China. “There are currently up to 50,000 militants in the country [Afghanistan], organised into over 4,000 different units and groups,” Antonov said.

Further, Russia has begun supplying Kabul with military weapons. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Russian-trained veteran warlord who is now the first vice-president of Afghanistan, visited Moscow this month where he met with Putin’s representatives and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny.

“The Russian side is committed to support Afghanistan in terms of helping its air and military forces,” Dostum’s spokesman, Sultan Faizy, said. “We’re lacking air support, weapons, ammunition. We need a lot of backing and support to fight against terrorism.”

The fact that the Afghans too are using increasing Daesh presence as a catalyst for increased Russian assistance is evinced by a statement from Kadyrov. “Dostum noted that Isis is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead … In order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia’s support, as in Syria,” the Chechen leader said.

However, the Russians have not received a formal request for their intervention in Afghanistan as they have from Syria. This is not surprising given Afghanistan’s reliance on the US, which would be vehemently opposed to its cold-war-era adversary becoming formally involved in Afghanistan.

That said, the fact that Russia is increasing weapon’s supply and other involvement in Afghanistan, that too on the request of the Afghans, is not expected to go down too well with the Americans.