The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August this year, among other things, has depicted the shift in global politics that has taken place since the last rule of the Taliban in that country ended in 2001.The manner and the haste of American withdrawal from Afghanistan has not just depicted the shallow nature of the gains made in Afghanistan in the last two decades but also the vastly differentiated geopolitics since then. Interests of countries in Afghanistan including great powers such as the United States (US), China and Russia have shifted considerably in the last two decades. For the US, the military engagement in Afghanistan was politically reduced to a resource-sucking ‘forever war’ that had to be ended. The political rationale for disengaging from Afghanistan in the US was strong enough to have carried forward to the Biden administration from the Trump administration, notwithstanding their strong political and ideational differences. For China, engaging the Taliban provides the tripartite opportunity to fill the strategic gap left by the US in Afghanistan; expand its investments led by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Afghanistan and generate enough leverage on the Taliban to proxy-control the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) through the Taliban. However, for Russia, the situation in Afghanistan does not yet provide a clarity of interest. For Russia, while the US withdrawal may seem in their favour from a strategic standpoint, it is unlikely to fully embrace the Taliban or even recognise it anytime soon.It is no surprise then that Russia continues to hedge its bets on Afghanistan.[i]However, Moscow is working towardsstriking a balance between generating early advantages in the region based on its own interests as well the cautiousness resulting its past experiences in Afghanistan. As such, a new streak of great power politics has emerged in relation to the evolving situation in Afghanistan. In the emerging mix, great and middle powers of the world have already scrambled to align, partner, cooperate with as well as deter other countries, based on two subtly opposing axes of respective interests. Russia seems to be the only major power which is hedging its bets on both sides.
Russia’s Complex Relations
Even as the Taliban took over in Afghanistan and the Western countries raced to evacuate their citizens from Afghanistan, Russia’s policy remained poised. It decided to keep its diplomatic relations with Kabul alive by keeping its Kabul embassy open, while most countries closed their embassies. Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitry Zhirnov, met with a Taliban representative within 48 hours of the takeover of Kabul. Besides, Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan openly criticised[ii] the Ashraf Ghani government as a “puppet regime”, while the Ghani government considered Kabulov as an open supporter of the Taliban and accused the Presidential envoy of excluding the elected government in Kabul for three years from the Moscow talks.[iii]
Russia’s deliberate dithering over Afghanistan is reflective of its long contact with the Taliban and the difficulties in achieving its intended policy imperatives in Afghanistan, as well as the whole region. Russia’s ambivalence in its relations with the Taliban also stems from the fact that the Taliban has figured on Russia’s list of banned terroristorganisations since 2003, yet members of the Taliban have frequented Moscow for talks at least since 2018.Russia’s steps towards achieving a balanced policy towards Afghanistan has led it to a broadened agenda. In the past one month, Moscow invited[iv] the Taliban for talks in Moscow, pulled out from its participation in the G20’s Emergency Meeting on Afghanistan, pledged military defence of Tajikistan from any emerging threats from Afghanistan,[v] depicted its concern over growing ISIS activities inside Afghanistan and even evinced willingness to cooperate with the US on the matter.
Currently, Russia’s interests in Afghanistan are driven by the need for regional stability, strategic competition for greater regional influence driven by the compulsions of great power politics and the need to maintain its influence in the Central Asian countries, especially amidst speculations that the US military presence in one of the Central Asian nations could be a strong possibility for coordinating a multi-pronged Afghanistan strategy after the withdrawal of Washington. In so far as Central Asia is concerned, one of the main goals for Russia will be to try to ensure that the Taliban prevents terrorism from causing problems in neighbouring Tajikistan and the larger Central Asian region.[vi] This is an even bigger challenge in the face of increasing number of terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan by militant groups opposed to the Taliban, especially the ISIS and ISKP. Furthermore, terrorism is perhaps the biggest threat that Russia faces in Central Asia from the emergent situation in Afghanistan. It was this anti-terror rationale that compelled Russia to work with the US in the Northern Distribution Network, which allowed the US and NATO forces to use Russian territory to supply equipment and supplies in Afghanistan.[vii]The final play in the emerging Russian strategy in Afghanistan has to do with Russia’s relations with other countries around Afghanistan.As Pakistan will continue to remain an important player in Afghanistan, Russia’s careful calibration with Islamabad will be an important part of the broader readjustments that it would seek with other regional countries of significance in this matter likeIndia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. In this regard, Russia would want to retain its position as the conduit of negotiations on Afghanistan with two popular international fora: the Moscow Format comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and other countries, and the Troika Plus consisting of Russia, the US, China, and Pakistan. These cross-country tables will also help Russia in its goal of strategic ambivalence on Afghanistan. With its most recent call for a Moscow Format meeting in Moscow comprising invitations to the Taliban, Russia is just trying to that. With respect to its broader regional relations, Russia is also in talks with Iran to sign a strategic relationship agreement on the lines of an earlier agreement between Tehran and Beijing for a period of 25 years.[viii] The Foreign Minister spokesperson of Iran, Saeed Khatibzadeh, talked about an emerging ‘Eastern Axis’ between Iran, China and Russia.This axis was also buttressed in the early days leading upto the fall of Kabul by the coordinated silence of Russia and Iran, which helped the Taliban gather pace in capturing Kabul.[ix] Meanwhile, China and Russia share both converging and clash of interests in Afghanistan.[x] Finally, with India Russia shares common security concerns vis-à-vis the Taliban.
Russia’s initial enthusiasm about the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan may not have lasted too long, as it has hardened its position on the Taliban after initial overtures. Currently, Russia is not willing to directly negotiate with the interim government in Kabul under the Taliban. The continuing politico-security flux in Afghanistan has added to Russia’s doubts about the Taliban as a credible political force which is expected to reform itself to gain international trust. Even the countries that officially recognised the Taliban during their last rule in Afghanistan are apprehensive to rush into official recognition of the Taliban. In such circumstances, Russia is weighing its options in Afghanistan just like most countries, except that there is a cautious engagement with the Taliban that undergirds its policy.
The talks on Afghanistan held in Moscow on 20 October,have not assuaged Russian concerns about the Taliban not fulfilling their promises on an inclusive government, among other issues. On the security front, the threat posed by the ISKP to Central Asian states and drug trafficking from Afghanistan keep Russia guarded. Despite Russian skepticism, the proposal by Russia to call a UN led conference to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan may prove to be a positive step to prevent Afghanistan from descending into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
*Dr. Vivek Mishra is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[ii]“On the Taliban, peace and the future of Afghanistan: a long interview with Kabulov”. Sputnik. February 17, 2021. URL: https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210217/intervyu-kabulov-1032840987.html (Accessed October 13, 2021).
[iv]“Russia to invite Taliban to take part in Moscow talks on Afghanistan this month”. Yahoo News. October 07, 2021. URL: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/russia-invite-taliban-part-moscow-113238729.html (Accessed October 13, 2021)
[v]“Russia says it will protect Tajikistan in case of incursion from Afghanistan”. Reuters. October 08, 2021. URL: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/russia-says-it-will-protect-tajikistan-case-incursion-afghanistan-2021-10-08/ (Accessed October 13, 2021)
[vi]Stronski, P (2021). “Forget Schadenfreude. What Does the Kremlin Really Think About Afghanistan”.Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. August 30. URL: https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/08/30/forget-schadenfreude.-what-does-kremlin-really-think-about-afghanistan-pub-85230 (Accessed October 13, 2021).
[vii]Central Asia and the Transition in Afghanistan. A Majority Staff Report prepared for the use of the Committee on Foreign Relations. U.S. Senate. 112th Congress. December 19, 2011. url: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CPRT-112SPRT71639/html/CPRT-112SPRT71639.htm (Accessed October 13, 2021)
[x]Chausovsky, E (2021). "China and Russia Have a Shared Playbook for Afghanistan". Foreign Policy. September 13. URL: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/13/china-russia-shared-playbook-afghanistan/ (Accessed October 13, 2021).