Moscow has cautiously embraced the newly re-created Islamic Emirate, but terrorism and regional security issues remain concerns.
A day after the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan capital, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, called the Taliban a “far more trustworthy partner than the puppet government in Kabul.” Russia’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov claimed that Kabul was safer after the Taliban took power than when ousted President Ashraf Ghani was in charge.
Russian officials also stridently condemned Ghani for his flight from Afghanistan and repeated the unverified theory that Ghani left Kabul with cars and a helicopter full of cash. The Taliban has responded in kind, as its spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, has described Russia as an “important partner,” and the Taliban invited Russian officials to its government inauguration ceremony.
Despite this conciliatory rhetoric, Russia views the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as both an opportunity and potential threat. From an economic standpoint, Russia sees the Islamic Emirate’s re-emergence as a potential boon.
On August 25, Zhirnov declared Russia’s willingness to invest in Afghanistan’s vast mineral reserves. As Russia has a formidable track record of mining sector investments in fragile states, such as Sudan and the Central African Republic, it could be well-equipped to profit from Afghanistan’s rare earth and precious metal deposits.
Russia’s solidarity with the Taliban against US asset freezes and steadfast support for an aid influx to Afghanistan could translate into preferential contracts. Zhirnov has also praised the Taliban’s interest in transport and energy projects with Central Asian countries, which could augment Russia’s long-standing vision of promoting intra-regional connectivity in Eurasia.
The Taliban’s triumph could also yield Russia diplomatic opportunities. Until the Northern Distribution Network logistical transit route shuttered in 2015, Afghanistan was a rare crisis-proof area of cooperation between Russia and the West. Russia and the US regularly shared intelligence against terrorism and drug trafficking, and even participating in joint anti-narcotics raids.
As Russia’s relations with the US and Europe have faced intense strains over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Russian cyberattacks and military escalations in the Black Sea, Moscow is leveraging its close relations with the Taliban to gain positive attention from Western countries.
Russia’s role as a convening power in the extended troika talks which include the United States, and prospective participation in a G7+2 summit on Afghanistan underscores this status-seeking behaviour. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s claims that Russia can act as a moderating force on the Taliban underscores the potential efficacy of Moscow’s use of Afghanistan as a bridge issue towards Western countries.
Russia also believes that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan can strengthen its partnerships with non-Western powers. The 10,000 troop Zapad/Interaction 2021 drills between Russia and China in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region dealt with mitigating threats to the stability of Central Asia emanating from Afghanistan. The rising threat of Daesh-K (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan could also lead to a pro-active Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) counterterrorism policy, which would further strengthen Sino-Russian coordination.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has emphasised Tehran’s desire to work with Russia on the stabilisation of Afghanistan. Russia’s Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev has emphasised synergies between Moscow and New Delhi’s perspectives on Afghan security, as both countries fear a spillover of terrorism to Central Asia and Kashmir.
Beyond its established partnerships with China, Iran and India, the emergence of a new political order in Afghanistan has added new vigour to Russia’s nascent partnership with Pakistan. An August 27 article in Pakistan’s Express Tribune described Prime Minister Imran Khan’s August 26 phone call with Vladimir Putin a “defining moment” in Russia-Pakistan relations, as it was Moscow’s first-ever acknowledgement of its reliance on Pakistan to advance its interests.
The contrast between Putin’s engagement with Khan and US President Joe Biden’s distant attitude towards Islamabad elevated Russia’s standing in Pakistan’s hierarchy of partners. The intensification of talks on the Pakistan Gas Stream Pipeline underscores the potential spillover impact of Russia-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan to their broader commercial relationship.
Despite these far-reaching economic and diplomatic opportunities, the Taliban’s conduct since taking over Kabul does not fully accord with Russia’s preferences. Although Russian officials have praised the Taliban’s past efforts to combat Daesh-K in Afghanistan, Mujahid’s September 6 claim that Daesh poses no threat to Afghanistan clashes with Moscow’s threat assessments.
Russia’s calls for a political solution between the Taliban and the National Resistance Front (NRF) in Panjshir Valley have also fallen on deaf ears. While Russia has insisted it will not be a mediator in Panjshir Valley and did not respond to resistance leader Ahmad Massoud’s pleas for Russian assistance in creating a buffer zone for those who cannot leave, these concerns could delay Moscow’s diplomatic recognition of the Taliban. They could also prevent Russia from removing its terrorism designation against the Taliban, which has been in place since 2003.
The expansion of Russia’s security presence in Central Asia also points to Moscow’s uncertainties about Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Andrei Kortunov, the Director-General of the Russian International Affairs Council, recently postulated that the Taliban will struggle to maintain control over northern Afghanistan, and this could result in the emergence of Daesh or Al Qaeda cells that attack Central Asia.
This concern, widely shared in the Russian foreign policy community, has already influenced Moscow’s policy towards Central Asia. After the August 26 Kabul airport attack, Russia pledged to fast-track arms shipments to Central Asian countries. Russia will also hold military drills in Kyrgyzstan from September 7 to 9 under the umbrella of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) security bloc.
Although Russia has publicly expressed optimism about cooperation with a Taliban-led Afghanistan, the jury is still out on whether the Islamic Emirate’s revival will be an opportunity or curse for Moscow. This ambiguity could ensure that Russia maintains a policy of proactive diplomacy and threat mitigation towards Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
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