Time is changing, once Afghanistan and Russia were fierce foes. Mujahedeen fought against the Soviet occupation. Within 30 years, Russia and Afghanistan have turned from enemies to potential allies. Moreover, Russia has asked other countries to refrain from imposing their will on Afghanistan. On Friday, Russian President Vladimir urged countries not to interfere in Afghanistan and called on the west to halt its irresponsible practice of imposing foreign values from abroad.
Putin expressed the hope that the Taliban would ensure the safety of locals and foreign diplomats and that the country would not be disintegrated following the exit of US-led forces. He added that the Taliban will keep terrorists from fleeing Afghanistan and spreading to other parts of the region. The Russian president went on to say that while the US-led involvement in Afghanistan cannot be called a success, but we should not look at it as a failure at the moment.
As the western coalition made a hurried and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Russian embassy in Kabul remained open and maintained contacts with the Taliban, which for the first time since 2001 took control of the country.
Following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, Russia stated that Kabul appears to be more secure under the Taliban than it was under President Ashraf Ghani. Despite the fact that the Taliban is still classified as a terrorist group in Russia. The Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan commended the Taliban's actions, saying that they had made Kabul safer than it had been under previous governments. These words by Russian Ambassador Dimity Zhirnov reveal an unmasked effort by Russia to strengthen its support of the Taliban. It also demonstrates Russia's determination to recognize the extreme Islamist organization as the country's rightful government.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, downplayed the group's terrorist status, calling it a recognized political force. He praised the Taliban's willingness to include a diverse range of perspectives in its government, while the Foreign Ministry claimed the Taliban was restoring order. Lavrov also said during a meeting with media personals that he sees some hopeful indicators from the Taliban, who have stated their desire for a government that includes other political forces.
Since 9/11, the presence of the United States and its western allies in Afghanistan has always irked Russia. Because Russia considered central Asia its backyard, where it feared losing influence. But now after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, It could sigh a relief and regard this as a win-win situation. It's only natural for Russia, which had suffered from a disastrous Soviet occupation in the 1980s and a humiliating withdrawal after ten years, to feel a sense of revenge as its biggest rival the United States faced a similar hammering departure.
Developing Ties with the Taliban
For the past few years, the Russians have been talking with the Taliban. As per media reports the Russian president Vladimir Putin met with the Taliban's then-leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in 2015 to discuss collaboration. The meeting was held on a military base in Tajikistan without publicity. The main focus of the meeting was to discuss collaborating against Islamic State (ISIS).
The Taliban had denied holding such a gathering. After Mansour was murdered in a US drone strike in Pakistan's Balochistan area, the Russians maintained contact with the Taliban through Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the current Taliban leader. The key reason for keeping connections with the Taliban is that Russia did not want the west to overlook Moscow's regional interests. Moscow hosted a trilateral meeting on Afghanistan involving Russia, China, and Pakistan later joined by Iran as a means of demonstrating to the west that Moscow is capable of playing a significant role in Afghanistan.
Despite branding the Taliban as a terrorist organization in 2003, Russia has undertaken many rounds of discussions with the Taliban and other anti-government groups in Afghanistan in recent years, without the participation of Afghan government officials.
American accusations about Russian involvement in Afghanistan
In the past, United States officials have accused Russia of supporting and supplying arms to the Taliban. According to Seth Jones, director of the Center for International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, the Russians are helping the Taliban. It has not just diplomatic backing, but also financial and intelligence help.
Seth Jones further stated that Russia has been attempting to increase its influence in its backyard for nearly a decade. Consequently, Russia is interested in Afghanistan because it wants to oppose American influence in that region, he explains. Russian interests in South Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe are intertwined with those in Afghanistan.
Several factors account for Russian support for the Taliban
Russia does not want a recurrence of the Afghan-Soviet war, further seeking to flourish relations with the Taliban, because they have bases, infrastructure, and projects in the region. It isn't about ideology, but about security, influence and money.
Influence-building race in Central Asia
Afghanistan is smack dab in the heart of this geopolitical chess match. Her location is what makes her both intriguing and dangerous. Because Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are all supporters of Russia.
Russia today claims that its interest in Afghanistan is restricted to safeguarding the security of its Central Asian partners' borders. But, Moscow's intentions remain obscure behind the scenes.
The United States previously operated substantial air bases in some of Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbours to the north, including Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan from 2001 to 2014 and Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan from 2001 to 2005. The Kremlin, on the other hand, has cautioned Central Asian countries that the US is more concerned with containing Russia, China, and Iran than with retaining control over the situation in Afghanistan this time. During Biden's June session with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Russia protested the idea of redeploying US troops from Afghanistan to Central Asian countries.
This kind of disturbance will have a powerful impact on their plans to be a major power in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran in the future.
The Kremlin sought to place obstacles in the way of US interests in the region by supporting the Taliban. Moscow also wants to extend its sphere of influence beyond Central Asia, to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Despite talks with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is not expanding beyond Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Moscow has been unable to create a second base in southern Kyrgyzstan despite Russia's aspirations for doing so.
Components of the Counter-Extremist
The Russian government does not want the extremists to reach northern Afghanistan because it would undermine its allies and interests. The Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan poses a threat to Russia, like Russia, has been the victim of terrorist strikes in the past. Following ISIS's growth into Afghanistan in 2014, Moscow is concerned that it will continue to expand, notably to the north of Afghanistan, towards Central Asia and Russia. The Taliban and ISIS have been fighting one other since ISIS entered Afghanistan, and Russia has extended its hand to the Taliban. There has already been intelligence sharing between the Taliban and Russia regarding ISIS.
Afghan opium is causing Moscow more problems. Afghanistan produces 90% of the world's illicit opiates. In Russia, illicit drug use kills over 65,000 people each year; opiate production targets Russia as one of the biggest markets in the world. Moscow believes that the Taliban can be a greater ally in the war against narcotics than Afghanistan's National Unity Government.
Russia is Cautious in Supporting the Taliban
Russia's acknowledgement of the Taliban is tempered, however, by the fact that, on the one hand, it is reaching out and, on the other hand, it has conducted military drills along the Afghan border, highlighting its military might and strategic interests in the region.
A week after Russia ended military drills near the Afghan border with 2,500 Russian, Tajik and Uzbek forces, the Central Military District announced 1,000 troops would take part in a month-long exercise with Tajikistan. The Kremlin is obligated to send in its military in the event of an attack under a collective security treaty with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other regional nations.
Taking into account the risks of chaos and extremism in the region if Afghanistan enters civil war again, Russia now sees the potential for a stronger role with the Taliban.
Despite the fact that Russia has stated that it would not hurry to recognize a Taliban government, instead advocating for an inclusive national discourse with all political factions in order to form a transitional government. Because in the absence of a national consensus, civil war anarchy could erupt, just as there was after the exit of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
It is likely that Russia and its allies in Central Asia will face many challenges in the coming days, including cross-border insurgency and refugee’s crises.
Even if a key purpose of Russia's ties with the Taliban is to honestly combat the Islamic State, Moscow is committing a strategic error because the Taliban cannot defeat ISIS on their own. In reality, the Taliban used to make up the bulk of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, and more Russian-backed Taliban may join the Islamic State in the future.
Written By: Olivium's Editor