Politics 24 August 2021

Russia courts the Taliban as U.S. exits Afghanistan

As Western countries rushed to evacuate their embassies from Kabul last week amid the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Russia was one of the countries that kept their diplomats in place. Even though Moscow and the Taliban are traditional foes, they have been cooperating more and more closely in recent years.

  • The Russian Foreign Ministry announced last weekend that there were no plans to evacuate the Russian embassy in Kabul — and, sure enough, embassy staff stayed put when the Taliban took the city. According to the ministry, the Taliban had guaranteed the safety of Russia’s diplomatic mission. Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov later said Russia wants to improve relations with the new Afghan government, and that the Taliban could even lose its official designation as a terrorist organization.
  • Diplomatic contact between Russia and the Taliban has been increasing in recent years. Senior Taliban officials came to Moscow last month to meet Kabulov and promised they wouldn’t try to cross Afghanistan’s borders and that they would keep militant groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS out of Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Taliban leaders in both 2018 and 2019.
  • However, warming relations between Russia and the Taliban is a recent phenomenon. For most of the time the Taliban has existed, Moscow has been one of their major enemies — not least because the Taliban backed Chechen rebels in a series of wars with Russian forces during the 1990s. Long before the start of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, Russia was providing support to Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance that opposed the Taliban in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban has never committed an attack on Russian territory, it was declared a terrorist organisation by Russia’s Supreme Court in 2003.
  • The situation changed dramatically in 2015 when Russian troops intervened in Syria to save the government of President Bashar al-Assad. One of Russia’s targets in Syria was ISIS — also foes of the Taliban and Kabulov announced in December 2015 that Russia had begun negotiating with the Taliban. Some experts suggested at the time that Moscow was looking to take advantage of a split in the Taliban after the death of its founder, Mullah Omar.
  • Moscow’s foreign policy goals in Afghanistan have remained more or less the same for many years: to prevent the emergence of an Islamist terrorist threat and make the country’s northern provinces a security buffer. Since the Taliban are now in control, the Russian authorities need a relationship with them — they are the only force that can stop terrorism. “Russia has made good use of its opportunity to gain a foothold in Central Asia and was not wrong to establish ties with the Taliban,” said Kirill Semyonov, an international affairs expert. “But if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates… Afghanistan could become for Russia what Algeria is for France — a constant security threat.”
  • Despite improving relations, there is little prospect Russia will be able to derive any material benefits from the Taliban. “Large business projects that bring money need stability, safety for employees, and a safety guarantee for investments,” said expert Dmitry Verkhoturov. “And in order to extract something from Afghanistan — which could theoretically be done by Russian companies — you need an infrastructure that is currently completely absent … no one will make such a long-term investment.”

Why the world should care: As relations between Russia and the Taliban improve, Moscow looks set to enjoy far more influence in Kabul than it has done for at least two decades.