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Amid new geopolitical conditions, Russia has reinvigorated its diplomatic efforts with Afghanistan as it seeks to reassert itself as a security guarantor in the wider region. On 6th April, Russian Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov met with Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s foreign minister. Both parties stressed greater political, security, and economic cooperation. The meeting came after several remarks from Russia concerning the risks and security threats that Afghanistan poses to the Central Asian countries. The bilateral visit is the latest in a flurry of diplomatic meetings between Russia and Afghanistan.
Understanding Russian interests in Afghanistan
To understand Russian interests in Afghanistan, one must “zoom out” and look at the two nations’ geographies. Afghanistan is located at the crossroads of Central Asia, a region where Russia has long had a dominant influence. The geographic proximity of Afghanistan to Central Asia creates a shared geopolitical reality. Considering Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent, Russia has, for decades, kept a thumb on the region. The Kremlin claims Central Asia as a sphere of privileged interest.
To this end, the instability in Afghanistan, particularly in the northern provinces which border Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, plays quite well into Russia’s broader regional objectives. It allows Russia to justify the expansion of security and military cooperation via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led military alliance (in which Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan are members, plus Armenia and Belarus) in terms of counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. It also allows Moscow to justify renewed efforts at border military engagements with non-CSTO countries, like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and provides Russia yet another excuse for blaming the United States and NATO for leaving Afghanistan in such a sorry state.
Russia has been intensifying its efforts in the region since 2014, in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the the year after the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Russia’s main channel for engaging with Afghanistan has been through its regional organisations. The three organisations that play a key role in the Russia-led regional security architecture include the CSTO; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a security and defense organisation which has eight members – China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – along with Afghanistan as an observer state; and the Moscow format of regional peace consultations on Afghanistan, which include the meeting of foreign ministers and national security advisors of Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Moscow’s deepened cooperation can be seen in the latest rounds of these meetings. The most recent of these meetings took place earlier this month in Samarkand. In a post-meeting statement, the ministers emphasised the need for the Taliban to implement the demands made by the international community, including the West. These include “the creation of an inclusive government, the opportunity for Afghan women to work and receive education, and ensuring the rights of national minorities.” Russia and China also made a point of calling for the lifting of sanctions and the requests for the return of Afghanistan’s frozen assets in the United States.
Prior to that, in early February, Russia hosted the fifth round of multilateral talks on Afghanistan with the participation of China, India, Iran, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the national security advisors of these countries. It is worth noting that Afghanistan itself was not invited, while Pakistan refused to participate. The spokesperson for the Pakistani foreign ministry, Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, explained that the country’s decision “was made in light of our consideration that Pakistan can make a better contribution in formats and forums, which can contribute constructively to peace in Afghanistan.” This could also be because of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.
Another example are the comments made by Col. Gen. Anatoly Sidorov, Russia’s chief of the Joint Staff of the CSTO, during a press conference on 14th February. Sidorov said that “the biggest threat to stability in Central Asia comes from numerous extremist groups that have gained a foothold in Afghanistan.” He also noted that “the number of members of the Islamic State’s Afghan branch, Wilayat Khorasan (ISKP, which is outlawed in Russia), has significantly increased to about 6,500, with up to 4,000 militants concentrated along Tajikistan’s southern border in the provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz, and Takhar.” In response to Sidorov, on 15th February the Taliban’s Foreign Minister Muttaqi rejected the allegation that ISKP militants have gathered in northern Afghanistan and said that Sidorov’s claims were “baseless.”
Taliban attitudes toward Russia
For the Taliban’s part, their interest in establishing diplomatic ties with Russia matters mainly for two reasons. First, the Taliban seek integration back into the international community, and second, they want to be seen as capable political actors that can guarantee the security of the country and its neighbours. From the Taliban leadership’s perspective, engagement with global powers like Russia and China gives them the level of legitimacy they desire. More importantly from the point of view of the Taliban, it demonstrates that in order to achieve stability in Afghanistan, a level of engagement with them is required.
But the Taliban have proven to be unreliable partners and have been unable to manage internal conflicts on their own. For starters, it isn’t just the Taliban that you would need to be negotiating with: the Taliban has never been one unified formal group or a cohesive force. The fragmented and factitious nature of the Taliban has always been a major impediment to their rule. Divisions have often occurred among ethnic groups which are divided geographically in the country. These problems will likely persist in Afghanistan and won’t be abating anytime soon.
In addition, the very ability of the Taliban to make decisions remains doubtful. Despite repeated assurances of stability and security guarantees, the attacks by ISKP and affiliated al-Qaida groups have continued. With a fragmented leadership and ethnic splits in the ranks of the movement, the Central Asian neighbours have reason to be concerned about conflict spreading. As for the call for the lifting of sanctions, given the bad relations between Russia and China on one side and the United States on the other, it will remain unanswered, as will Taliban requests for the return of the former Republic’s frozen assets.
What lies ahead?
The Afghanistan issue gives Russia a reason to once again be highly engaged in Central Asian security affairs. For Moscow, counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan provide a rationale for maintaining a military presence in Central Asia and signal its dominance in the region. The Taliban’s engagement with Russia is fueled by the need to be integrated into the global community and to receive economic support. The Taliban government’s failure to implement the demands set by the West has limited their options and diplomatic channels. While Russia’s approach to Afghanistan isn’t fundamentally new, it necessitates certain initiatives by the West. The U.S. has to decide if it wants to have a role in the region or not. The upshot is that Afghanistan could potentially be a place where the security goals of Russia, China, and the U.S. overlap. However, pushing for talks before the parties are ready to compromise would likely be fruitless.
This article was first published in The Diplomat.