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Deciphering Russia’s Afghan Policy

Rajorshi Roy is Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • August 31, 2021

    Russia continues contacts with all political forces in Afghanistan. This excludes groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. These are purely terrorist groups. The Taliban have a recognized political office with which political representatives Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai continue to negotiate… The fact that the Taliban are now declaring and proving in practice their readiness to respect the opinion of others, I think, is a positive signal”.1

    This recent statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appears to reflect Russia’s calibrated Afghan approach anchored in realpolitik. Moscow’s embrace of the Taliban, seven years in the making2, is a significant turnaround given their tumultuous history. This includes the Kremlin’s support to the Northern Alliance and the US in tackling the Taliban which had aided militants in Russia’s northern Caucasus and Central Asia, long considered Russia’s soft underbelly.

    Today, the Taliban appears to have reciprocated Russia’s overtures. It has not only guaranteed the safety and security of the Russian embassy staff but also recognised Moscow as a key interlocutor.3 The Taliban’s seal of approval was reflected in it identifying Russia, China and Pakistan as the countries with which it has “very good” relations.4 Incidentally, the Russia–Taliban thaw precedes a growing convergence in the Moscow–Beijing–Islamabad triangle. A fully operational local presence in Kabul likely provides Russia with a ring-side view to shape the ongoing political processes.

    The pertinent questions, therefore, are what are the key drivers of Russia’s Afghan policy? And, could these drivers shape the Indo-Russian strategic partnership?

    Drivers of Russia’s Afghan Policy

    A detailed examination of the subject reveals both tactical and strategic objectives of Russia in engaging with the Taliban which has emerged as the dominant actor in Afghanistan.

    Security

    Maintaining security and stability in Central Asia which borders Afghanistan seems to be a key pillar of Russia’s Afghan calculus. Instability in Kabul has invariably spilled over into Central Asia in the form of terrorism, organised crime, radicalisation and refugees. Cross-border ethnic linkages and porous boundaries have only facilitated this spill-over.

    Russia appears to have identified the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), an offshoot of the Islamic State of Levant (ISIL) which had lured-in more than 5,000 Russians and Central Asians5, as the most potent threat to Central Asia’s stability.6  Notably, the IS-K’s espousal of Khorasan encompasses Central Asia. It is here that Russia seems to be banking on the Taliban to be a bulwark against the spread of IS-K into Central Asia from Afghanistan. This is largely anchored in the perception of the Taliban focusing inwards and Russia seeking to exploit the adversarial relationship between the Taliban and the IS-K. Crucially for Russia, it appears that the Taliban today largely controls Afghanistan’s northern border with Central Asia.7 This region has also for long been a safe haven for exiled Central Asian militants. Taliban’s assurances of preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for instability in Central Asia appears to have carried a strong resonance in Moscow.8 Concomitantly, Taliban’s control of northern boundaries would allow Russia to evaluate the group’s assurances.

    Incidentally, Russia’s security concerns seem to be shared by China as well9, given the proximity of restive Xinjiang to Afghanistan. There appears to be growing convergence between Moscow and Beijing to contain the Afghan volatility. In this, they have sought to tap Pakistan’s strong linkages with the Taliban to shape a modus vivendi with the latter. Unsurprisingly, the growing Russia–Pakistan rapprochement10 is a key outcome of Russia’s ongoing Afghan calculus.11

    Strategic Objectives

    By positioning itself as an interlocutor of the Taliban, anchored in Moscow Format and Extended Troika talks, Russia has emerged as a key stakeholder in the Afghan imbroglio. This could even be viewed as part of Russia’s larger gameplan of projecting itself as an indispensable pole in resolving global and regional issues. Russia’s growing stakes in Afghanistan could help dilute the Western projection of Russia as an isolated power amidst the ongoing Russia–West confrontation.

    Incidentally, Russia has long been suspicious of the United States’ strategic objectives in the Eurasian geo-political chessboard, notwithstanding the US presence being a factor of stability for Central Asia in the last two decades. In the past, Russia had accused the US of further weaponising the ISIS in Afghanistan to foment trouble in Central Asia.12

    Concomitantly, the US withdrawal has provided Russia new tools in its information warfare with the US. This includes raising questions on US reliability as a strategic partner especially to countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine which have increasingly courted the West. Meanwhile, it would be unsurprising if Russia viewed the US exit through the prism of schadenfreude. The USSR’s withdrawal from Afghanistan three decades ago continues to be viewed as a dark age in Soviet history.13 Today, Russia would pat its own back for accurately reading the Afghan tea-leaves by engaging the Taliban.

    Russia’s Afghan Toolkit

    A stable political transition in Afghanistan is a key concern for Russia. While acknowledging the Taliban’s dominant position14, it appears that Russia is seeking to replicate its Syrian playbook of connecting with all stakeholders, both internal and external. This has seen Russia engage actors across Afghanistan’s political spectrum as well as extra-regional and regional powers.15 It can be seen as part of the Russian calculus to facilitate an inclusive government led by the Taliban, with perhaps a better chance at restoring peace and stability. Such a political set-up could also command greater international legitimacy especially if the Taliban walk the talk of moderation in its 2.0 avatar. Russia could take credit for any potential success.

    It is, therefore, unlikely that Russia will back any resistance movement which could complicate Kremlin’s thaw with the Taliban. Nevertheless, Russia could play a role in bringing the warring sides to the negotiation table.16

    An inclusive government in Kabul would allow Russia to recognise it without having to immediately lift its domestic ban on the Taliban. The carrot of legitimacy likely gives Russia some leverage over the Taliban to seek concessions. This is especially relevant in the current climate of the Taliban’s continuing international ostracism.

    It is likely that Russia will back a governance model in Afghanistan anchored in local traditions and customs. President Putin’s pubic rebuttal of the failure of the US model of parachuting Western form of governance is indicative of Russia’s strategy.17

    Meanwhile, a working relationship with Russia increases Taliban’s scope for manoeuvre vis-à-vis its other backers. Russia could also be a pillar in the Taliban’s quest for international legitimacy.

    Opportunities

    The ongoing churnings in Kabul present to Moscow an opportunity to consolidate its position as Central Asia’s pre-eminent security provider anchored in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia has sought to leverage the region’s emerging fear psychosis to strengthen existing regional capacities and step-up military coordination with the Central Asian Republics (CARs).18 This includes the frontline states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which have traditionally remained outside the CSTO.

    Given Russia’s sensitivities to a US military footprint in its immediate neighbourhood, it is unlikely that CARs would now acquiesce to any American request19 for basing rights to carry out air strikes in Afghanistan. This proposed US arrangement could in fact complicate Russia’s and CARs’ emerging equations with the Taliban.

    Arguably, Russia’s enhanced military activism dovetails with its attempts at making a comeback in Eurasia at a time when the Kremlin appears to be increasingly squeezed in its “Near Abroad”. The Russian rouble’s crisis and growing Pax Sinica have the potential to undermine Russia’s sphere of influence.

    Challenges

    The Taliban is not a monolith. There exist questions on its ability to control multiple radical groups especially those operating in the northern borders of Afghanistan who have cross-border ethnic linkages with CARs. The Taliban’s victory could energise these groups. A similar situation could play out in Russia’s northern Caucasus. Drug and weapons trafficking too could see a boost amidst Afghanistan’s international sources of finance20 being increasingly blocked.

    Contrary to existing perceptions, Russia’s engagement of the Taliban does not appear to be an indication of the Kremlin’s outright approval of the group. This is reflected in Moscow treading cautiously as evident in Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu highlighting the threat posed by the weapons that the Taliban has forcibly acquired.21 The Taliban spokesperson’s recent refusal to rule out ties with Al Qaeda would likely have upped the ante.

    Meanwhile, Russia’s attempts at forming a modus vivendi with the Taliban could be complicated by CARs. Tajikistan, where Russia has a military base, seems to have struck a discordant note. While President Emomali Rahmon’s statement22 criticising the Taliban could be a tactic to protect the interests of Tajik minority in the new Afghanistan political set-up, yet there are certain aces up Dushanbe’s sleeves which could put Russia in a difficult situation. This includes supporting resistance movements. Similarly, growing intra-CARs cooperation23 could upend Russia’s Afghan gameplan.

    Meanwhile, withdrawal from Afghanistan would allow the US to channelise its resources towards not only the Indo-Pacific but also Russia’s western neighbourhood.

    Afghanistan in the Indo-Russian Strategic Partnership

    India and Russia’s Afghan policies have tactically diverged in the recent past, which is evident from their rationale of engaging the Taliban. This is notwithstanding their shared strategic convergence of a stable Afghanistan that is not a staging ground for terrorism.

    Nevertheless, the rise of Taliban today is a geo-strategic reality. With Russia emerging as a key interlocutor of the group, Moscow could play a role in facilitating potential dialogue with India, if and when New Delhi decides to do so. The recent positive statements emanating from the Taliban about India could present an opening.

    Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) led regional mechanism on Afghanistan, comprising all key regional stakeholders, appears to be gaining traction. Notably, Russia remains a vital pillar of support for India in this Eurasian multilateral grouping.

    With the Afghan political fog potentially lifting post 31 August 2021, Russia appears invested in reaching out to India. This is evident from the recent talks between Prime Minister Modi and President Putin, which led to the two traditional partners establishing an exclusive channel of communication on Afghanistan.24 Incidentally, India is chairing, as part of its two year non-permanent membership of UNSC, the Taliban Sanctions Committee and Counter-Terrorism Committee. It remains to be seen whether India and Russia can harmonise their Afghan policies.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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