Moscow’s Illusionless Realism in Afghanistan

Moscow had been preparing for the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan for several years. Since their conquest of Kabul, Russia has increased its contacts with the new leaders, but not with many illusions.

Moscow, Nov. 9, 2018. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Taliban representatives before an international meeting on Afghanistan
Yuri Kadobnov/AFP

On October 3, Kabul was rocked by an explosion that claimed lives of at least 19 and wounded over 30 Afghans. ISIS-K, an off-shoot of the notorious terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack on the mosque. Moscow was among the first to condemn the atrocity and contacted the Taliban only to receive guarantees that no threats would emanate from the Afghan soil to third countries. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement that stressed the need “to continue efforts aimed at the eradication of terrorism in Afghanistan”.

The statement, as brief as it is, is in itself a remarkable reflection of Russia’s current priorities vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the Taliban regime. The Taliban have been designated as “terrorist organization” in Russia since the early 2000s. They have also been the only foreign entity that recognized the so-called Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the separatist quasi-state that Moscow has fought for many years until President Putin restored constitutional rule over the territory. Yet, as they say, the bad is called good when worse happens: once the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged as a dominant threat all terrorist groups and sought to promote its extremist global ambitions through the use of massive violence, Moscow put ISIS at the top of its counter-terrorism efforts. The Taliban, in turn, have been seen as a local phenomenon. While there are many critics of the movement in Moscow and few are rosy eyed about the essence of their ideology, the current logic that drives Russian decision-making is that they are less threatening to Russian security than ISIS. Since a military solution to the Taliban issue is not on the table for Moscow, and because other major players—including China and the U.S.—have been engaging with the Taliban, Russian top policymakers believe it too should not stay aloof, if only because this is how you provide for your national security interests.

Setting red lines

On July 9, Moscow hosted a delegation from the Taliban’s “political wing”. During the talks, Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Amb. Zamir Kabulov laid out four key concerns Moscow has vis-à-vis the situation in Afghanistan: risks of potential spillover of instability from Afghanistan into Central Asia; the threat of ISIS to Russia and its allies in Central Asia that could stem from the Afghan soil; potential increase in drug trafficking to Russia; the safety of Russian diplomatic missions.

At the meeting the Taliban sought to provide reassurances on all four items. They promised to not “violate the borders of the Central Asian countries” and that they would “provide guarantees of the safety of foreign countries’ diplomatic and consular missions in Afghanistan”. They also committed to “eradicate drug production in Afghanistan” and stated they were “firmly determined to ward off the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan”.

Almost two months into their rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban appear committed to their promises. Hardly anyone in Moscow takes the Taliban at their word. Yet the Russian leadership is coming of the view that the Taliban are doing all the back-channel diplomacy with the Chinese and Iranians and the shuttle diplomacy with the Russians and Americans, to create calm external environment that would give them enough time, de facto legitimacy and, ideally, also resources to consolidate their rule of Afghanistan. In other words, there is every incentive for the Taliban to deliver upon their commitments. This approach seems aligned with Russia’s own interest at the moment.

Over the last few years, Russian military and economy have been overstretched to multiple fronts: from Eastern Europe and the Black Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus. Top it off with the strong memory of the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan and it is clear that Afghanistan popped up as an unnecessary distraction for Moscow. Yet, stability in Central Asia, the security of Russia’s own southern flank, as well as threats of the spread of extremist ideologies are the issues that President Vladimir Putin is usually personally interested in—these are issues for which he will always have time, resources, and political appetite. This is especially true now that he believes the Russian military has a lot more means than the Soviets did to make the Taliban’s life miserable without a direct intrusion into the country. This means that for Russia the conversation with the Taliban in July was not a mere diplomatic “exchange of concerns and promises” but rather an attempt to establish its own red lines.

What has failed in Iraq and Syria

Indeed, many in Russia have voiced serious concerns over the victory of the Taliban. They argue that the very victory of the Islamists and the re-creation of the Islamic Emirate is a dangerous signal to like-minded people around the world. “The fifty shades of green”—that is political and theological differences between the Taliban and ISIS make sense for a slice of academic and expert discussions. For ordinary people, including young people, with a heightened Islamist identity, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, it makes no difference what color a cat is as long as it catches mice. In this regard, it may not be that important that the Taliban have a different model of state building than ISIS, different slogans, a different support base and a different approach to self-presentation. What matters is the very success story — “what did not work out in Iraq and Syria worked in Afghanistan”—and that it could be repeated. This is why, while talking to the Taliban via diplomatic channels, Russia is also conducting joint military drills with Tajik and Uzbek troops and beefs up the military of its allies in the CSTO—Collective Security Treaty Organization, a defense pact of six former Soviet states—Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The exercises simulate a “joint response to cross-border militant attacks” and involve tanks, armored personnel carriers, Su-25 attack jets, helicopters, and other weaponry.

Russia is not thrilled about the idea of having an Islamic emirate a few hundred kilometers from its borders, but as long as the Taliban’s agenda is local and not global, like that of ISIS, and their focus is on imposing sharia law in Afghanistan—as bad as it may be for the local population—Russia seems to believe it can live with it. Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, would be kept busy monitoring the situation, the Defense Ministry will have to do a lot more military coordination with its Central Asia peers, the Federal Security Services (FSB) would be preoccupied with tracing possibly rising Islamist influences in Central Asia and Russia, and the Federal Drug Control Service would be put on high alert for potential new heroin production schemes and flows to Russia. But it still appears to be a better option for Moscow than getting militarily involved in the country with no clear political goals and huge potential costs. It remains to be seen whether this will hold true.

Eyes on the U.S.-led world order

What is important to bear in mind when analyzing the significance of the Afghan track for Russia is that it goes beyond Afghanistan per se. The mainstream Russian political and expert narrative over the unraveling situation in Afghanistan revolves around three major themes. Beside the concerns over security of Central Asia, the critique of the 20-year presence of the United States in that country and the criticism of the pro-American leadership there also dominate the debate.

The first two lines of discussions are primarily targeted at what is seen as the ultimate failure of the U.S. to build an effective Afghan military able to defend against the Taliban. America’s attempt at “nation-building” has been subject to sharp criticism from the beginning. In the information sphere Russia seeks to highlight that the crumbling of the Afghan statehood in the face of the Taliban offensive is a direct consequence of America’s failure. This argument is further projected onto countries which, in Russia’s view, rely too heavily on the U.S. support, such as Ukraine or Georgia. Moscow is now embedding the reasoning of “not only will the Americans not help you, but they will likely make things worse” into its persuasion tactics with the leaderships and/or opposition forces of other conflict-torn to change their respective calculus on dealing with Russia as an actor that “means business”. In other words, the Afghan story is seen as an opportunity for further “de-Americanization” of the international order. Putin’s proposal to Biden during the Geneva summit for cooperation with the U.S. over Afghanistan was not an invitation of American troops to Russian military facilities, as some interpreted. Rather, it was an attempt to intercept the initiative and effectively block any chance for the American military presence on territories of Russian Central Asian allies. Russia was willing to do data exchange, but it did not imply physical hosting of U.S. personnel.

For now, Russia has adopted a wait-and-see approach. It seeks to engage with key stakeholders of the Afghanistan situation and stressed the need for a greater regional cooperation—few believe the EU could play any positive role here.

The new situation will require Moscow to exert more resources and focus on the “near abroad” and domestic politics of the Central Asian states. On the external circuit, “overheating” can be avoided by “managing responsibility” with the allied countries and delicate diplomacy in relations with the Taliban. While they look negotiable for the moment, the appetite for ideological expansion and purposeful geopolitical adventures only grows when you feed it—it is as true for Islamist groups. Some regional powers, such as Pakistan, Turkey and some Gulf monarchies are likely to see the new situation in Afghanistan as an opportunity to increase their own influence in the region and globally. Over the past few years, Russia’s campaign in Syria reinforced Moscow’s leverage with most of these powers. It appears that this resource may soon come in handy for Russian policy in Afghanistan.