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Pragmatism is shaping Russia-Taliban relations

Giorgio Cafiero

Published: Updated:

Although the Taliban gains in Afghanistan amid a security vacuum created by the US/NATO exit from the war-torn country were to be expected, the rapidity of the Taliban’s offensive that put most of the country back under its control was shocking. The resurgent group’s ability to take control of Kabul, a city of six million, in a few hours without facing any real local resistance surprised even the most seasoned Afghanistan experts.

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Russia has hedged in Afghanistan by engaging both with the now departed government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban. This has positioned the Kremlin to maintain a flexible and working relationship with the new administration led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. In early July, there were talks between the Taliban and Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, marking a continuation of talks between the two that commenced in 2017. Additionally, the Taliban representatives and Russian diplomats have been in contact at Afghan peace talks in Qatar.

President Vladimir Putin correctly assumed that the Taliban would have a major role in post-US Afghanistan. For Moscow, good relations with the Taliban are key to Russia’s strategies for having clout and security in Kabul. Ultimately, the Kremlin’s decision to keep itself on positive terms with the resurgent group has seemingly paid off for Russia.

There is no love between Russia and the Taliban. There is historical baggage between the two. Some Taliban leaders were insurgents in the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989).

During the Taliban’s 1996-2001 period in power, Chechen separatist groups trained on Afghan land, which resulted in Putin threatening to bomb certain terrorist training camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in May 2000.

Additionally, a Chechen embassy was open in Kabul with the “Islamic Emirate” being the only government in the world to recognize an independent Chechen state.

The Taliban openly declared “jihad” against Russia.

These factors helped explain why Putin supported US military operations against the Taliban regime in 2001. When the George W. Bush administration was launching the “war on terror” in Afghanistan in 2001, Russia armed the Northern Alliance and worked with its allies in Central Asia to give the US military access to their airspace for operations against the Taliban.

By engaging both with the now departed government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban Russia has positioned itself to maintain a flexible and working relationship with the new Afghan administration led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. (File photo: Reuters)
By engaging both with the now departed government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban Russia has positioned itself to maintain a flexible and working relationship with the new Afghan administration led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. (File photo: Reuters)

In 2003, Russia designated the Taliban a terrorist organization. Six years later, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, warned of a Taliban threat to Russia if coalition forces in Afghanistan would suffer a defeat with the Islamist group moving north toward ex-Soviet states.

Today, however, Moscow’s view is that it can work with the Taliban. Notwithstanding all the ideological contradictions and historical baggage, it is safe to conclude that Russia and the Taliban are approaching each other in ways that are purely pragmatic.

“They are sane people,” said Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on July 23. “They clearly stated that they have no plans to create problems for Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, that they would uncompromisingly fight [Da’esh], and that they are ready to discuss the political structure of their nation with other Afghans because they used to be accused of wanting to create an Islamic emirate based on the Sharia law.”

Russia, unlike western countries, is keeping its embassy open in Kabul. According to Russian Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov, “The Taliban is already guarding our embassy” and the group has established “public order” in the Afghan capital. Since Ghani fled, Zhirnov has praised the Taliban, claiming that “the situation in Kabul now under the Taliban is better than it was under (President) Ashraf Ghani.” The Russian ambassador maintains that, so far, the Taliban’s conduct has been “good, positive and business-like” and that “the situation is peaceful and good, and everything has calmed down in [Kabul].”

On the one hand, Russia is undeniably content to see another case of US foreign policy being a failure, which gives Moscow more ways to benefit from the further decline of US hegemony.

On the other, the Kremlin also has grave concerns about the consequences of America’s failure in Afghanistan for Russia itself. In Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, Russia has military bases. Moscow fears ways in which violence and terrorism could spread into these ex-Soviet states. Russian officials also worry about potential opportunities for al-Qaeda and Da’esh to exploit chaos in the war-torn country.

Moscow is betting that the Taliban will help with the fight against such transnational terror groups, taking the resurgent group at its word.

On a more international level, it is safe to bet that Russia will continue enhancing defense cooperation with central Asian states and China when it comes to dealing with Afghanistan-related security threats.

Russia is always keen to see ways which can make the failures of US foreign policy lead to conditions that suit Russian interests. Putin’s government sees post-US Afghanistan as an opportunity to reassert influence throughout large portions of Eurasia—extending far beyond Afghanistan itself—that the Soviet Union once wielded.

Moscow’s goal now is to persuade Afghanistan and its neighbors in Central Asia that Russia is the power with the means to ensure their security in ways that the Americans and their NATO allies spent the last two decades failing to do.

The 64,000-dollar question is whether Russia will recognize the “Islamic Emirate” as a legitimate Afghan government. Desperate for recognition from at least one permanent member of the UN Security Council, the Taliban leaders would see Moscow recognizing the regime as extremely beneficial from the standpoint of its international standing.

But, at least for now, the Russians are trying to carefully assess how the chaotic mess in post-US Afghanistan unfolds before making that decision. “No one is going to rush” that decision said Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s Afghanistan envoy, who declared that Moscow’s “recognition or non-recognition will depend on the conduct of the new authorities.”

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.