The World

Will Russia and the Taliban Become Friends?

Russia decided not to evacuate its diplomats and is ready to cooperate with a new government in Afghanistan.

Taliban representatives giving a press conference in Moscow .
Taliban representatives giving a press conference in Moscow on July 9, 2021. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

While many Western countries, including the U.S., have been hectically evacuating their embassy staffs from Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, Russia seems surprisingly calm. The Russian embassy in Kabul, with more than 100 employees, continues its work as usual. The main reason why the Russian diplomats are not concerned is that they have received direct assurance from the Taliban that they will be safe. (The same guaranties were given to China and Pakistan.) “Taliban members are already guarding our embassy.
The Taliban confirmed that no one would harm a hair on the heads of Russian diplomats…” said Dmitry Zhirnov, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, on Aug. 16. Speaking at the United Nations Security Council the same day, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said that “there is no point in panicking.” The next day Russian diplomats met with Taliban representatives and were reassured onсe again that they would be protected.

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How come Russia seems to get along so well with the movement, officially considered a terrorist organization in Russia? (Every time the Russian media mentions Taliban, they are obliged to note that it is outlawed). Zhirnov even praised the way the Taliban acted after taking power. According to him, Kabul now seems safer than was under the previous authorities.

The Russian government, which called ex-president Ashraf Ghani (who fled Afghanistan on Sunday with a helicopter full of cash) an American puppet, hasn’t been hiding its willingness to engage with insurgents. “It’s not for nothing that we’ve been establishing contacts with the Taliban movement for the last seven years,” said Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan. He added that Russia anticipated that the Taliban would play a leading role in the future of Afghanistan.

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Since 2017, delegations of Taliban officials have visited Russia several times for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The most recent visit happened a month ago: representatives of the Islamist group gave a press conference in Moscow, where they promised not to threaten Russia or its allies in Central Asia and continue fighting against the Islamic State operating on the territory of Afghanistan. Many Russians criticized the authorities on social media for dealing with terrorists and giving them a platform to speak publicly. (“Everyone is condemning the Foreign Ministry for meeting with the Taliban, but the Taliban also risks its reputation by meeting with the Russian Foreign Ministry,” joked the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin on Twitter.)

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All jokes aside, the Taliban would love to see Russia as a partner. “A new government, controlled by the Taliban, can find itself in the international isolation, so it is important for them to have the support of countries in the region, especially rivals of the U.S.,” says Omar Nessar, director of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies in Russia. So far, Russia seems to not be in a hurry to officially recognize Taliban regime or remove it from the list of banned organizations in Russia. However, the authorities have hinted that this might be possible in the future. Nessar suggests that the Russian attitude toward Afghanistan’s new rulers will depend on several factors: “their ability to keep promises not to attack countries in the region, their connections with other terrorist organizations, and relations between U.S. and Russia”.

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Decades ago, the idea of cooperation between Russia and the Taliban would seem unimaginable. The Taliban emerged from the mujahideen groups that the U.S.S.R fought against during its own Afgan war from 1979-1989. Fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers died before Moscow decided to pull out the troops. Though Russia doesn`t admit the military defeat of the Soviet army, the Taliban thinks the opposite: on Thursday the Islamist group published the statement, saying that over the course of 102 years they defeated Great Britain, U.S.S.R and the U.S. The animosity didn’t end after the Soviet pull-out. In 1999, the last time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, it supported jihadi rebels in Chechnya and declared jihad against Russia. After the U.S. invaded Afganistan and removed Taliban from power, the organization, according to BBC, reached out to Moscow in the hope of cooperating against Americans, but Kremlin turned down the offer. Now, with Russian-U.S.
relations are at the lowest point, officials are more open for dialogue with the Taliban. In 2017 then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Russia of supplying arms to the Taliban, and in 2020 there were even reports in U.S. media about Russia paying a bounty to the Taliban to kill American troops. (Russia denied the accusations.) A year ago, the Pentagon released a report, saying that Russia works with the Taliban “to gain increased influence in Afghanistan and expedite a U.S. military withdrawal”. However, it looks like American officials can’t really decide if Russia wins or loses from the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. As Biden said in a nationwide address on Monday: “Our true strategic competitors China and Russia would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention in stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.”

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Still, there’s been some crowing over America’s hasty withdrawal. Russian state-run media, with pleasure, quoted American media outlets calling Biden’s handling of the situation a “failure, disaster, and catastrophe” and compared it with pulling Soviet forces out of Afganistan after almost a decade of occupation. Other Russian media commentators pointed out that the Afghan government the U.S.S.R. left behind after withdrawing its troops lasted way longer, but neglecting to mention that the Soviet mission wasn`t exactly successful either.

Russia’s biggest concerns related to the latest events in Afghanistan are the potential spread of terrorism, drugs trafficking, and risks of instability in the Central Asia region. But no matter how bad things get, Azat Akhunov, a Russian expert in Islamic studies, thinks that Russia doesn’t have resources to send troops into Afghanistan again: “It would cost a lot of money, and given the economic problems in Russia, sanctions and expenses for Russian military operation in Syria [Russia reportedly spends at least $2.5 million on Syrian operations per day], it is impossible.”

So Akhunov calls the current strategy of Russia in Afganistan “calming the dragon”. Once Russia makes sure that Taliban can provide stability, potential cooperation with the new leadership of Afganistan can open economic opportunities as well - from supplying oil and gas to fast-moving consumer goods, says Akhunov. Plus, having a new anti-American ally in the neighborhood could always be useful.

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