Fall of Kabul: Russia Weighs Security with Influence in New Afghanistan

Nikola Mikovic

AFP photo: Vyacheslav Oseledko

Within days of hosting Taliban officials at its embassy in Kabul, Russia’s tanks were involved in live-fire exercises in Tajikistan, near the border with Afghanistan. And while Russia said the world needed to accept the Taliban takeover of the country, Vladimir Putin went on to warn central Asian leaders that it was vital to stop radical Islam spilling across their borders. These mixed signals to the new Taliban rulers in Kabul indicate Russia will be treading a path between tackling security threats from the Islamist group’s takeover and seeking to gain advantage from the vacuum left by the humiliating US retreat.

Moscow is in no rush to recognize the Taliban as the new rulers of Afghanistan, but it has already developed relatively good relations with the group. For now, Moscow will closely watch the Panjshir Valley, one of the last regions not under Taliban control. The area north of Kabul is held by the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. The group is led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of the “Lion of Panjshir,” Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the most powerful mujahideen commanders during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. The younger Massoud has promised to keep fighting the Taliban, but would also be open to negotiations. The elder Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda in 2001, days before the 9/11 attacks.

The Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitriy Zhirnov, has admitted that a Taliban delegation visited the Russian embassy in Kabul and asked the diplomats to send a “political message” to the resistance fighters. The message was clear: The Taliban do not want bloodshed and are interested in a peaceful settlement in Panjshir province. But the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on August 23 that Moscow “does not intend to intervene in the conflict between the Taliban and the resistance forces in Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, the Taliban said they had dispatched hundreds of fighters to the region and there have been reports of clashes.

Tajikistan, a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), strenuously denied reports that it had supplied resistance forces with military equipment in recent days. Whether the National Resistance Front has received arms from the Central Asian nation or not, it would be extremely difficult for its fighters to protect Panjshir, let alone start an offensive against the Taliban. Still, it is worth remembering that just days before the Taliban entered Kabul, Tajikistan hosted troops from Russia and Uzbekistan for military exercises just 20 kilometers from the Afghan border (in addition to the exercises held after Kabul fell). It was a clear warning to the Taliban that the CSTO would not tolerate any attempt to destabilize the former Soviet Central Asian republics.

It is debatable if the Afghan movement ever had such ambitions. Even Zhirnov, in his interview with Russian state TV, said the Taliban are preoccupied with domestic challenges and would not dare attack their neighbors. Moscow, however, remains skeptical regarding the Taliban’s future actions, and there are good reasons for that.

According to the US military, 90 percent of the world’s heroin is made from opium grown in Afghanistan. In July 2000, when the Taliban were last in power, their leaders introduced the death penalty for growing and distributing drugs, and ordered the destruction of opium poppy crops. But after the US invasion, the Taliban established control over the business, aware that it was the easiest way to get money to purchase weapons. It is unlikely the Taliban would abandon this lucrative business any time soon. One of Moscow’s concerns is that more Afghan-made heroin would easily end up on the Russian market.

Some Russian officials fear their country could be flooded by Afghan refugees. It is not a secret that the US wants those fleeing Afghanistan to stay in Central Asian and other nations until they are granted a visa. Putin openly opposed such plans, claiming that Afghan asylum-seekers could eventually try to enter Russia. He also stressed that terrorists, disguised as refugees, could try to infiltrate his country. That is one of the reasons why Moscow seems determined to protect Central Asian countries’ borders with Afghanistan – a task easier said than done.

Tajikistan, for instance, has the longest border with Afghanistan of the former Soviet republics – more than 1,300 kilometers. It would be very difficult for the 7,000 Russian troops stationed in Tajikistan to control a frontier that long. The key question for Russia, at least in the short-term, is whether the Taliban would limit themselves to creating “the Islamic caliphate” within Afghanistan’s borders or if the movement would cooperate with hardline Islamist forces that pursue goals outside the region.

The Kremlin is expected to coordinate its Afghan policy with other regional actors such as China, Pakistan and Iran. Indeed, Beijing, rather than Moscow, will play the crucial role in the post-US Afghanistan. China will boost investment in infrastructure projects, and it is possible that India could increase its economic presence in Afghanistan. Russia itself could benefit if it manages to eventually join the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Russian officials discussed the project with the former rulers of Afghanistan, and now it remains to be seen what the Taliban’s attitude toward Russian involvement in the project would be. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the project meets the basic principle of Russia’s policy toward Turkmen gas exports – anywhere except Europe, where Russia’s energy giant Gazprom aims to preserve its positions.

Politically, if Russia and the Taliban find common language over this matter, and eventually deepen cooperation, the Kremlin could remove the movement from its list of terrorist organizations. That would be the first step toward Russia officially recognizing the Taliban.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.