Russia is stepping into the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, with President Vladimir Putin looking to re-exert influence in central Asia and prevent Islamist extremism from spilling over the borders.
Moscow last week moved tanks to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan frontier for military drills to shield its ally from a possible collapse of the Kabul government, as the resurgent Taliban continues to advance and the US prepares to end a 20-year military mission that has failed to bring peace to the troubled country.
Russia, which has cheered a US exit despite parallels with the Soviet Union’s humiliating 1989 retreat from Afghanistan, was one of the first to publicly engage with the Taliban. It hosted a 2018 delegation to spur peace efforts, the start of a series of meetings since, despite the fact it considers the Taliban a banned terrorist organisation.
“Putin’s play is to embarrass the US,” said Asfandyar Mir, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “Russia doesn’t want US-backed regimes in its backyard.”
Instead, Putin is putting faith in a new relationship with the Taliban that he hopes will contain the threat from Isis and al-Qaeda.
Zamir Kabulov, his special representative on Afghanistan, recently described the Taliban’s advance as a security boost for Russia because it would wipe out more dangerous jihadist groups.
“The fact that the Taliban are taking control . . . has a positive aspect to it. Why? Because most of these [extremist] groups are not focused on domestic matters, but on Central Asia, Pakistan or Iran,” he said last week.
Asked in a separate radio interview last week whether the US withdrawal was good for Russia, he replied: “As a whole, yes.”
But Arkady Dubnov, a Russian political scientist and Central Asia expert, said the strategy was risky.
“Moscow’s position, which openly bets on one force and tries to limit the influence of the other, seems dangerous to me. It looks awkward and an attempt to settle old scores,” he said.
Moscow was badly scarred by the decade-long Soviet conflict in Afghanistan, when the Taliban’s forbearers from the Mujahedeen forced its demoralised forces to pull out.
“Russia wants to play a major role [in Afghanistan] but not directly linked with the war in the 80s,” another regional expert said.
For Putin, the opportunities created by the US exit go beyond Afghanistan, as Moscow seeks to take back the power it had in the Soviet era and reestablish itself as the security guarantor for a large chunk of the Eurasian continent.
“This has nothing to do with Russia helping peaceful regulation in Afghanistan. This is a move to ensure security of Central Asian states, most of which are Russian partners or allies in the face of potential, hypothetical threat given the Afghan situation,” Dubnov said.
He continued: “It’s all about the image [and] . . . persuading our partners in Central Asia that only Russia is capable of ensuring their security.”
The ultimate goal was stopping the US and any other western force from ever returning to the region, Dubnov added. “All the rest Russia is doing is a smoke screen.”
As part of this, Russia has repeatedly called for talks in the formats it controls, including the Eurasia Economic Union that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military bloc involving those countries as well as Tajikistan.
But, again, there are risks for Moscow. “The worsening situation in Afghanistan will become a serious test for the CSTO, which has to prove it can ensure security in the region,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Center think-tank in Moscow.
“Neither Russia, nor the Central Asian states have the resources, or reasons, or the desire for forced intervention in the Afghan issues. It would be complete foolishness,” he added.
Most international experts privately believe that there is the potential for the Taliban to retake Afghanistan, fully or partially, after the US has left.
“I guarantee you the Taliban will take power in Kabul by September,” a Russian diplomatic source told the Financial Times, on condition of anonymity. “But they don’t know how to rule — they’re stuck in the 13th century in the way they do things, so it will be a mess.”
The last time the Taliban ran Afghanistan, from 1996-2001, it enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law, leading to appalling human rights abuses and a particular suppression of women. It offered safe haven to terrorists, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network that masterminded the 9/11 attacks, resulting in the invasion by US-led forces who remained for two decades.
Dubnov suggested that, this time, Russia could offer “advice” to the Taliban on how to rule, although whether this would work was unclear. “These people are hard to teach with advice, they much prefer money, and Russia is not ready to help with money,” he said.
Russia is also making inroads with Pakistan, a regional player whose special services have close links with the Taliban.
Pakistan has “nuclear weapons and close co-operation [arrangements] with China, so it deserves Moscow’s greater attention,” Trenin said. But Moscow must walk a tightrope so as not to anger its rival India, he added.
And despite its imminent withdraw, the US will not be entirely powerless in Afghanistan’s fate, said Harsh Pant, a director at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation think-tank.
“Every country in this Afghanistan game [is] waiting for what the US does next,” he said, adding: “America still holds a lot of cards.”