Russia has been treading carefully in its dealings with the Taliban, engaging with them but so far withholding formal recognition of Afghanistan’s new rulers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides have been quick to cheer the U.S.-led NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, presenting it as a strategic setback for Washington. But they fear Afghanistan falling apart and being plunged into a protracted civil war, which could allow the country to become a sanctuary once again for jihadists to hatch plots against Russia and its Central Asian allies, according to Western diplomats and analysts.
Commenting last week, Putin said NATO’s 20-year intervention had accomplished nothing. “The result is zero, if not to say that it is negative,” he said.
Like his Western counterparts, though, the Russian leader appears also to have been surprised by the speed of the collapse of the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban’s sweep of the country. When the Taliban seized Kandahar on August 13, Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said he doubted the Taliban would take control of Kabul any time soon. They seized it within two days.
With Afghanistan right on its doorstep, there are more downsides and risks for Russia from NATO’s departure arguably than there are for the Western powers, and the Kremlin is casting a wary glance south, according to Paul Stronski, who was director for Russia and Central Asia at the U.S. National Security Council from 2012 to 2014.
“Russia has been eying the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan with schadenfreude. But the Kremlin does not relish the prospect of an unstable Afghanistan,” Stronski wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment, a think tank in Washington.
“Even though Moscow has publicly cheered the removal of U.S. and NATO troops from the region, Russian officials are sober-minded enough to appreciate the downsides of their departure,” he says. “The key question now is whether Moscow is equipped to deal with a combustible situation along its southern flank that is unfolding far more quickly than anyone might have expected,” he added.
Midweek, top Russian and Indian security officials met in Delhi to discuss the implications of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. In the subsequent readouts of their talks for the press, Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a key Putin adviser, and Indian counterpart Ajit Doval highlighted the security dangers, with their officials saying global militant groups operating from Afghanistan pose a threat to Central Asia and to India.
They agreed to deepen counterterrorism cooperation.
“U.S. withdrawal and Taliban triumph generate an acute security challenge for Russia,” according to Pavel Baev of the Brookings Institution. A former researcher in the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Defense, he says the problem for the Kremlin is the NATO withdrawal “yields no rewards” and presents Moscow with a security “black hole” on its southern flank.
Like their Western counterparts, Russian security chiefs are trying to judge whether the Taliban will abide by the promises its leaders made in political talks in Doha, Qatar, to stop Afghanistan once again from turning into a sanctuary for al-Qaida and other global jihadist groups.
The Kremlin also is alarmed by the prospects of an increase in opiate drug trafficking, which alone may earn the Taliban $416 million a year, according to a U.N. assessment.
Taliban leaders have said they won’t permit any opium poppy cultivation. But with a financial crunch looming for the country — and for the militant group — there are widespread doubts that they will — or can — keep to that promise. Afghanistan is estimated to be responsible for about 80 percent of global opium and heroin supplies.
In July, following a string of bilateral talks with the Taliban, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Taliban leadership was “rational.” He added: “They are sane people. They clearly stated that they have no plans to create problems for Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors.”
Baev believes that statement was “an exercise in wishful thinking.” “The best Russian diplomats can hope for is to dissuade the shrewd leadership of the Taliban from launching cross-border attacks northwards,” he says.
The Taliban remains proscribed in Russia as a terrorist organization. Its ties with Central Asian jihadists, including Chechen separatists who the Taliban allowed to train in Afghanistan, prompted President Putin in September 2001 to acquiesce regarding the U.S. building military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to facilitate the U.S.-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan. Putin also allowed the U.S.-led coalition to use Russian airspace for the invasion.
The Kremlin appears to be readying for the worst, and it has been for some time.
In 2012, it signed an agreement with Tajikistan to extend its lease on a military base in Dushanbe until 2042, and in 2016 it started modernizing the base and rearming it, including with armed Orlan-10 drones.
Last month, the Russian, Tajik and Uzbek militaries held joint exercises on the Afghan border. Recently, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu pledged to strengthen military cooperation with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.