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Russia and Afghanistan: Three scenarios for Moscow’s response

Russia stands to gain geopolitically from the Western failure in Afghanistan. As a meeting with the Taliban leadership in July showed, Moscow is positioning itself as a key actor in the new Central Asian reality.

August 25, 2021 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

Afghanistan War Memorial, Yekaterineburg, Russia. Photo: Rowan Townsend flickr.com

Over the past few weeks, all eyes have been on Afghanistan. The country has quickly descended into chaos following America’s rapid withdrawal throughout the first half of this year. This follows 20 years of a poorly led war by many Western states. The Taliban, a radical Islamist militant group and fledgling government has taken control of almost the entire country within weeks. This is despite the fact that some US military personnel are still on the ground. Images of Afghans hanging on to planes in attempts to flee from the Taliban have flooded social media and news sites. Footage of Islamist militants in the presidential palace in Kabul and desperate pleas for help from Afghans to be evacuated from the country by the West have also appeared across media outlets the world over. Without a doubt it is clear that the blunders of the West have been noted for everyone to see. Yet as this Central Asian country faces a terrifying unknown, one critical question has yet to be asked: What does this all mean for Russia?

Russia, to say the least, has had a very complicated history with Afghanistan over the past four decades. After a ten-year-long war that bankrupted the Soviet Union and cost the lives of thousands of soldiers, the Soviet Army withdrew from the country. The withdrawal left behind it not only mayhem and destruction. Indeed, it was also a major hit to Soviet national pride. Russia then faced a NATO and American war in its self-perceived southern ‘backyard’ just over a decade later. Now, thirty-three years after the Soviet Union’s retreat from Afghanistan and with the West having distinctly failed in the region, Russia is in a much better position to assert its interests.

Geopolitically, Russia stands to make great gains from the West’s retreat and failure in Afghanistan. Whilst much of the world was clueless as to what would happen after America withdrew from the country, the Kremlin was proactively preparing for this scenario. In July of this year, Taliban officials met with representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. The delegation guaranteed that it would keep the Islamic State (ISIS) group out of Afghanistan and promised to not use the country as a springboard to attack its neighbours. Earlier in the year, the Foreign Ministry (MID) also released a short press release in which it spoke in favour of initiating “substantive and constructive” intra-Afghan talks in order to build an effective government in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Russia has at the time of writing yet to recognise the Taliban government. Whilst Moscow’s Afghan strategy remains unclear, Russia is giving the impression that it will take a very different path compared to its Western counterparts.

At this current juncture, there are three plausible strategies to which the Kremlin may commit in the coming months and years. Firstly, it is most likely that the state will commit to a policy of containment. Russia, in its current condition, is not looking for another international conflict. The country has been weakened by falling oil and gas prices, political debacles, the COVID-19 crisis, and faces elections in the coming months. Whilst international confrontation has traditionally helped Russian President Vladimir Putin in the polls at home, another war in Afghanistan would be highly unpopular. Similarly, a confrontation with the West over the country is even more unlikely, as Moscow has little to gain and much to lose. It is therefore more likely that Russia will reluctantly support the Taliban in its efforts within the country as long as the group keeps its promises, ensures stability in the region, and prevents ISIS from launching attacks on Russia’s backyard. As Moscow continues to view the Taliban as an illegal terrorist organisation, Russia has no interest in seeing the group’s influence grow in the region. Thus, much like Chechnya in the past two decades, Russia will likely look to appease and tolerate the new regime, as long as the Taliban does not cause any problems for Russia or Russian interests in the region. Ultimately, Russia will most likely seek to contain the Taliban and its radical practices within Afghanistan. If the new administration in Kabul is willing to agree to such a state of affairs, it will face little opposition from Moscow.

A second, yet less likely scenario, is that of open cooperation between the Russian government and the Taliban. Over the past decade, the Kremlin has not shied away from strengthening its influence across the world. Oftentimes, these efforts have been dramatic in nature. Russia’s involvement and attempts at destabilisation in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine since 2014, and Syria since 2015 are all cases in point. Capitalising on the vacuum in Afghanistan left by the US withdrawal could offer it another stronghold in the Middle East. Furthermore, it would also provide the Kremlin with another opportunity to embarrass the West. Russia’s mission to offer foreign states an alternative to what it perceives as America’s ‘failed liberal democracy’ has succeeded in a number of cases. Working openly with the Afghan authorities, helping to fund and rebuild infrastructure, building a new government, and even upgrading the Afghan military are all tried and tested methods of Russian influence. Moscow already has close partners in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two of Afghanistan’s northern neighbours. Finally, Russia would also be more than happy to export energy and other goods to the country. Though such a strategy would likely damage Russia’s relations with the West and would only be half-hearted (Moscow does not want Afghan refugees or foreign workers within its borders), this has not stopped Moscow in the past. Working closely with and supporting the new Afghan government may appear to be an unlikely outcome. However, this route is definitely being discussed within the Kremlin as Russian authorities contemplate finding a new partner in the Taliban.

The final and most unlikely scenario is that of full-on conflict with Afghanistan and the Taliban. This is only likely in the case of a large civil war or conflict spill over beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Russia’s largest interest in the region is stability. It will not tolerate an unpredictable war on its southern borders, on the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, or in the CIS countries, which it considers as its “near abroad”. Moscow could attempt to capitalise on and consolidate its position as regional hegemon through a rapid assault on the Taliban. Moscow could subsequently push the group back into the mountains and set up a puppet government in Kabul that would help maintain stability and serve many of Russia’s interests. Decades of experience, however, have shown that this has rarely been an effective strategy. Overall, Russia would have to feel severely threatened to launch an assault on the Taliban. Memories of the Soviet war in Afghanistan would also make it more difficult for Russian society to accept such a conflict. Thus, such a scenario would likely be an act of desperation on the part of the Kremlin. The two strategies outlined above would likely have to fail before Russia would consider this option. In Afghanistan, Moscow is looking for stability at the least and a new partner at the most. Containment or cooperation are therefore the most likely strategies for the time being.

With the withdrawal of the American military and the fall of the Western-backed Afghan government to the Taliban, Afghanistan’s prospects for the future look bleak. A Taliban government is unlikely to abide by international norms of human rights, women’s rights, or any form of democracy. Few believed the situation would unfold as quickly as it has and yet fewer have any idea how it will develop in the coming weeks and months. Yet, whilst it is important to watch the West’s response to developments in Afghanistan, we should not lose sight of Russia. The country is the largest and most influential player in the region and such chaos is now playing out in its backyard. There will be a Russian response. The question is, will it be containment, cooperation, or conflict?

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics and is Editor-in-Chief of the Energy Politics Journal ENERPO based at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia.

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