Foreign policy
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The Taliban has reached Kabul. Why is Moscow so calm?

Ivan U. Klyszcz looks at why Russia seems much less worried by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan than it was in the 1990s

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Photo: Scanpix

On 15 August, the Taliban reached Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani relinquished power. As of writing, the government and the Taliban are holding tense talks. What is next is unknown. For external actors, the Taliban takeover is a dramatic shift on the ground. The ongoing evacuation of the ‘Green Zone’ and the diplomatic missions inside it illustrates how most external players do not trust the Taliban’s intentions.. Yet one major embassy yet to announce (as of writing) such evacuation plans is Russia’s. Its diplomatic mission is somehow more calm about the Taliban takeover than its Western counterparts. This attitude contrasts with the prior convergence with the US in the fight against ISIS and even more with Russia’s views of the Taliban in the 1990s. What changed?

There are overlaps in Russia’s moves in Afghanistan in 1996—when the Taliban took Kabul for the first time—and in 2021. In the 1990s, Moscow actively assured its Central Asian counterparts that their Afghan borders would receive Russian help in case of a Taliban attack. And once again, since early August, Moscow has joined month-long exercises with its Central Asian partners. Those exercises resemble a scenario of a Taliban invasion. In the 1990s, Russia participated in the international efforts to support the Northern Alliance, then positioned itself against the Taliban. In 2021, Russia is an active participant of the ‘extended troika’ with China, US and Pakistan, which seeks to bring a negotiated end to the conflict.

The differences between now and 1996, however, are striking. While Russia supplied help against the anti-Taliban coalition starting in 1995, today Russia did not offer arms or help to the Kabul government against the Taliban. In fact, on 15 August, Russian authorities declared they would not intervene against the Taliban takeover at all. In Moscow’s assessment, the fate of Kabul was already sealed. Moreover, the ‘extended troika’ talks are specifically meant to end the conflict through negotiation with the Taliban. There are no talks of an international anti-Taliban coalition. Tellingly, India and Iran, two partners against the Taliban in the 1990s, were left out of the troika as of writing.

Change and continuity

Russia’s views of Afghanistan itself have not changed. Moscow still regards the civil war in the country as a source of instability for the region. Where views have changed is on Central Asia and Russia’s role in it. Generally speaking, Russia is confident about the relative stability of the Central Asian successor states, and of its hegemony over them. Unlike the 1990s, the view from Moscow is not one of fragmenting states and overwhelming violent conflicts. The civil war in Tajikistan ended in 1997, leaving a manageable—although violent—conflict thereafter. Other areas that used to be a source of anxiety have also proven manageable, such as the Ferghana valley.

Beyond these specific conflicts, Russia has long regarded the Central Asian states as ‘artificial’ and without a strong identity, which in turn could lead to further conflict. During the 1990s, this was made evident in Russia’s 1993 request to be recognised as the region’s leading peacekeeping force. This view likely began to change in the 2010s as states in the region proved (in the Kremlin’s eyes) to have greater staying power than many had assumed. In a (highly questionable) comment made in 2014, Putin told a Russian audience that then-President Nazarbayev ‘created’ the Kazakh state where there used to be none. The statement was seen as threatening against Kazakhstan; it implicitly delegitimises the country’s sovereignty and negates a long history of Kazakh independence. The comment also revealed how the Kremlin views the stability of the Central Asian region; the ‘stateness’ of the Central Asian successor states is questionable but with time it did take hold in the region.

The situation inside Russia itself has a bearing on policy too. In the 1990s, the Kremlin saw an imminent threat of separatism in Chechnya and elsewhere in the federation. At the time, the Taliban recognised Chechnya’s de facto independence, a move that evinced to the Kremlin the Taliban’s connection to separatism in Russia proper. Today Chechnya is very different. It has been reincorporated into the federal system and violent conflict in the region since declined markedly. ISIS/Daesh became the main external threats, with the Taliban—their rival—taking a secondary place.

Russia and the Taliban: from fear to recognition?

So over the years the arc of Russia’s relationship with the Taliban has gone from fear to a degree of trust. That the Russian authorities kept their diplomatic staff in the country is a prime example of this, with the Taliban assuring Moscow they would not target their Kabul mission.

With the Taliban, some things have changed and some have remained the same. Most critically, the group remains fiercely committed to its despotic forms of government, especially over women. Other things have changed markedly. Through their external engagement efforts, the Taliban became more connected.

First, the Taliban has developed what amounts to a diplomatic corps of sorts, credible enough to have the authority to represent the group. This external relations branch of the group has been received in Beijing, Islamabad, Tehran and many other capitals. Since opening their representation in Doha, Qatar, in 2013, the Taliban has actively participated in bilateral and multilateral negotiations with countries such as China, Russia and the US. While still far from being a proper diplomatic mission, the Taliban Qatar office has been a conduit for Taliban dialogue with external actors.

Crucially, through negotiations and dialogue rounds, the Taliban has given many assurances to other countries about their intentions. For instance, they promised the US in the 2020 withdrawal agreement that they would break all remaining cooperation with Al Qaeda. The Taliban’s messaging also became more disciplined. No longer is the Taliban leadership making idle claims on Samarkand.

Thus, external actors interested in Afghanistan have slowly broken the taboo of directly engaging the group in talks. In Russia’s case, the taboo was broken around 2015, when the menace of the ISIS/Daesh group in Central Asia became most acute. Particularly sensitive for Russia was the north of Afghanistan, where the Taliban assured Moscow that it would fight ISIS. In turn, Russia has given support to the Taliban for that task, including intelligence transfers. This has become a pattern ever since. On 3 August, Zamir Kabulov—the Kremlin’s Afghanistan envoy—commented that the Taliban presence in north Afghanistan is welcome, as it would help displace ISIS and other rival groups there.

Legitimist no more?

So is clear Russia no longer sees the Taliban as threatening as before. However, there are limits to this trust. The 2003 Russian designation of the Taliban as a terrorist organisation still stands as of writing. On 13 August, Russian foregin minister Sergei Lavrov still spoke of the danger of fighting going north from Afghanistan, into Central Asia. Why did that not catalyse Russia to support the Kabul government?

After all, Russia’s post-2012 foreign policy is well known to be biased in favour of established governments against popular insurrections. After what was seen in Moscow as a debacle in Libya—when Russia acquiesced to the NATO operation against Gaddafi—Putin has doubled down on a legitimist foreign policy. The most (in)famous case was in Syria, where Russia militarily intervened under the rationale that the despotic Assad regime is the UN-recognised government of the country. Why is this principle not applied to Kabul? It was a UN-recognised government of Afghanistan, and has been a partner of Russia for years.

The most immediate, junctural answer is that Kabul is generally Western-oriented and thus not a potential long-term partner for Moscow. In turn, the Taliban takeover helps cast the US-NATO operation in the country as a debacle. During the recent Taliban takeover, Russia’s diplomatic officials have repeatedly put the blame on the US and NATO for the outcomes in Afghanistan. On 16 July, Lavrov called the US mission an outright failure.

The answer for the long-term trends has to do with Moscow’s views on Western liberal governance and international conflict resolution. Russia’s rhetoric about the US-NATO operation in Afghanistan is significant although nothing new. It reflects Moscow’s long-standing difference with the West on conflict resolution. Namely, Russia has embraced a state-centric, coercive approach to governance and conflict resolution, one that departs from the Western liberal approach. Russia has put its conflict resolution approach in competition to the Western one in countries such as Central African Republic and Libya. In this sense, the rhetoric about the ‘failure’ of the US Afghanistan withdrawal has strategic importance for Moscow: it adds to its argument on the merits of Russia’s conflict resolution.

What is ahead

A full Taliban takeover of the country was unthinkable not long ago. Now that the Taliban is poised to participate in—or even lead—a transition government, all external actors are waiting to see what the Taliban will do with the power they have gained. There are hints of what is approaching; in a rather shocking shift, the international community is socialising the Taliban into international relations, especially on matters such as its cooperation with more outwards-looking groups, such as Al Qaeda. By acquiescing to the Taliban takeover, Russia is an active participant in this process.

There is much uncertainty. One residual fear is that the Taliban takeover will not lead to effective governance and that a new round of civil war will begin. External actors remain in a wait-and-see position, with none committing to fight the Taliban. For Russia, the Taliban takeover does not change its fundamental Afghanistan policy: to keep the instability of the civil war in Afghanistan away from Central Asia. If the Taliban indeed commits to restrain itself from threatening its northern neighbours, then Russia may continue to acquiesce to a longer Taliban rule over Afghanistan.

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