How Russia Views Afghanistan Today
As with many contemporary issues of its foreign and security policy, history influences Moscow’s attitudes towards Afghanistan. Since the 19th century, Afghanistan has been an object of competition between Russia and other global powers. A particularly interesting example is the mission of Maj. Gen. N.G. Stoletov of Russia’s general staff to Kabul in 1878, during the era of the “Great Game” between the Russian and British empires. The two empires and the other great powers of Europe were meeting at the time at the Berlin Congress, which followed the Russian-Turkish War of 1877 to 1878, and Stoletov’s visit to the Afghan capital was a means of exerting pressure on Britain half a world away at the Congress.
Recent claims that Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. and allied soldiers reveal both that Afghanistan is still a site of competition between Russia and the West, and that a need still exists to understand what Russia desires and expects from its contemporary policy in Afghanistan. The aim here is to explore the determinants, goals, and approaches of Russia’s Afghanistan policy during recent years. This analysis intends to explain Russia’s vision of relations with and the significance of Afghanistan for Russia’s international and security policy. Drawing primarily on official Russian sources as well as the statements of Russian political elites and experts, I intend to explain the trends, changes, and developments in Russia’s Afghanistan policy.
Russia’s current Afghan policy reflects its main priorities regarding the region, such as maintaining its influence and preventing U.S. military bases in the region, and also its temporary interests, such as challenging the United States amidst worsening relations between Moscow and Washington. Moscow also assumes the Taliban will play a huge role in the country in coming years, and therefore aims to be on good terms with the Taliban.
What Threats Does Russia Perceive?
Russia’s interests in Afghanistan center on ensuring the security and preventing the destabilization of the Afghan-Central Asian border area. Three of these Central Asian countries — Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan — are Russian allies within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. The Collective Security Treaty Organization is Russia’s leading military alliance, and started with an agreement signed in May 1992. It currently has six members: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The Eurasian Economic Union is a Moscow-led international organization for regional economic integration, and was established by the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union in the end of 2014. Its member-states are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.
An additional Russian policy goal is to keep Afghanistan as a neutral state that cannot be used as a launching pad by other powers, especially the United States, against Russia. Afghanistan’s geographic location — already considered by China, India, Iran, and Pakistan as a site for several transport and energy projects in the region — attracts Russia as it seeks to play a major role in Eurasia. Although Russia’s current economic participation in Afghanistan is weak, it does try to ensure its economic interests in Afghanistan for when a peace resolution is achieved. It should be noted that although a stable Afghanistan would align with Russia’s interests, Moscow does not have vital interests (economic or otherwise) in this country.
Since the end of the 1990s, Russia has perceived the main threats emanating from Afghanistan to be the potential for the export of radical ideology; terrorism and narcotics; the penetration of Afghan military groups in Central Asia and destabilization of those countries; and the American military presence in Afghanistan and its influence over Central Asian states. However, while the export of terrorism and the penetration of military groups could have in the past been perceived as real concerns, their current threat has been exaggerated by Russian officials and several experts.
A direct military threat against Russia from Afghanistan does not exist and probably will not for any foreseeable future. There will be no direct military threat to Russia, even if the Taliban gain power in Kabul and takes control of the entire country — including the northern regions. Therefore, Russian experts urge that it is not only dangerous for Russia to get involved in the intra-Afghan struggle for power, but pointless. Rather, Moscow should be working with potential leaders in Kabul and maintaining contact with any regional or ethnic groups that are not involved in direct actions against it.
Eliminating drug trafficking from Afghanistan is one of Russia’s primary means for reducing domestic drug use. Russia has one of the world’s highest rates of per-capita narcotics use. A significant portion of those narcotics flow directly from Afghanistan.
This goal of eliminating drug trafficking is one reason why at the end of the 2000s, Russian officials criticized U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan for failing to fight against narcotic production and distribution. In 2010, Russia gave a list of Afghan and Central Asian drug barons and others involved in the drug trade, as well as data on 175 drug laboratories operating in Afghanistan, to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy and to NATO. Moscow subsequently sought the forceful eradication of opium poppy fields in Afghanistan. Moscow’s request was unsuccessful, as there were no alternative income possibilities available to the peasant population, and both the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition refused. However, in October 2010, the United States and Russia conducted a symbolic joint operation to destroy four laboratories near the Pakistani border. Moscow’s motives on this front are not solely health-based: It uses the problem of drug production in Afghanistan in “information confrontations” with the United States, as evidenced by the recent statements made by a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official accusing the U.S. intelligence community of involvement in drug trafficking.
In Russia’s recent National Security Strategy and its 2014 Military Doctrine, direct threats from Afghanistan are not mentioned, though both documents do cite terrorism and drug trafficking as central threats to the state and public security. Moreover, in Russia’s 2016 Foreign Policy Concept (the most recent), Afghanistan is mentioned as one of its regional foreign policy priorities.
Russia’s Weaknesses and Strengths
It should be noted that Russian resources in Afghanistan are quite limited. While Russia has historically had economic and cultural relations with the Central Asian countries and currently participates in alliances with some of them, there are several complicated issues limiting Moscow’s resources and influence. Political leadership in those countries try to balance themselves between Russia, the United States, and most recently, China. The Russian military presence in the region is relatively small and the country cannot project power over the whole region. There are no reliable borders or geographical barriers between Afghanistan and Russian territory that could ultimately stop an infiltration of military groups into Russian territory. Although Russia’s central and southern military districts have enough capabilities to defeat challenges from the Afghanistan direction, they have troop mobility and deployment problems caused by underdeveloped railway lines in the region. In spite of these difficulties, several Russian experts have refused to accept even the possibility that radical groups based in Afghanistan have the capability to penetrate Central Asia at any time in the foreseeable future. However, official Moscow perceives it as a threat.
Moscow does have opportunities to influence regional security. Some tools, for example, are: targeted diplomacy within Afghanistan and with regional powers, especially China, India, Iran, and Pakistan; Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; and regional institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces of the organization totals some 18,000 servicemen and is the main instrument in emergency situations) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The “Moscow Format” Approach to Peace
Considering its historical experience, understanding of the economic and military burdens of any direct military involvement, and relative inability to influence internal groups, Moscow has since the early 2010s decided to seek diplomatic solutions to influence developments in Afghanistan. In doing so, Russia has become one of the main actors in the peace process.
Moscow has undertaken several initiatives. In two of the peace initiatives — the Moscow format of regional peace consultations on Afghanistan and the informal inter-Afghan dialogue in Moscow — Russia acts either as the main organizer or as a host and sponsor. A third effort is a joint initiative, the China-Russia-United States dialogue, which grew out of the U.S.-Russian dialogue on Afghanistan, which expanded in the summer of 2019 with the participation of Pakistan. Moreover, Moscow continues to dialogue with Washington and since 2019, the U.S. and Russian special envoys for Afghanistan began to meet regularly. Moscow also uses some other diplomatic initiatives, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization-Afghanistan Contact Group, which was revived on Oct. 11, 2017 when it met at the level of deputy foreign ministers in Moscow.
Russia seeks to use the Moscow format as a platform for consultations at the Eurasian level. It started in December 2016 in the form of trilateral consultations between Russia, China, and Pakistan. On April 14, 2017, the third round was held, and what had been formally referred to as “consultations” were upgraded to the “Moscow conference on the Afghan settlement.” For the first time, Russia, China, and Pakistan together called on the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. Diplomats from 11 states (Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, China, India, and all five Central Asian countries) attended. Delegations from the Taliban and the Afghanistan High Peace Council took part in the next meeting of the Moscow format in Nov. 2018. (Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai established the Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban in September 2010 and its secretariat was dissolved by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai on July 27, 2019, with the State Ministry of Peace Affairs taking over the authorities of the council.) The first meetings on the Afghan settlement, which took place in Moscow in December 2016, provoked a protest from Kabul. Thus, the first round of trilateral consultations on regional issues, held in Moscow on Dec. 27, 2016 with the participation of representatives from Russia, China, and Pakistan, prompted the Afghan Foreign Ministry to condemn the plans for a meeting without the participation of the Afghan government delegation.
Moscow officially supports negotiations between the United States and Taliban, while simultaneously looking askance at any U.S.-led peace initiatives. For instance, Ghani’s initiated peace talks “without preconditions” with the Taliban in February 2018 were skeptically received by Zamir Kabulov, the Russian president’s special representative to Afghanistan. According to 2018 remarks by Kabulov, Russia considers the Moscow format to be the optimal platform for promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan because it included the Taliban, while other initiatives did not help to involve the Taliban in the talks. At the same time, he stressed that Moscow considers the Kabul conference as a key element in the search for a collective solution to the Afghan settlement problems. It should be noted that Kabulov’s statement regarding the approaches of other external players in the Afghan peace process came several days before another meeting (not led by Russia, and thus a subject of Russian grievance) on the Afghan peace settlement, the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan, on March 27, 2018.
In 2020, Russia has received U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Central Asia and the new U.S. Central Asia Strategy negatively. Prior to Pompeo’s visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov negatively assessed U.S. activity in the region, saying that America’s true goal is “to deploy all projects with Central Asia’s participation in the south, towards Afghanistan, but without the participation of the Russian Federation.”
Peace Initiatives as Competition
The informal inter-Afghan dialogue in Moscow was organized by Russia under the auspices of Afghan diaspora organizations in Russia. In February 2019, leaders of several major movements and factions of the former Afghan Northern Alliance, mujahideen groups, and the Taliban met in Moscow to discuss the prospects for peace in Afghanistan. All of this happened despite the fact that the Taliban continue to be on the official Russian list of designated terrorist organizations. Most important was the fact that Russia organized a parallel dialogue platform to Western-led initiatives. Russian experts noted that the inter-Afghan meeting was the idea of Russian leadership and is intended to compete with the negotiation process launched by the United States.
According to the Russian scholar Ekaterina Stepanova, Russia pursues two interrelated strategies regarding negotiations over the settlement of the Afghan conflict. The first strategy is the regionalization of Russian policy on Afghanistan aimed at intensifying dialogue, coordination, and interaction with the main regional powers (Iran, China, India, and Pakistan). She notes that the decreasing presence of the United States and NATO by the mid-2010s and the gradual decline of Western influence in the region only contributed to the further “regionalization” of Russian politics. The second strategy is Russia’s turn towards more active diplomatic support for a negotiated Afghan settlement. The combination of these two strategies has found its practical embodiment in the form of the Moscow format of regional peace consultations on Afghanistan.
However, it should be noted that Russia’s main goal in conducting parallel dialogues to the United States was to gain influence over the internal and external negotiation processes on Afghanistan, and that this all happened amidst increasing competition between Russia and the United States.
The History of Russia’s Relations with the Taliban
Since the end of the 2000s, Moscow has been developing relations with ethnic Pashtun groups. In this respect, developing relations with the Taliban is perceived by Moscow as one of the significant facets necessary to increase its influence in internal and international competition in Afghanistan. Moreover, by the mid-2010s, the emergence of the Islamic State group posed a serious challenge to the supremacy of the Taliban and also encouraged Russia, China, and Iran — who were all fearful of any Islamic State expansion — to review their policies and open dialogues with the Taliban.
In December 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan stated that the interests of the Taliban in the fight against the Islamic State in Afghanistan “objectively coincide with those of Russia.” He also confirmed that communication channels between Russia and the Taliban did exist. Kabulov stated that when Taliban forces were expelled in 2001, the level of terrorist activity was reduced to zero in Afghanistan, “but now, as a result of the massive American presence” there is a strategic threat for Russia, China, India, Central Asia, and Iran.
According to Russian researcher Arkady Dubnov, contact between Moscow and the Taliban has existed since the 1990s. Attempts by the Taliban in the 1990s to communicate with Moscow led to a single, closed meeting of Russian diplomats with former Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s representative in Ashgabat. This meeting had no sequel because the Taliban asked the Russian government for assistance in replacing the representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations with a representative from the Taliban instead. The request seemed inappropriate to Russia due to the negative attitudes of the Russian political elite towards the Taliban between the 1990s and mid-2010s. For instance, Gen. Aleksandr Lebed predicted that the Taliban, if not stopped, would soon reach the Russian city of Samara. In 2009, then Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, stated that if the coalition forces were defeated, the Taliban might fall to temptation and hit the north, then move towards Central Asia, which would subsequently pose a huge threat to Russia. The recognition of the independence of the Chechen Republic (Ichkeria) by the Taliban in January 2000 and the opening of the Chechen embassy in Kabul as a result of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev’s visit to Afghanistan (who was an acting president of the breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria between 1996 and 1997), further tightened Russia’s position against the Taliban.
However, by 2009 there were indications in the Russian media that Russia was seeking to establish relations with some Taliban groups in Afghanistan, and there were calls from Russian experts regarding the importance of improving relations, not solely with government representatives but also with various Pashtun groups. Furthermore, in May 2009, a group of Afghans suspected of having ties with the Taliban took part in the “Russian-Afghan Forum” organized by a Russian non-governmental organization in Moscow.
Initially, Moscow’s main goal in regards to relations with the Taliban was to use its moderate groups against organizations such as al-Qaeda and then ISIL or Islamic State-Khorasan Province in Afghanistan. According to Dubnov, taking advantage of the split between Taliban militants that arose in the middle of 2015 following the news of Mullah Omar’s death, Moscow wanted to partner with the Taliban group most hostile towards the Islamic State. Moscow seemed to decide that there was little chance of the United States achieving stability in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban were more than likely going to be a dominant force for the foreseeable future. The continued deterioration of relations between Russia and the United States after Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014 also influenced Moscow’s Afghan policy in general and its relations with the Taliban, in particular. In February 2019, commenting on the relationship between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Lavrov said that such a relationship was inevitable, but emphasized that when representatives of the United States and the Taliban recently met in Qatar, Russia and the regional countries were not informed.
In early 2018, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, stated that Russia was supporting and even supplying arms to the Taliban, but he could not say in what quantity. Russia denied this, and it denied the recent allegations regarding Taliban bounties for killed U.S. troops. However, in a July commentary, Nicholson wrote that Russia provided small arms, ammunition, and money with the intention of sustaining the Taliban in the fight and gaining influence ahead of the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. Nicholson concluded at the time that the Russian assistance was calibrated: “For instance, they refused to provide the Taliban with antiaircraft missiles.” According to Artemy M. Kalinovsky, Moscow’s decision to open a channel to the Taliban, and ultimately supply the group with arms, reflected a desire to be on good terms with whoever ruled the country.
Moscow has increased its diplomatic support to the Taliban in recent years. For instance, in March 2020, the United States launched air strikes in Helmand province to stop Taliban attacks on the Afghan military. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the air strikes a violation of the agreement signed in Qatar. Currently, Russia even supports lifting sanctions on the Taliban in the United Nations.
Moscow’s attitudes towards the Taliban evolved from viewing the group as an officially forbidden terrorist organization to one of the most important internal actors of the Afghan peace settlement. This has not gone unnoticed by the Taliban, with an official representative commenting that Russia’s role in the negotiations is a very important one during an interview with Russian media.
Recently, Moscow has started to make adjustments to its Afghan strategy. The Kremlin seems to have abandoned its longstanding practice of de facto boycotting the Afghan central government, although it continues to use the advisory and lobbying services of the country’s ex-president, Hamid Karzai — which is not welcomed by the Afghan government (relations between Ghani and Karzai are very bad).
Since 1989, Russia’s Afghan policy has seen several changes. Currently, it prioritizes three goals. First, to stabilize Afghanistan and to maintain Russia’s strong role in the negotiations while also seeing the removal of U.S. and NATO military bases. Second, to use the Afghanistan peace process in its current confrontation with the West. And finally, Moscow considers its participation in the peace settlement as a confirmation of its return to the world’s global-power competition. As Moscow assumes the Taliban will play a huge role in the country in coming years, it aims to be on good terms with Afghanistan’s assumed future power brokers.
Nurlan Aliyev (@anurlan) is a freelance expert based in Warsaw. From 2000 to 2017, he worked as an expert at various government, non-government, and international institutions. His research area is primarily focused on Russia’s foreign and security policy, post-Soviet countries, strategic studies, and asymmetric warfare. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy. Currently, he is completing his second Ph.D. on Russian security policy at the University of Warsaw.
The author is grateful to all who contributed to this research, especially Baku-based scholar Mesiagha Mehemmedi for his most helpful comments, and Berlin-based expert Andris Banka for his advice.