By Mike Eckel
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
August 17, 2021
Chaos enveloped Kabul’s main airport, with thousands of Afghans frantically rushing to flee Taliban fighters while U.S. Marines sought to provide security for American diplomats and allies being evacuated.
Across town outside the Russian Embassy on August 16, it was a different scene: Taliban fighters taking up guard duties at the outer perimeter of the sprawling post: steel, brick, and barbed-wire walls outside; fountains, manicured lawns and rose bushes inside.
“They made a good impression on us, proper guys, well-armed, stood around the outer perimeter of the embassy so that no one could break through to us: not a terrorist, not a madman,” Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov said in a televised interview with Russian state TV. “Taliban representatives assured us again that they will not touch a hair on the heads of Russian diplomats there. They said, ‘You can safely continue working.'”
Zhirnov’s unruffled remarks, and his elaborate praise for members of a militant group that is officially designated a terrorist group by the Russian government, belie a far more complicated calculus for Moscow following the Taliban takeover.
On the one hand, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan means one less location close to what Russia sees as its historical sphere of influence where Washington has a formidable military deployment, a perennial source of anxiety for Russian planners.
But the sudden, messy vacuum the United States is leaving behind means a new set of uncertainties and potential problems for the Kremlin.
At the very least, there’s one reaction coming from Moscow that was easy to foresee: gloating over the fact that the United States, in the Kremlin’s eyes, has failed at nation building and suffered a blow to its image on the world stage.
“To some degree it came as a surprise,” Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special envoy for Afghan affairs, said of the quick collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
“We proceeded from the understanding that the Afghan Army…would still resist for some time. But apparently, we were too optimistic in assessing the quality of the armed forces trained by the Americans and NATO,” he told the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy.
He also pointedly contrasted the fast-paced developments this summer, ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. military forces by August 31, with the Soviet pullout in 1989 after a nearly decade-long war of occupation. The Soviet-backed government stayed in power in Kabul for nearly three years after Soviet troops. The U.S.-backed government of Ashraf Ghani effectively collapsed even before the U.S. withdrawal.
Soviet-backed Afghan leader Mohammad Najibullah’s regime “stood for another three years,” Kabulov said. “The regime they created collapsed even before the Americans left. This is where the fundamental difference lies.”
The opportunity to make such comparisons may be a benefit, at least in terms of propaganda, but on a practical level the developments present problems for Moscow.
One of them: How do you refer to the new government in Kabul when its members are considered terrorists under Russian law — a designation, since 2003, that obligates Russian media to include a tedious disclaimer in all news articles mentioning them?
A more nuanced political situation might suit the Kremlin better than full Taliban rule, giving Russia a chance to gain influence and play to various sides as the United States steps back.
“For Russia, the formation of a transitional government in Afghanistan, where the Taliban would invite other participants in Moscow meetings, would be one of the best possible scenarios,” Kirill Krivosheyev, a political observer and newspaper columnist, wrote in an opinion piece for the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This would make it possible, on the one hand, not to directly recognize the authority of the organization declared terrorist, and on the other, not to spoil relations with the Taliban.”
1996 Vs. 2021
Moscow’s long-standing fear of instability on its southern borders is the primary factor in its calculations with Kabul. That depends on the ability of the Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan– to defend their borders and keep Taliban fighters, and extremist ideology, from destabilizing their own societies.
But Moscow has quietly built up its diplomatic ties with the Taliban for several years now. And ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks make up a sizable proportion of Afghanistan’s population, meaning they also have longstanding cultural, linguistic, and economic levers to pull on the Kabul government.
“While Russia may be open to limited forms of cooperation with major powers such as China, India, and even the United States on Afghanistan and regional security, it has also invested directly in cultivating relationships with senior Taliban leaders,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., said in an analysis. “Consequently, Russia now has some ability to exert direct leverage within Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.”
In fact, Kabulov suggested that, while the Taliban takeover came swiftly in the end, Russia may have been preparing for the possibility for years.
“It is not in vain that we have made contacts with the Taliban movement for the last seven years, discussed many points,” he said in his interview with Ekho Moskvy. “And we saw that yes, this force would eventually, if not fully come to power, in any case play a leading role in the future in Afghanistan.”
The last time the Taliban came to power was in 1996, amid civil war and near total anarchy, Moscow was more fearful of the consequences.
Russia itself was roiling still from the Soviet collapse five years earlier. It also feared the weakness of the newly independent Central Asian states who were dealing with their own turmoil: Tajikistan was racked by its own civil war in the 1990s; the Ferghana Valley, whose borders skein through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, regularly saw outbursts of violence; the First Chechen War had cracked the entire region’s door to Islamic extremist ideology.
That isn’t the case now, said Ivan Klyszcz, a researcher and political scientist at the University of Tartu, in Estonia.
“The [Taliban] takeover doesn’t change Moscow’s fundamental policy toward Afghanistan: to keep the instability of the civil war away from Central Asia,” he told RFE/RL.
Having open lines of communication — Zhirnov met on August 17 with Taliban representatives for the first time since the Taliban takeover — also doesn’t necessarily mean Moscow will be able to drive policy.
“It’s more about making sure they have privileged or constant communication with the Taliban, especially where it comes to the borders with Central Asia, and the fight with [Islamic State],” Klyszcz said.
“The main problem for Russia will be making sure that the Taliban does not try to foment violence, or spread its harsh version of Islam, beyond Afghanistan’s border,” said Arkady Dubnov, a longtime expert on South and Central Asia, said in an interview with Republic magazine. Depending on this, “Moscow will promote political recognition of the Taliban and getting them taken off the United Nations list of terrorist organizations.”
“One can hardly expect any significant financial assistance from Moscow to Kabul. This will be done by the Americans and the collective West, because it is largely responsible for what happened in Afghanistan today. Russia is, as they say, out of the business here,” he said.
It’s the fight with Islamic State, and other extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, where Moscow’s interests are more likely to dovetail with those of the United States and the West: The Kremlin not only was happy to support U.S. invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago, it facilitated the use of Russian airspace, and signaled support for the United States to use bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
As time went on, however, Moscow’s tolerance for the U.S. presence in Central Asia waned, and it worked to push the Americans out in the 2000s. Since then, Moscow has bolstered a major military base in Tajikistan and more recently held military exercises with both Tajik and Uzbek forces along the border.
Still, Washington and Moscow aren’t entirely adversarial where South Asia is concerned.
The top U.S. and Russian diplomats, Antony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov, spoke by phone on August 16, discussing “the situation in Afghanistan after the flight of the country’s leader, the disintegration of the existing government bodies, and a de-facto ongoing regime change,” according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The two also agreed “to continue consultations” that would involve China, Pakistan, other “interested nations” and to press the United Nations to organize some sort of meeting of Afghan society and government.
Aleksei Pushkov, a sharp-tongued Russian lawmaker and perennial critic of the West, proclaimed the U.S. pullout “a powerful blow to the international reputation of the United States and its capacity for “global leadership.”
“The decline of a whole school of thought, a whole system of myths and ideas’ about the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of the Western model,” he called the defeat in a post to Telegram.
But Russian gloating over the U.S. withdrawal shouldn’t be taken overly seriously, Klyszcz said.
“They’re mostly empty words, a convenient way to push a narrative about U.S. decline, the rise of multipolarity, the rise of other partners in the global system etc.” he said. “But it also has a strategic value, it’s not as much about U.S. decline, it’s about Western models of governance and conflict management. Moscow can use the [U.S. failures in Afghanistan] to promote its own model of conflict resolution by reducing the prestige of the competing Western model.”