Russia is entering a security vacuum created by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and President Vladimir Putin wants to regain influence in Central Asia and prevent the spillover of Islamist extremism across borders.
Moscow moved tanks to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border for military exercises last week to protect its ally from a possible government collapse in Kabul as resuscitating Taliban continue to advance and the U.S. prepares for the end of a 20-year, non-peace-building military mission. .
Russia, which cheered for the US exit, despite parallels with the humiliating withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, was one of the first to publicly engage with the Taliban. It hosted a 2018 delegation to boost peace efforts, the start of a series of meetings, though, despite the fact that it considers the Taliban a banned terrorist organization.
“Putin’s play is a disgrace to the United States,” said Asfandyar Mir, an associate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “Russia does not want US-backed regimes in its backyard.”
Instead, Putin lays faith in a new relationship with the Taliban that he hopes will curb the threat of Isis and al-Qaeda.
Zamir Kabulov, his special envoy for Afghanistan, recently described the Taliban’s advance as strengthening security for Russia as it would wipe out more dangerous jihadist groups.
“The fact that the Taliban are taking control. . . has a positive aspect. Why? Because most of these [extremist] “The groups are not focused on domestic issues, but on Central Asia, Pakistan or Iran,” he said last week.
Asked in a separate radio interview last week whether the US withdrawal was good for Russia, he replied: “On the whole, yes.”
But Arkady Dubnov, a Russian political scientist and expert on Central Asia, said the strategy was risky.
“Moscow’s position, which is openly betting on one force and trying to limit the influence of another, seems dangerous to me. It also looks embarrassing to try to settle old bills, ”he said.
Moscow was severely revived by a decade-long Soviet conflict in Afghanistan, when Taliban mujahideen leaders forced its demoralized forces to withdraw.
“Russia wants to play a major role [in Afghanistan] but it is not directly related to the war of the 1980s, “said another regional expert.
For Putin, the chances created by the American exit go further than Afghanistan, as Moscow seeks to regain the power it had in Soviet times and re-establish itself as a guarantor of security for much of the Eurasian continent.
“It has nothing to do with Russia helping peaceful regulations in Afghanistan. “This is a move to ensure the security of the countries of Central Asia, most of which are Russian partners or allies, facing a potential, hypothetical threat given the Afghan situation,” Dubnov said.
He continued: “Everything is in the image[and]. . . assuring our partners in Central Asia that only Russia is capable of ensuring their security. ”
The ultimate goal was to stop the United States and any other Western power from ever returning to the region, Dubnov added. “Everything else Russia does is a smokescreen.”
As part of that, Russia has repeatedly called for talks in formats it controls, including the Eurasian Economic Union, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military bloc that includes those countries, as well as Tajikistan.
But again, there are risks for Moscow. “The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan will become a serious test for the CSTO, which must prove that it can ensure security in the region,” said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Center’s research center in Moscow.
“Neither Russia nor the countries of Central Asia have the resources, the reasons, or the desire for forced intervention in Afghan issues. That would be complete nonsense, “he added.
Most international experts privately believe that there is potential for the Taliban to retake Afghanistan, in whole or in part, after the departure of the United States.
“I guarantee you that the Taliban will take power in Kabul by September,” a Russian diplomatic source told the Financial Times, on condition of anonymity. “But they don’t know how to govern – they’re stuck in the 13th century in the way they do things, so there will be a mess.”
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, they applied a strict interpretation of Islamic law, leading to horrific human rights violations and special repression of women. It offered safe haven to terrorists, including Osama bin Laden al kaida the network that created the 9/11 attacks, resulting in an invasion by U.S.-led forces that remained for two decades.
Dubnov suggested that this time Russia could offer “advice” to the Taliban on how to govern, although it is unclear whether it will succeed. “These people are hard to teach with advice, they prefer money, and Russia is not ready to help with money,” he said.
Russia is also making inroads with Pakistan, a regional player whose special services are closely linked to the Taliban.
Pakistan has “nuclear weapons and close cooperation [arrangements] with China, so it deserves more attention from Moscow “, said Trenin. But Moscow must pass through a narrow rope so as not to anger its rival India, he added.
And despite the imminent withdrawal, the United States will not be completely powerless in the fate of Afghanistan, said Harsh Pant, director of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“Every country in this game for Afghanistan [is] waiting for what the U.S. will do next, ”he said, adding,“ America still has a lot of cards. “