A close examination of the Russian government’s public positions on the impending Taliban takeover of Afghanistan provides a revealing picture of Moscow’s approach to conflicts abroad and of its posture in Central Asia more specifically. While reveling in Washington’s failure in Afghanistan (TASS, July 16, 21) and criticizing the United States for the latter’s badly planned withdrawal from there, Russia has also broached the idea of allowing US forces access to Russian bases in Central Asia—before denying it had done so (Mid.ru, July 21). At the same time, Moscow has brought pressure to bear upon Central Asian governments to refrain from hosting those US forces in their own countries (Mid.ru, July 16). That bravado and gloating, nonetheless, obscures deeper worries in Russia regarding the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
In response to mounting signs of concern in Tajikistan in particular (see EDM, July 13), Russia has warned the Taliban and its associated groups against spreading terrorism (and drugs) to Central Asia, stepped up joint military drills there (Caspian News, July 23; Anadolu Agency, July 27), and loudly stated the readiness of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to assist in defending any member threatened by the Taliban or other militants. Back in 2019, the head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, warned that 5,000 Islamic State fighters had descended on northern Afghanistan, though at the time most foreign intelligence services dismissed those assertions as overblown (RFE/RL, May 21, 2019).
Despite such apparent apprehensions, Moscow has, at the same time, insisted on a power-sharing agreement inside Afghanistan that would involve bringing the Taliban—to whom it has been running guns and with whom it has shared intelligence since 2013 (Ifri.org, September 21, 2018)—into the government in Kabul. Concurrently it is stating that it wants to allow members of the “extended Troika”—Russia, China, US and Pakistan—into talks within the Afghanistan–Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) framework to negotiate an Afghan settlement (Mid.ru, July 16). And Russia has preserved its contacts with the Taliban by inviting them to Moscow on its own (TASS, July 8). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that no new agreements on Afghanistan are needed and that the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul must utilize existing accords and instruments to settle the war (TASS, July 16, 21). Moreover, Russia’s top diplomat further reiterated that an Afghan solution must incorporate all the political elements and people of Afghanistan (Mid.ru, July 16).
An assessment of these proposals in light of the realities on the ground—where neither the Taliban nor the government in Kabul are prepared to negotiate with one another—indicates that Moscow’s simulacrum of intense activity is simply a lot of sound and fury designed to conceal its real objectives and to present itself in the best possible light. First, Moscow has no intention of sending its own troops to Afghanistan. Second, its diplomats have long claimed that the Taliban is no longer interested in supporting terrorism beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Third, even as it invites the Taliban to Moscow, it is discussing selling weapons to the sitting Afghan government.
But Russia’s real objective is for the situation in Afghanistan to effectively “stay” in Afghanistan. While the threat of terrorism migrating to Central Asia may be real, it has long been over-hyped for the political purposes of Russia and Central Asian regimes (see EDM, October 22, 2015 and May 24, 2018; see Terrorism Monitor, March 20, 2015), which could still be the case today. That said, hiding behind all this frenetic activity are several goals that Moscow dare not publicize. Obviously, the threat of terrorism is to some degree real as is drug trafficking—even though it is in part due to the complicity of corrupt Russian security personnel, including officers, and governments like Tajikistan’s (Rand.org, October 2009). More to the point: Russian activities here perfectly correspond to Moscow’s tendencies in other conflicts, where it seeks to be an arbiter and thus manipulator of all warring sides, thereby profiting through, for instance, selling arms to all involved (see EDM, April 29, 2011 and January 26, 2017; see Jamestown.org, November 20, 2018; Marshallcenter.org, June 2020).
Additionally, Moscow is determined to secure political leverage over any future Afghan government, whether it be that of President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban or someone else. Unresolved fighting in Afghanistan, thus, serves Moscow’s purposes quite well, so long as the war—along with the associated or concurrent threats of terrorism, extremism and narcotics trafficking—remain localized.
Finally, Russia has no desire to actually defend Central Asia against terrorism and guerilla fighters given the cost and duration of such wars; but it must at, all costs, maintain its self-proclaimed position as the main defender of the region in order to confirm its great power and neo-imperial status there. Russia’s tentative offer to the US of access to its own bases underscores that it still sees the region as somehow its own rather than as a fully independent assemblage of fully sovereign states. And the joint drills and sonorous rhetoric about upholding its commitments through the CSTO—an organization whose record indicates more breaches than fulfillments of security guarantees to its members (see EDM, June 28, 2010, November 29, 2018, May 19, 2021, July 19, 2021)—sound impressive but actually mask Moscow’s fear of having to live up to those obligations. Should the Taliban or forces under its umbrella manage to cross into Central Asia and launch a prolonged insurgency there (for instance, in Tajikistan), this would be a nightmare scenario for Russia. Hence, while Russia’s Afghan policies outwardly conform to its usual approach to foreign conflicts where it has serious interests, in fact Moscow is running a bluff here.
It, of course, remains to be seen if anyone will call that bluff. In the meantime, Central Asian states benefit from Russia’s ostensible defense commitments because their own military burden is reduced; but if they are forced to stand face-to-face against encroaching Islamist militants, an economically stagnant Russia will be forced to live up to its imperial claims while remaining engaged in Ukraine, Syria, etc. As Russian history suggests, such conflict situations often do not work out well for the regime.