- Petr Kozlov and Anna Rynda
- BBC News Russia
As US and European governments struggled this week to get their Afghan citizens and colleagues out of Kabul, Russia was one of the few countries not visibly alarmed by the Taliban’s return to power.
Russian diplomats described the new men in charge of the Afghan capital as “normal people” and argued that the city is safer now than before.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on Friday (27/8) that Taleban control is a reality they would have to work with.
Quite different from the view on the disastrous war in the 1980s in Afghanistan to support the communist government that controlled Kabul. which lasted nine years and which many Russians still remember.
Kind words to the Taliban
Unlike most foreign embassies in the Afghan capital, Russia says its diplomatic mission remains open and uses kind words to refer to new rulers.
Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov met with a Taliban representative 48 hours after the Islamic extremist group took power and said he had seen no evidence of retaliation or violence.
Moscow’s representative to the United Nations (UN), Vassily Nebenzia, spoke of a bright future of national reconciliation, with law and order returning to the streets and “the end of many years of bloodshed”.
President Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, even said it was easier to negotiate with the Taliban than with the former “puppet government” of exiled former president Ashraf Ghani.
In addition, Russian diplomats claimed last week that Ghani had fled with four cars and a helicopter full of cash, charges he later called liars.
mapping the situation
Russia has not yet recognized the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan, but there has been an apparent softening of rhetoric.
The state news agency Tass this week replaced the term “terrorist” with “radical” in its reporting on the Taliban.
Moscow has been in contact with the group for some time.
Although the Taliban has been on Russia’s list of organizations considered terrorist and banned since 2003, representatives of the group have been going to Moscow for dialogue since 2018.
The former West-backed Afghan government accused the Russian envoy of being an outspoken supporter of the Taliban and of excluding the official government from three years of negotiations in Moscow. Kabulov denied the charge and said they were ungrateful.
But as far back as 2015, he claimed that Russia’s interests coincided with those of the Taleban when it came to fighting the jihadists of the extremist group called the Islamic State (IS).
This has not gone unnoticed in Washington. Then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Russia in August 2017 of supplying the Taliban with weapons — which Moscow denied and described as “puzzling”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow declared that it asked “our American colleagues to provide evidence, but it was in vain… We don’t offer any support to the Taliban.”
In February of this year, Kabulov infuriated the Afghan government by praising the Taliban for “immaculately” fulfilling their part of the Doha accords and accusing Kabul of sabotaging them.
Focus on regional security
Despite closer ties to the Taliban, Moscow so far remains pragmatic, watching developments — and so far has not removed the group from its list of terrorists.
Putin said he expected the Taleban to fulfill their promises to restore order. “It is important not to allow terrorists to reach neighboring countries,” he said.
The key factors shaping Russia’s policy are regional stability and its own painful history in Afghanistan. The country wants secure borders for its Central Asian allies and to prevent the spread of terrorism and drug trafficking.
When the United States targeted the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks and established bases in the region’s former Soviet states, Russia initially welcomed the action. But relations soon became strained.
Earlier this month, Russia held military exercises in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with the aim of reassuring Central Asian countries, some of which are its military allies.
Last month, Russia obtained assurances from the Taliban that no Afghan advance would threaten its regional allies and that they would continue to fight ISIS.
the bitter memory of war
Moscow emphasizes that it has no interest in sending troops to Afghanistan — and it’s not hard to see why.
Russia fought a bloody and, many would say, useless war in Afghanistan in the last years of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
What began as an invasion in 1979 to support a friendly regime lasted nine years and cost the lives of thousands of Soviet soldiers.
This turned the then Soviet Union into an international pariah, and many countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It turned out to be a major burden on the declining Soviet economy.
While the Soviet Union established a government in Kabul led by Babrak Karmal, the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia provided money and weapons to the mujahideen, Islamic militants who fought against Soviet troops and their Afghan allies.
Many of those who died were teenage recruits, and the war made them realize how little the Soviet authorities cared about their own people.
The war is believed to have hastened the end of the Soviet Union, at least in part, by causing disillusionment with its rulers. The war ended with a disreputable military withdrawal in February 1989.
Fear about the future
Russia may have given the impression that it was prepared for the Taliban’s rise to power, but some experts believe it was caught by surprise as much as any other country.
“We can’t talk about any Moscow strategy,” says Andrey Serenko of the Russian Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, who believes that decisions are being made as things unfold.
“What worries Moscow is being late for the remodeling of regional architecture.”
Others in Moscow are suspicious of what the Taliban government can do. Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council’s expert group, believes they will fight to control the entire country, especially the north, and that could threaten Russia and its neighbors.
“Maybe some al Qaeda cells, perhaps the Islamic State, based in Afghanistan, would instigate some actions in Central Asia,” he said.
He also fears a sharp deterioration in the Afghan economy, which in turn could lead to further instability.
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