Policy Pak

Research and Analysis By Palwasha Aftab

Changing circumstances nudge the countries of the world, including major powers, to adjust their approaches in their dealings with other countries and players. Russia’s changed and evolving policy-approach towards Afghanistan is one such example.

Unlike its previous policy of reticence towards Afghanistan, which emerged following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Kremlin, in the wake of the fast-evolving situation in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghanistan, has intensified its engagement with the country, and its new rulers Taliban, considerably.

Currently, Russia’s Afghan strategy centers on four major goals:

First, Moscow is primarily seeking to forestall the penetration of security threats posed by Afghanistan into Russia and/or Central Asia. Although, the Taliban have no transnational ambitions and also has pledged its commitment to Moscow that “[they have] no intention of destabilizing neighboring countries.” Nonetheless, Putin has cautioned against the prospective penetration of the “Islamist extremists” into Central Asia – which according to Russia serves as its ‘defensive buffer.’ The so-called Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), which in comparison to the Taliban, holds a far more radical view of Islam and aims to establish a caliphate across Central Asia in its latest spate of terrorist attacks on mosques and various public places, have further compounded these apprehensions.

In addition, the exodus of mass migrants that may risk the infiltration of extremist entities in to Russia and drug trafficking are other threats which Russia aims to contain.

The Russian federation, in its documents such as National Security Strategy and Military Doctrine has identified terrorism and the influx of illegal drugs as the key security threats to Russian state and people. In fact, Moscow has vehemently denounced the West for its failure to effectively eliminate the threat of narcotics production and trafficking from Afghanistan, which has claimed lives of nearly 500,000 Russians ever-since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Second major policy goal of Moscow is to consolidate its military foothold in the region of Central Asia and to dissuade the Central Asian leaders, especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan from offering its bases to Washington. Moscow has maintained a strong position that it was the unceremonious withdrawal of the U.S., which has left a dangerous power vacuum in Afghanistan and in consequence, has jeopardized the security of entire wider region including Central Asia.

As of now, Moscow has been successful in convincing its former Soviet Central Asian republics to accede to its offer of “joint strategy” to contain any security risks emanating from Afghanistan. So far, combined military exercises have been held by Moscow with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in August and September respectively, strengthening in turn, Moscow’s military presence and influence in the region.

Third, although Moscow does not have any major economic / commercial projects in Afghanistan at present; it has expressed its interests in strengthening its economic engagement with Afghanistan in the mining and infrastructure sectors. Russian railway has shown interest in the intended railway line connecting Termez in Uzbekistan, Mazar-I-Sharif and Kabul in Afghanistan, and Peshawar in Pakistan. This 356-mile railway line with the capacity to facilitate the transport of about 20 million tons of cargo per year is expected to cost USD $5 billion and further Russia’s Eurasian integration initiative which it desires to integrate with the Belt and Road Initiative of China.

Fourth and finally, in the Russian view, the Afghan peace, in large part, hinges on the behavior of the Taliban. It is against this backdrop that Moscow will most likely intensify its ongoing engagement with the Islamist group to improve its diplomatic clout vis-à-vis the regional states and its Western rivals.

In the region, Moscow is incentivized to engage with the Taliban to signify its diplomatic strength to countries like China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar and also to strengthen its footprint in Central Asia. Whereas, regarding the West, given Russia’s deteriorating relations with the U.S. and Europe, Russia would capitalize on its influence in Afghanistan as a means to mend its ties with the West based on its own conditions.

As Moscow continues to engage with the interim government of the Taliban, just like majority of the other countries, its approach towards the Taliban has increasingly been shaped by pragmatism and restraint. One may conclude that while Moscow may or may not recognize Taliban formally, its strategic interests would keep it engaged with the militia in foreseeable future.

The author is an International Relations’ graduate and currently an Intern Scholar at the Eurasian Century Institute (ECI), Islamabad-Pakistan. Views expressed are her own.

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