Mary Chesnut and Julian G. Waller
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted a variety of responses from Moscow, whose security experience in the country is longstanding—including a previous, also failed, attempt at state-building in the 1980s. While schadenfreude and strategic anti-U.S. messaging forms the most visible aspect of Russia’s immediate response, Moscow’s more material concerns—regional instability, narcotics trafficking and the spread of radical Islamic terrorism—should not be understated. As Afghanistan’s political order readjusts under the Taliban, expect Moscow to vie for an outsized role in the process—engaging in multinational diplomatic efforts while also using the opportunity to call for increased Eurasian strategic coordination through non-Western venues such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and the Russia-India-China (RIC) Triangle. Thus far, official Russian messaging toward the Taliban can be characterized as somewhere between cautious optimism and a more measured “wait and see” approach.
Western policymakers need to be clear-eyed about Russian strategic interests in Afghanistan and the wider region, which are dominated by concerns about maintaining partner relationships among Central Asian states and assuring a prominent place at the table for any post-U.S. regional security architecture.
The pleasures of schadenfreude and anti-U.S. rhetoric
Russian officials quickly seized the opportunity to use the withdrawal from Afghanistan as fodder for political messaging about failed U.S. nation-building. On Aug. 20, President Vladimir Putin made explicit statements along these lines, commenting that “It is necessary to stop the irresponsible policy of imposing other people’s values from outside, the desire to build democracy in other countries, not taking into account either historical, national or religious characteristics, and completely ignoring the traditions by which people live…Any such socio-political experiments have never been crowned with success and only lead to the destruction of states, and the degradation of their political and social systems.” Putin reiterated this sentiment on September 1st when speaking to schoolchildren, stating: “US forces were deployed there for 20 (20!) years and tried to civilize local residents during that period… In effect, they tried to impose their own norms and standards of life in the broadest sense of the word…What are the results? This spelled nothing but tragedies, casualties and losses for the United States, and all the more so for people living in Afghanistan. This amounts to zero, if not even less than zero…One should realize that it is impossible to impose anything from the outside.”
Russian politicians have quite openly reveled in critiquing the U.S. withdrawal. Directly citing the American track-record in state-building, the influential Speaker of the Russian State Duma and senior functionary of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, Vyacheslav Volodin stated on his widely-read Telegram account that “[if] we analyze the factual information related to the U.S.’ international expansion, when they invaded other countries and, under various pretexts, imposed their own standards, it would be difficult to name a country that would benefit from that. Today, we are witnessing the collapse of America’s foreign policy.” In the same vein, the colorful national-populist political figure and leader of the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, noted that Americans should “get the hell out” of various countries worldwide, suggesting that Ukraine be the next target for disengagement, otherwise Ukrainian bureaucrats might have to “cling to the bumper of American cars,” in their retreat.
This sort of gloating has been common in Russian political reporting and forms an important layer of commentary by Russian political and state actors. In some ways, this is due to the relative uncertainty of the transition to Taliban rule—it is far safer for Russian politicians to reiterate a long-standing critique of American adventurism abroad than to concretely address what follows. This sort of schadenfreude has another important value, however, insofar as it reminds both domestic and international audiences of the Russian position vis-à-vis global order, state sovereignty and expectations of interventionism. While the Russian track record on the matter empirically is rather mixed, harping on the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan is a judicious means to remind the domestic public and foreign policy elites abroad what the nominal Russian line on such issues remains.
Russian concerns amid a discordant security environment
While initially overshadowed by this sort of anti-U.S. rhetoric, the bulk of Russia’s official reaction to the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been more concerned with the evolving security environment, including the destabilizing effects that could impact the wider region. Earlier, in July of this year, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised concerns about regional stability, stating that “The Afghan crisis is exacerbating the terrorist threat and the problem of illegal drug trafficking, which has reached an unprecedented level. There are real risks of the instability spilling into neighboring states.” Similarly, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu identified the burgeoning narcotics trade as a key threat, arguing that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has enabled the drug trade to flourish. “We expected that with the arrival of the [NATO] alliance, there would be some kind of control over this. But the [poppy] plantations have increased one hundred-fold.” Shoigu estimates that Afghanistan now produces 93% of the world’s heroin, which is often trafficked through Russia to be sold in Europe. For context, drug use in Russia has exploded since the fall of the USSR, with around 6% of the total population, or 8.5 million people addicted to or regularly using drugs (as of 2016). According to a Brookings report, with 90% of Russian drug addicts using heroin part time, Russia is the world’s leading heroin-using nation per-capita.
Unexpected disruptions in the withdrawal process also occupied the Russian diplomatic and security response. For example, Shoigu raised further concerns over the Taliban’s seizure of weaponry left by the U.S. military, including high-precision munitions including MANPADS (portable anti-aircraft missile systems) and ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). According to Shoigu, the Taliban has seized more than 100 Javelin portable anti-tank missile systems, as well as combat vehicles and helicopters. Regardless of the accuracy of these estimations, these statements demonstrate Russia’s prioritization of the changing regional security landscape, while offering another opportunity to critique the U.S. withdrawal.
On the topic of refugees, Putin stated that he did not support the idea of temporarily evacuating Afghans to Central Asian countries bordering Russia. At a press conference, Putin rhetorically asked whether “…that means that [Afghan refugees] can be sent without visas to those countries, to our neighbors, while they themselves [the West] don’t want to take them without visas?” The Russian president also suggested that insufficient controls on the placement of refugees could enable jihadists to enter Russia: “We don’t want militants to appear [in Russia] under the guise of refugees from Afghanistan so that we have at least in some way repeated what was in the 90s and early 2000s.” The issue was discussed further with an online meeting of CSTO leaders on Aug. 23, and will continue as new rounds of exercises draw closer. Russia recently informed the Taliban of plans to deliver humanitarian aid to Kabul.
Controlling the potential for spillover effects while reassuring Central Asian states that their security concerns are taken seriously remains a key priority for the Russian government and has been central in public comments. Given the economic and military reliance on Russia by many Central Asian states, Russia has used its coordination role in joint exercises and regional formats to assuage concerns that leadership might ignore the withdrawal’s deleterious impact on allies. Recent meetings between the Russian and Kazakhstani presidents and heads of government have underlined the importance of continued coordination and communication as the ongoing Afghan political transition unfolds. Concerns have been reiterated by other regional partners, sometimes in more strident of terms. Ahead of CSTO military exercises scheduled for October, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko argued for the full fortification of the Tajik-Afghan border. Smaller exercises in August involved well over 2,000 troops from Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan only 20 kilometers from the border. The rationale for these exercises–training forces to prevent the penetration of militants from Afghanistan’s territory—demonstrates shared longstanding security concerns in the region. Members of the Russian parliament’s two chambers, the State Duma and Federation Council, have reinforced this sense of deep awareness about ally concerns, with Grigory Karasin, chairman of the upper chamber’s International Affairs Committee, emphasizing a coordinated regional response through the CSTO and in alignment with Russia’s military and diplomatic efforts. It is likely that the upcoming SCO summit on Sept. 16-17 will include further discussions of the Afghanistan crisis, as well.
Contours of the Russian diplomatic response, so far
Russia is undoubtedly capitalizing on an opportunity to leverage its influence in the evolving geopolitical situation in the greater Eurasian sphere, and as one of the most influential powers in the region, it will likely seek to play a major role as the situation evolves. According to The Washington Post, Putin has held phone conversations with a number of countries in the region, including Iran, Taji-kistan and Uzbekistan, as well as with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov announced on Aug. 31 that the extended “troika”—including Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan—is planning to meet in Kabul, “as soon as circumstances permit.” We will likely also see more opportunistic calls for non-Western cooperation, through coordination in a variety of Eurasian intergovernmental organizations such as the SCO, the CSTO, the EAEU and RIC Triangle. This has, and likely will continue to manifest in a Russian desire to exclude non-regional actors. For example, at the end of August, Lavrov made a point of dismissing a suggestion by Italian leaders for convening a G20 summit on the crisis. Although it sees interaction with the U.S. as unavoidable, Moscow would prefer the situation to evolve into primarily an intra-Eurasian matter.
In many ways, Moscow’s engagement with the Taliban thus far has been surprisingly warm—an effort to induce responsible behavior as the dust from the U.S. withdrawal settles. Initially, before ISIS-K terrorist attacks occurred at the Kabul airport, Putin’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov lauded the Taliban for taking control peacefully, noting that “It went absolutely calmly and without incident.” Other Russian officials applauded the Taliban’s extension of amnesty to all Afghans previously involved in the conflict and vows to respect the rights of women. There has also been some noise from officials signaling that Russia would remove the Taliban from the state list of designated terrorist organizations on the premise of de facto good regional behavior. Putin stressed the necessity of accepting certain truths to address the situation, saying on Aug. 20 that “The Taliban movement currently controls virtually the entire territory of the country, including its capital. These are realities, and we should act based on these very realities, not allowing the Afghan state’s breakup.” On Sept. 11, Russian Ambassador to Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov stated that Moscow had been predicting the rise of the Taliban, building contacts with the group for the last seven to eight years. “For us, this government did not become a stranger, so we did not flee from Kabul, unlike the Westernizers.”
However, this initial impulse to reward peaceful behavior is hedged by a longer-term “wait and see” strategy from Moscow, both to assess the evolving security situation in the region, and to gain a sense about how best to proceed. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya has stated that Russia will make decisions about actions in Afghanistan based on the Taliban’s actions, commenting: “We don’t trust the Taliban. We will see what they will do.” The influential Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, Viktor Zavarzin, told Gazeta.Ru that “We do not need to help anyone now (with the fight against IS), and we do not need to bomb anyone. We need to look around and see what will happen.” Lavrov agreed, stating that there was “no rush” in recognizing the Taliban. The Aug. 26 ISIS-K attacks on the Kabul airport may have created more appetite for pause, as Russia evacuated 500 Russian and Central Asian citizens from Kabul. Further instability in the region, in the form of violent clashes or heightened potential for spillover effects, might cool the relative warmth that Moscow has extended thus far.
In official comments condemning the Aug. 26 terrorist attacks, Lavrov reiterated the need to accelerate the formation of an “inclusive transitional government with the participation of all the main political forces of the country.” This mirrors the evolving reactions of other regional states with major immediate security concerns, such as Tajikistan, where President Emomali Rahmon also emphasized the necessity for an “inclusive government” of all ethnic groups in any final political settlement.
Overall, these initial reactions provide an image that Moscow is primarily concerned with the evolving, uncertain security environment, particularly as it affects regional stability, refugees, illicit drug flow and the growth of radical terrorism. While Putin and other Russian domestic political actors have been quick to point out American weaknesses, much of the Russian response has been focused on seeking to reassure Central Asian states while aiming to leverage Russian influence as the crisis unfolds. Russia has also utilized the withdrawal to publicly fortify its negative position toward Western state-building. It remains to be seen how Russian reactions will evolve as the transition to confirmed Taliban rule continues.