The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia sees potential cooperation with Taliban, but also prepares for the worst

Troops from Uzbekistan participate in joint military drills with Russia and Tajikistan at the Harb-Maidon firing range about 12 miles north of the Tajik border with Afghanistan on Aug. 10, 2021. (Didor Sadulloev/AP)

MOSCOW — In the wake of the Taliban's lightning takeover of Afghanistan, Russian officials moved quickly into a two-pronged approach: cautiously reaching out to the Taliban even as Russia expanded military exercises with Tajikistan along the Afghan border.

In Russia, with its bitter memories of a failed Soviet occupation in the 1980s and humiliating withdrawal after more than nine years, there was inevitable schadenfreude to see its rival, the United States, facing its own botched departure.

Now Russia sees potential for a more influential role with the Taliban, while weighing risks of regional instability or extremism if Afghanistan slides back into civil war.

But Moscow also has sent strong signals of its military might and strategic interest in the region.

Russia has been running military exercises on Afghanistan’s borders in recent weeks and on Tuesday announced a month-long military exercise in Tajikistan, where Russia’s biggest base abroad is located.

“Is Russia worried? Yes, of course. In the 1990s when the Taliban took over Kabul, it produced a destructive spillover to neighboring countries,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, discussed the crisis Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Moscow has designated the Taliban as a terrorist group but has hosted Taliban officials several times in recent years. Key officials including Lavrov, Russia’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov and special presidential envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov have all spoken positively about the Taliban since the fall of Kabul.

Zhirnov and Kabulov compared the Taliban favorably to the previous government of Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country Sunday as the government collapsed and the Taliban moved in.

As the U.S. departs Afghanistan, will the old Taliban reemerge?

Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia would not rush to recognize a Taliban government. He called for an inclusive national dialogue including all political forces to establish a transitional government.

Moscow remains wary about Islamist extremism spilling from Afghanistan and fears that the Taliban rule may descend into civil war and chaos.

But Lukyanov said Russia’s military was better equipped to deal with potential threats than it was in the 1990s when the Taliban last ruled. He said Russia now keeps contact with all parties in Afghanistan, in contrast with the ’90s when it focused only on the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban.

Some Russian analysts said Russia could pay a heavy price for the sudden uncertainty left behind by Washington’s nearly 20-year war.

Elena Suponina, an analyst with the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, predicted the Taliban would not be able to ensure stability in Afghanistan.

“First, the Taliban itself is quite fragmented and there is no clear, single command. Second, regional and other powers will continue playing on these internal differences,” she said.

“And finally, there are other armed groups in Afghanistan who are unwilling to obey the Taliban,” she told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. She said cells of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan could swiftly gain ground.

Kirill Semenov, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said the Taliban could split between those seeking a more radical, hard-line approach and those taking a softer line.

“There is a chance that a struggle for division of spheres of influence inside the Taliban itself will start. That is what we should be concerned about,” he told the newspaper.

The Taliban’s surge across the country sparked fears its fighters would target people associated with the previous government or Western forces, as well as journalists, human rights workers and women’s advocates.

Scenes of deadly chaos unfold at Kabul airport after Taliban’s return

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid tried to calm fears at a news conference Tuesday, saying all enemies had been “pardoned” and pledging to allow women to study and work, but within the framework of sharia law. He would not be drawn on whether women could work as journalists.

Russian officials have been making strenuous efforts to soften the official view of the Taliban.

But Alexander Knyazev, an expert on Central Asia studies at the University of St. Petersburg, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the Taliban had been demonized, making it hard for officials to explain to the public their contacts with the group.

Lavrov stepped away from Russia’s terrorist designation for the group, calling it “a recognized political force.” He said the Taliban’s offer to include different voices in its government was positive, while the Foreign Ministry said the Taliban was restoring order.

“We see some encouraging signs on the part of the Taliban, who have declared their desire to have a government involving other political forces,” Lavrov told journalists Tuesday.

As Taliban widens its grip, Afghans reckon with life under militant rule

Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan Zhirnov said Tuesday that he met Taliban officials in Kabul who pledged to guarantee the safety of diplomats and former government officials.

“Their approach is clear. It is good, positive and businesslike. I cannot see obstacles which will stop us from finding common ground on all the specifics,” Zhirnov said. “The current situation in Kabul is better than under Ashraf Ghani,” the Afghan president who fled the country Sunday.

Russia’s relations with Ghani had grown chilly as the Kremlin bypassed him in talks involving the Taliban in Moscow in recent years. Russia had pressed for a transitional government including all sides but strongly condemned Ghani’s decision to flee the country as the Taliban entered Kabul.

Kabulov, the presidential envoy, warned that “the entire international community will be watching” the Taliban to ensure human rights were observed. But it was expected, he added, that Russia would eventually recognize the Taliban government.

“Today we’re witnessing a collapse of American foreign policy,” Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said Tuesday. “Despite the ongoing developments, we aren't hearing statements from the U.S. State Department on what assistance they will provide to Afghanistan and the neighboring countries.”

Analyst Darya Mitina, a columnist with Vedomosti newspaper, noted that much of the challenges may fall on Russia and its allies Central Asia.

“The U.S. has left all the obligations and all the risks to us,” she wrote. “Guess where the main flow of refugees will rush and at whose expense the borders and armies of the Central Asian countries will be reinforced? And the Americans got onto a beautiful aircraft and flew away.”

A disastrous American exit.

Russia’s Central Military District said 1,000 Russian troops would take part in a month-long exercise with Tajikistan, a week after Russia wrapped up military drills near the Afghan border with 2,500 Russian, Tajik and Uzbek forces. Under its collective security treaty with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other regional powers, the Kremlin is obliged to send in its military in case of attack.

Tajik authorities also announced plans for three days of anti-terrorism exercises this week with forces from China’s Ministry of Public Security.

Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it was in touch with Taliban officials to ensure the security of its border, which is near the major northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. It said would maintain “friendly and good neighborly relations with Afghanistan” but called for a government involving all major political forces of the country.

Uzbek authorities said 22 Afghan military aircraft and 24 Afghan helicopters carrying 585 Afghan servicemen flew into Uzbekistan over the weekend, landing at Termez airport. Another 158 Afghan civilians and soldiers crossed the Amu Darya River to escape Afghanistan.

Liz Sly in London contributed to this report.

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