The Taliban are looking increasingly like an important player in the politics not only of Afghanistan but of Central Asia. Much of Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is already under Taliban control and the rest of the country, including Kabul and other major cities, cannot be far behind. That, along with the imminent withdrawal of US and Nato forces, is causing Russia to think the unthinkable and begin negotiations with a group the Kremlin has designated as terrorists.
Traditionally, Central Asia has been within the Russian sphere of influence and there are at least two very big reasons why Moscow cannot afford for that to change. Firstly, Russia wants to keep facilitating energy projects in the oil, gas and hydropower sectors (and reaping the benefits thereof). Secondly, it wants to strengthen the Eurasian Economic Union – an eastern counterpoint to the European Union – hopefully by including some Central Asian nations and especially Uzbekistan, which enjoys both a strategic location and a relatively large economy by regional standards. The view in the Kremlin is that the Taliban – and especially its more radical factions – cannot be allowed to jeopardize those plans.
So far, Russia has taken a firm line vis-a-vis Afghanistan. After more than 1,000 Afghan security personnel fled to Tajikistan to escape the Taliban advance, the Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, ordered 20,000 military reservists to the Afghan border and Moscow promised to help “both directly and indirectly” via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Founded in 1992, the CSTO is often described as a Russian version of Nato, whose members are similarly bound by the “an attack on one is an attack on all” pledge. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, backed up that promise, declaring that Moscow was prepared to use its military base in Tajikistan to defend its Central Asian allies from any threat emanating from Afghanistan.
It is worth remembering, however, that the Kremlin used exactly the same rhetoric in May after Azerbaijan’s troops reportedly advanced more than three kilometers into southern Armenia. Yet on that occasion, the CSTO did nothing to protect Armenia, one of its members. Nor did the CSTO intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last autumn, leading some Armenians to question whether an alliance with Russia was worth much. If the Kremlin fails to come to the aid of Tajikistan (also a CSTO member) in the event of a Taliban incursion, Russia’s standing in Central Asia will be severely diminished.
Moscow does indeed seem to take the Taliban threat very seriously. In 2017, Russia supplied small arms, artillery guns, armor, helicopters, communications, air defense systems, medical and topographic map-making equipment to Tajikistan and followed up in 2019 with $9 million worth of air defense systems. Russia’s largest military base on foreign soil is in Tajikistan, with a force of between 6,000 and 7,000 troops equipped with 96 tanks, eight helicopters and five ground attack aircraft. Even so, that might not be enough to repel a Taliban army bigger than the armed forces of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan combined.
A Taliban invasion of any of its neighbors is by no means a given. But if it prevails in Afghanistan, it could lead to Russia, China and Iran banding together in a new “anti-terrorist coalition” to protect their own interests in Central Asia. There is also the matter of the Khorasan group, a branch of ISIS that is active in Central Asia. All of those factors would give Russia an excuse to pour more troops into new military bases in the countries bordering Afghanistan, thereby increasing Russian influence in the region.
The problem for Russia is that the US is interested in doing the same. Indeed, a certain amount of destabilization in the region might be to America’s advantage, as it would keep rivals Russia and China busy dealing with their own problems. Unrest in the region would jeopardize China’s highly ambitious – and costly – Belt and Road Initiative and both Moscow and Beijing would be faced with a rise in Islamic terrorism, increased drug trafficking and a refugee crisis.
The presence of Turkish troops in Afghanistan is also troublesome for Russia, especially if the Taliban allow them to remain and keep control over Kabul airport. Turkey is also eager to establish military and political cooperation with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan – all former Soviet republics that have remained in the Russian sphere of influence – and could use Afghanistan as a jumping-off point for its activities in Central Asia.
But the biggest threat to Russian dominance in the region is a chronically unstable Afghanistan, which is why several meetings between the Taliban and Russian officials in Moscow have taken place already. The Taliban delegation’s position (at least in public) is that it wants good relations with Russia, while Russia wants a firm guarantee that there will be no dissemination of radical Islam in Central Asia. A pragmatic accommodation with the Taliban is the best – perhaps the only – way to secure that guarantee. After all, a repeat of the Soviet Union’s doomed foray into Afghanistan between 1979 and 1985 is unthinkable.
To say there is trust between the Kremlin and Taliban would be going too far, but as long as the Taliban stick to consolidating power within Afghanistan, Moscow is prepared to treat them as a necessary evil.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”