Russia & The Taliban: From Narrative Challenges To Opportunities
The Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of Afghanistan was a “black-swan” event that completely changed the geostrategic situation in Central and South Asia. It also resulted in Russia’s pragmatic ties with the Taliban coming to the forefront of global attention after its officials’ generally positive assessments of the group, which their government still officially designates as terrorists. The Kremlin began intensifying its efforts to promote a peaceful political solution to the Afghan War in February 2019 after hosting the group in Moscow for talks. Since then, it sought to include the Taliban in a proposed transitional government prior to its recent takeover of the country, nowadays hoping for it to function as a regional anti-terrorist force against ISIS-K, which is another terrorist group banned by Russia. Nevertheless, the closeness of their political and security ties has raised some questions about the consequences that this might have on Russia’s reputation abroad.
Before addressing the narrative challenges and opportunities connected to Russia’s new-found ties with the Taliban, it is important to inform the reader of the most prominent statements made by Russian officials about the group in order for them to better understand the country’s evolving policy towards it. President Putin said in late August during a news conference with outgoing German Chancellor Merkel, “The Taliban now controls almost the entire territory of that country, including its capital. This is the reality, and we must proceed from this reality as we strive to avoid the collapse of the Afghan state.” He also expressed hope that the group will keep its word “to guarantee safety for local residents and foreign missions”, the first part of which can also be interpreted as his expectation that it will respect the rights of minorities and women too. As for the second, it is a reflection of Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov’s earlier words to that effect.
Ambassador Zhirnov previously revealed that the Russian Embassy in Afghanistan was under the Taliban’s protection and that the group promised that “no one will harm a hair on the heads of Russian diplomats”. He also shared his view that many Afghans’ fears of the Taliban “are groundless” and that they need not flee in panic following its takeover of Kabul. In fact, according to his professional assessment, “Now the situation in Kabul is better than it was under Ashraf Ghani. That is, it is better under the Taliban terrorists than under Ghani.” In addition, Ambassador Zhirnov believes that “Their approach is clear, it is good, positive and business-like.” They are also trying to prevent provocations in Kabul, he said, which then led him to declaring that “They have passed the first test, which concerns their first days in Kabul and Kabul’s security. If they can prove to the people that they guarantee order and social justice, they will pass the second exam.”
Despite these positive assessments, Russian Special Presidential Representative for Afghanistan and Director of the Foreign Ministry’s Second Asian Department Zamir Kabulov said that “We are not in a rush as far as recognition goes. We will wait and watch how the regime will behave.” Mr. Kabulov affirmed, however, that he does not believe that there is any realistic threat of ISIS rising in Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S.-backed government’s collapse. In his words, “I saw in reality the Taliban fighting ISIS (outlawed in Russia) and fighting it viciously unlike the Americans and the whole of NATO, including the Afghan leadership that fled, who did not counter ISIS and only pandered to it. Representatives of the highest Taliban leadership were telling me that they only have this to say to ISIS: there will be no captives...The Taliban, as they said, and I feel it, too—there is a great deal of sincerity here—do not want to repeat their sad destiny for a second time.”
Russia’s interests in pragmatically engaging with the Taliban are a lot clearer with these statements from prominent officials in mind. More than anything, Moscow wants to ensure the security of its diplomats in the country. Second, it believes that it has the obligation to accurately report on the situation in Kabul in order to counteract false portrayals circulating in the mainstream media in the West. Upon realizing that everything is better there than it was under the U.S.-backed government, Russia is beginning to regard the Taliban as an increasingly responsible actor in spite of its lingering terrorist designation. About that, the group’s anti-ISIS capabilities make it a formidable regional security bulwark for protecting Russia’s allies in Central Asia. Should the Taliban succeed in ruling responsibly, Russia can take advantage of February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway as well as extract some of its estimated $3 trillion worth of mineral resources.
To elaborate on those last two policy objectives, President Putin told the Valdai Club in October 2019 about his vision “to connect ports along the Northern Sea Route with ports of the Pacific and Indian oceans via roads in East Siberia and central Eurasia.” PAKAFUZ would accomplish that with respect to the Indian Ocean and thus fulfill Russia’s centuries-long goal to reliably reach that body of water. It would also have the effect of strengthening the Russian-Pakistani relations which have comprehensively improved in recent years as a result of their rapid rapprochement. In theory, PAKAFUZ could facilitate more Russian-Indian trade, too, if New Delhi and Islamabad improve their relations, possibly through Russian mediation, and if Pakistan allows India to export goods across its territory to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond. This is, of course, an ambitious plan but Russia’s gradual return to South Asia makes it increasingly feasible if all sides have the political will.
As for the mineral dimension of Russian interests in Afghanistan, this is important for much more than pure profit. Russia has some of the world’s best mineral extraction companies and could therefore be a viable contender for such contracts, potentially even as a reward for its efforts to tell the world the truth about a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The group seems to be sincere in its endeavors to improve the socio-economic situation for all of its compatriots, to which end it must prioritize reconstructing the country. To do that will be extremely difficult without reliable revenue streams, some of which it can obtain through the aforementioned Russian contracts. Of course, the Taliban would also have to properly manage this revenue and fairly distribute it without any ethnic, regional or religious discrimination in order to sustainably improve its people’s living standards—but Russia could possibly help it do so by playing an advisory role in this respect if need be.
Having explained the specifics of Russia’s pragmatic engagement with the Taliban as well as the objectives that it aims to achieve through these means, we shall turn to the narrative challenges and opportunities that all of this poses. Many observers were surprised to suddenly hear about their close political and security ties, but that is because one constructive critique that can be made of Russian policy in this regard is that its international media outlets did not do enough to inform their foreign audience about this in advance. Some reports and analyses were published from time to time, but it was not sufficient for explaining the nuances of Russia’s policy towards this group, officially designated terrorist. More should have been done in hindsight since even some who have positive impressions of the country’s foreign policy are very confused. It does not make sense to them why Russia would talk to, let alone so actively engage with, literal terrorists.
It is here where Russia’s international media outlets would benefit from awareness of what can be described as their country’s “Ummah Pivot”, which itself is a component of its 21st-century grand strategic goal to become the supreme balancing force in Afro-Eurasia. To concisely summarize an admittedly very complex series of diplomatic engagements from North Africa to South Asia, Russia chose to pioneer a so-called “third way” between the East and West following the worsening of Russia’s relations with the West in 2014 after Euro-Maidan and Crimea’s subsequent reunification with Russia. This strategic vector aims to prevent the Eurasian Great Power from becoming disproportionately dependent on either the EU (the West) or China (the East). It also aspires to have Russia become an indispensable balancing force in the New Cold War between the U.S. and China by presenting the countries caught between them with a credible third choice.
Building upon its diplomatic experiences in mediating a peaceful political solution to the ongoing Syrian War, Russia attempted to do something similar with Afghanistan from 2019 onward by bringing the internationally recognized Afghan authorities at the time, their Taliban opponents and regional stakeholders together into what has since been termed the Extended Troika. Moscow realized that no such solution would be possible without incorporating the Taliban in spite of its designation as a terrorist group. To facilitate its growing legitimacy as a stakeholder in this conflict, Russia encouraged it to cut ties with terrorist groups, which it pledged to do later as part of the February 2020 peace deal with the U.S. This made it more acceptable of an interlocutor just like its Syrian anti-government governments who pledged to do the same in order to participate in the Astana peace process. In other words, Russia is replicating its Syrian model on Afghanistan.
Russia’s international media outlets should, therefore, emphasize this point, namely that their country’s diplomatic successes in Syria laid the groundwork for what it is presently attempting to do in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Russia, being the Eurasian great power, is the only country other than Pakistan to have such close political and security ties with the Taliban, which far exceed even those that China is currently attempting to cultivate. Russia could make use of this observation as the basis upon which to expand its soft power appeal in majority-Muslim countries further. As it stands, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are the main members of the Ummah with public ties of some sort with Islamist movements abroad, meaning that Russia is doing something unprecedented by pragmatically engaging with the Taliban. The U.S. and some of its NATO allies interact with Islamist groups too, but for the opposite ends. They use them to destabilize countries, not stabilize them.
To be absolutely clear, unlike the aforementioned countries, Russia never provided any material support to Islamist groups abroad—let alone those like the Taliban which it officially designates as terrorists—but only engages with those that have a credible chance of advancing their countries’ peace processes like in Syria and now in Afghanistan too. It only responds to the political realities of those countries’ conflicts instead of seeking to shape them preemptively through its ties with such groups. Upon pragmatically engaging them, however, Russia then attempts to encourage them to moderate their socio-political and militant policies in order to facilitate a peaceful political solution to the conflicts that they are involved in. This is a very unique stance that speaks to both the sincerity and effectiveness of Russia’s envisioned 21st-century grand strategic balancing act. Its international media outlets would, therefore, do well to highlight this to their audience.
The diplomatic dimension of Russia’s balancing act in those Ummah states caught up in Islamist-driven conflict represents an entirely new model that could realistically succeed in other countries, too. It deserves to be actively promoted by the country’s international media outlets in order to raise maximum awareness of this policy. Russia’s hitherto failure to do this has resulted in some observers, including those who tend to hold positive views about it, becoming very confused about its pragmatic engagement with the Taliban. At best, they consider the country to be hypocritical, while at worst, some think that it is cavorting with terrorists for self-interested reasons that risk endangering regional stability. If Russia fails to correct these false perceptions that it is partially at fault for passively allowing to percolate, then its opponents might weaponize them to assault its soft power, but successfully reshaping perceptions will vastly improve its soft power across the world.