Russia and the Taliban: Assessing new diplomatic gains
So far, no government has established full-fledged diplomatic relations with the Taliban since its takeover of Afghanistan last year.
Yet according to Taliban officials, about ten countries have “accepted” diplomats representing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). Four of them have accredited Taliban-appointed diplomats.
Last month, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accredited Jamal Nasir Gharwal, a Taliban official, to serve as charge d'affaires in the Afghan embassy in Moscow before he took over the diplomatic mission on 9 April, making Russia the latest power to form diplomatic relations with the IEA.
Russia’s foreign ministry stated that this move did not constitute formal recognition of the Taliban. Yet it is a major step in that direction.
With the IEA seeking to escape international isolation, this came as a boost. There is now possibly good reason to assume that Moscow might be on the verge of becoming the first capital to establish full-fledged ties with the Taliban.
"The acceptance of Taliban diplomats in Moscow means that Russia's leadership has decisively broken with the West by rejecting the American and European governments' approaches to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan"
That would constitute a watershed achievement in the diplomatic sphere for the regime in Kabul. Having a formalised relationship with one of the UN Security Council’s permanent members could be useful to the IEA in significant ways throughout the future.
“I think certainly having this Taliban leader in this position does represent a greater push on the part of the Talibanised government in Kabul to better their relations with a greater power [like] Russia,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told The New Arab.
“In [the Taliban’s] eyes this definitely does deliver greater legitimacy and credibility.”
There are multiple variables in the equation shaping the Kremlin’s policies vis-à-vis the Taliban against the backdrop of tensions between Russia and the West reaching an all-time high. From Russia’s perspective, maintaining the status quo in greater Central Asia is important.
Preventing instability, the rise of terrorist groups, or the growth of US influence in this region factor into the picture. These interests give Moscow and Beijing much common cause in this part of the world, particularly in relation to Afghanistan.
To this point, some experts believe that Russia establishing diplomatic ties with the IEA has much to do with the Kremlin’s relationship with China and their shared interests in post-US Afghanistan.
Russia’s government permitting Taliban diplomats to run Afghanistan’s diplomatic mission in Moscow “is quite significant in helping the Taliban to draw closer to China, via Russia, and thereby perhaps eventually encourage Chinese aid and investment,” said Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in an interview with TNA.
The acceptance of IEA diplomats in Moscow means that Russia’s leadership has decisively broken with the West by rejecting the American and European governments’ approaches to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This Russian move could prompt more non-Western governments to follow suit and take steps to further “legitimise” the IEA.
By working to make the regime in post-US Afghanistan increasingly Russia-friendly, Moscow likely sees itself taking steps vis-à-vis Kabul that will guard against the threat of Washington’s potential plans for undermining Russian influence throughout the region. Giving the Taliban control of Afghanistan’s embassy in Moscow can serve to “reduce the threat from Islamist extremism to Russia's allies in Central Asia,” according to Lieven.
The illicit drug trade is part of the picture too. For years the Afghan heroin crisis has exacerbated a major social problem inside Russia. Therefore, considering the Taliban’s pledge to ban heroin production in Afghanistan, officials in Moscow likely believe that better relations with the de facto government in Kabul can help the Russians address this difficult issue.
Nonetheless, despite the significance of this diplomatic development, it is key to avoid overstating its importance to Russia’s foreign policy mindful of the war in Ukraine, which currently prevents Afghanistan from becoming a major focus for the Kremlin. Put simply, there are major restrictions on the amount of direct aid which Moscow can provide the authorities in Kabul.
“I do not think that this represents any sort of major leap in Russian efforts to better their influence in Kabul,” said Rose.
“I do think that the intervention in Ukraine and ongoing Russian efforts there to militarily consolidate territorial control has spread Russia very much thin. Because of this I don’t necessarily see any major push with the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.”
"A concern for Washington is that the Russians will be able to decrease the Taliban's international isolation while gaining greater influence in post-US Afghanistan"
Implications for US foreign policy
Officials in Washington quickly condemned Russia’s acceptance of Taliban diplomats in Afghanistan’s embassy in Moscow. From the US perspective, Russia and other non-western countries taking steps to legitimise Taliban rule in Kabul bodes negatively for efforts to pressure Afghanistan’s de facto government into changing its conduct.
A concern for Washington is that the Russians will be able to decrease the Taliban’s international isolation while gaining greater influence in post-US Afghanistan, making the regime in Kabul increasingly amenable to Moscow’s interests in the country and greater Central Asia.
By the same token, while difficult to bear this point in mind given all the hostility in US-Russia relations over Ukraine, Washington and Moscow have some common objectives in Afghanistan.
The most dangerous and extreme force in Afghanistan is Islamic State-K, which the Taliban also sees as a major threat. This is not a group that either the US or Russia wants to see ascend in the country.
As Lieven told TNA, “Russian and US goals in Afghanistan for the moment remain basically aligned, insofar as a key goal is to prevent the rise of ISIS there”.
Therefore, it should not be impossible to consider ways in which the US could either directly or indirectly gain from Russia establishing diplomatic relations with the rulers in Kabul even if the circumstances seem difficult to imagine at this sensitive juncture.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero