Russia in the Afghan Quagmire

Vidhee Makwana
3rd August 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will reshape regional geopolitics, and regional stakeholders are bound to have a growing role at a time when the Taliban seems to be seizing the momentum. Until now, other external players in Afghanistan have been only marginally involved   because of the overwhelming US presence. However, with the withdrawal, a power vacuum has been created, which has opened up an uncertain ground for a host of players, including Russia vying to protect and promote their interest in Afghanistan. The number of stakeholders in the unfolding situation in Afghanistan renders the conflict extremely complex to navigate. The main question that the article attempts to probe and answer is: what is Russia’s interest in Afghanistan, and what is Moscow doing about it and what will be its implications? Russia does not share a border with Afghanistan neither is Russia in the same region as Afghanistan. Moreover, Russia does not seem to have gotten over their Afghan Syndrome post the failed operation during 1979-89. So, why is Russia in the Afghan quagmire?

Russia has always considered Afghanistan as its sphere of influence. In the past, it tried to sway the Afghans against the British and then against the United States. Post 9/11 when former President George W. Bush launched the War on Terror, President Putin was extremely supportive of the intervention in Afghanistan, predominantly because of the threats of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism emanating from Afghanistan that pose threats to Russia’s national security. The political leadership in Russia is aiming for a stable Afghanistan since it shares borders with the Central Asian countries that have visa-free regimes with Russia. Hence, Russia is extremely cautious about the radical ideology infecting the Central Asian region and then trickling into Russia.

But in 2014, as soon as the NATO operations were ceased in Afghanistan, Kremlin was keen on formulating a policy on Afghanistan and started subverting the US initiatives in the country; also reflecting Putin’s desire for a greater push for Russia’s return to global prominence. Simultaneously, Putin was also at loggerheads with the West because of the take-over of Crimea, while on the other hand in Syria, Russia partnered with Iran, supporting the Bashar-Al-Assad regime in fighting the Islamic State. Zamir Kabulov, who was the special envoy in Afghanistan openly contacted the Taliban since their interests in Afghanistan “objectively coincide”. The objective was to fight the Islamic State. It is also alleged that the Kremlin shared intelligence inputs against the ISIS with Taliban.  As talks with the Taliban became some sort of an imperative for the future of Afghanistan, Russia began to inject itself into the evolving environment, playing host to the Moscow Consultations.

Aside from the fear of terrorism spilling over, Afghanistan is deemed to be the next energy corridor. Energy has assumed a big part in Russian foreign policy, and it wants to capitalize on the transit routes, curbing the influence of other actors in the Russian sphere of influence. Afghanistan becomes important to Russia because of its geostrategic location: it is seen as a connector between the Central Asian region and Southern Asia. It also shares a border with Iran, becoming a gateway to West Asia. Hence, Moscow is aiming to link countries in the north to the south via Afghanistan. With Western forces retreating from Afghanistan, Russia will be seen playing its cards, keeping in mind, its capabilities and influence, as well the limitations of its national power.

In 2016, Russia’s foreign policy featured Afghanistan as one of its regional priorities, and now with the US withdrawal, it sees this as an opportunity to resuscitate its role and amplify its power in the region by building alliances with other countries sharing some convergent interest in Afghanistan, one among them being China. Even though Beijing’s rise in the international order has undermined Moscow in the Central Asian region, it does not mind the economic influence of China as much. Russia and China have allied and signed multiple bilateral treaties, even though these powers will only cooperate as long as their interests coincide. For now, both the powers want to undermine the US hegemony in Afghanistan, which allows them to cooperate. Even though the future in Afghanistan is uncertain, and neither of the two powers want an Islamic emirate in the neighborhood, they may still cooperate with the Taliban if it serves their interests.

On the other hand, Iran and Russia have had similar views on the withdrawal of the US troops but Russia is apprehensive about Iran’s involvement in the region because of its proximity to Afghanistan and a possibility of an improvement in the US-Iran relationship, which would undermine the Russian interests. Russia, Iran, and China have been directly involved in Afghan politics formally as well as through other political factions. Most of Russia’s involvement in the Afghan peace process and various other regional groupings like Troika-Plus have been for counterterrorism measures and safeguarding its national security and interests in the Central Asian region. Even its recent national security strategy and the 2014 military doctrine, highlighted terrorism as a focal issue.

Russia today is being seen as a revisionist power since its goal has been to rise in the multipolar world order again and counter the US hegemony.  Therefore, it becomes imperative for Russia to limit not just the US influence but the influence of other regional powers as well since that might undermine Russia’s own ambitions and strategic designs. Hence even today, Russia see the US as its arch enemy and hence has attempted, along with China to use SCO as a platform for Afghan talks to keep the US out of the discussions.

In the final analysis, it does not seem like Russia want to involve itself militarily in Afghanistan neither in do they have the resources to do so, which is why Moscow Consultations becomes a significant aspect in Russian policy towards Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is extremely complicated because of the power struggle and the geopolitics at play, which makes it difficult to predict a certain outcome. Moreover, newer aspects of the conflict are still unfolding highlighting the convoluted nature of alliances and the multiple factions amongst the state actors themselves, which are resulting in an advantage for the violent non-state actors like the Taliban. This has resulted in Afghanistan becoming a battleground for asymmetric conflicts and hybrid warfare, it only remains a question if Russia can safeguard its interests and whether aligning with China would push forward Russia’s interest in Afghanistan?

*The Author is a Post Graduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.


Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author