Russia's strategic shift: Embracing the Taliban in Afghanistan - Hindustan Times
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Russia's strategic shift: Embracing the Taliban in Afghanistan

Jun 05, 2024 01:15 PM IST

This article is authored by Soumya Awasthi, member, Centre on Armed Groups, New Delhi.

In the ever-shifting landscape of international relations, the recent events in Afghanistan have ignited the attention of global powers, with Russia assuming a pivotal role. Amidst the chaos and unpredictability that ensued from the fall of Kabul in 2021, Russia has emerged as a key player, showcasing a profound shift in its approach by embracing the Taliban regime. This strategic pivot is a momentous juncture in Russia's foreign policy, signifying a departure from its conventional stance towards Afghanistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP)

The complex history of Russian involvement in Afghanistan can be traced back to the Soviet era, characterised by Moscow's military occupation during the Cold War. Prior to the invasion spanning from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Soviet Union played a significant role in the development of Afghanistan's industrial sector, irrigation infrastructure, bridges, three airports, and over 1,000 kilometres of roads. Echoes of this era, including Soviet-manufactured vehicles and ageing military equipment, are still visible on the streets of Afghanistan. Simultaneously, a substantial portion of the older population is fluent in Russian, a testament to enduring cultural ties.

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However, in a stark departure from its past, Russia's approach towards Afghanistan has undergone a notable transformation. Unlike many other nations that swiftly shuttered their embassies after Kabul's collapse in 2021, the Russian Embassy remained operational, symbolising a readiness to engage with the new power holders in Afghanistan.

Russia's engagement with the Taliban is not a mere coincidence but a result of strategic, economic, and security considerations. The Russian president and foreign minister have recognised the Afghan Taliban as a new reality and real power, and the Taliban hopes to be recognised. The Taliban's anti-western stance aligns with Russia's narratives, offering the Kremlin potential benefits like access to new trade routes to counter western sanctions and bolster its image as a supporter of the Global South.

Acknowledging the historical ties and geographical proximity between the two nations is central to understanding Russia's interest in Afghanistan. The instability along Afghanistan's borders with neighbouring countries, such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, serves Russia's broader regional objectives. This instability presents opportunities for Moscow to expand security cooperation through bodies like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), enabling military engagements and providing a platform to critique western actions post-2021 withdrawal.

One of the primary drivers behind Russia's outreach to the Taliban is its imperative to address security threats emanating from Afghanistan. The spectre of terror groups like the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) looms large over Russia, posing a direct challenge to its foreign policy objectives. The spate of terrorist attacks on Russian soil, including the devastating assault on a concert hall in Moscow in March 2024, has reinforced Moscow's resolve to confront extremist elements. By cultivating ties with the Taliban, Russia aims to leverage the group's influence to suppress the activities of ISKP and other militant organisations operating in Afghanistan.

Given its economic isolation from the West, Moscow has limited options for establishing trade connections. Hence, partnering with Afghanistan is of significant importance to the Kremlin. Beyond security concerns, Afghanistan plays a crucial role for Russia in terms of regional connectivity and economic integration. The Taliban's plan to create a logistics hub in Herat province, alongside neighbouring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, aligns with Russia's wider objectives of improving trade and transit routes throughout South and Central Asia. This initiative revived the ancient Silk Road trade route and positioned Afghanistan as a pivotal link for transporting Russian oil to South Asian markets.

Russian engagement with the Taliban-led government is strongly motivated by the country's vast untapped natural resources, estimated to be worth over $3 trillion. Despite this estimate being made in 2010, the value could have appreciated further, especially considering the recent surge in commodity prices following the global economic rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Afghanistan's mineral wealth is extensive, including nearly 30 million tonnes of copper reserves, with potential undiscovered deposits. Additionally, Afghanistan possesses substantial iron ore reserves exceeding 2.2 billion tonnes, valued at over $350 billion, along with modest gold resources and significant base metals like aluminium, tin, lead, and zinc. Furthermore, lithium and rare earth minerals are also present in substantial quantities. In addition to minerals, Afghanistan boasts hydrocarbon reserves, including crude oil and natural gas, valued at approximately $107 billion at current market prices. These resources, primarily located in the Afghan-Tajik and Amu Darya Basins, present significant economic opportunities for investment and development.

Russia's burgeoning relationship with the Taliban underscores the complexities of geopolitical dynamics in the Afghan theatre. While some may view Moscow's overtures with scepticism, it is evident that Russia's strategic calculus is guided by a pragmatic assessment of its national interests. As Afghanistan navigates the uncertain terrain of post-conflict reconstruction, the role of regional actors like Russia will undoubtedly shape its future trajectory. Whether this newfound alliance is a boon or a bane for Afghanistan remains to be seen. Still, one thing is clear: Russia's embrace of the Taliban heralds a paradigm shift in the geopolitics of the region.

This article is authored by Soumya Awasthi, member, Centre on Armed Groups, New Delhi.

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