By RFE RL
By Michael Scollon*
(RFE/RL) — The Taliban is officially considered to be a terrorist organization by Russia — a fact media in the country are obliged to note at any mention of the Islamist group.
But with the Kremlin rolling out the welcome mat for the Afghan insurgents as part of a broader push to improve its ties in the country as U.S.-led troops pull out, news sites are becoming littered with reminders that the Taliban has been on Russia’s list of banned terrorist and extremist organizations since 2003.
The inherent contradiction in the July 8-9 visit by Taliban representatives to Moscow has led to outcry on the home front, with critics questioning whether the Kremlin really considers Russia’s banned political opposition to be in the same league as a band of fighters that has waged war against the internationally recognized Afghan government for more than two decades.
And analysts suggest that on the international stage Moscow’s effort to play nice with the Taliban amid the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan reveals a two-faced approach that is not built for the long-haul.
Andrei Serenko, an expert at Moscow’s Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, noted to Current Time that not long ago it was a high-ranking member of the Afghan Security Council that was in the Russian capital for negotiations.
Fast forward a couple weeks and “the Taliban are in Moscow and negotiating with the same [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov and his closest deputies,” Serenko said. “This, of course, resembles a certain political schizophrenia, and I think this is a sign that Moscow today does not have a clear position on the Afghan situation.”
While Russia sought and received assurances from the Taliban during the visit that its recent resurgence would not pose a threat to Moscow’s allies in Central Asia, some found humor and others discrepancies in officials’ claims that the talks were “necessary.”
That Moscow could even find itself in such a situation, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote on Telegram, revealed that there is no unified voice when it comes to decision-making in Russia, with those responsible for passing the country’s draconian law on extremists this spring not taking into account “foreign policy and geopolitical consequences.”
If Russia could reach out to the Taliban, commenters on social media mockingly asked, surely Moscow was now prepared to begin negotiations with others subject to “extremist” designations as a result of the law, such as jailed activist and politician Aleksei Navalny and members of his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
And as Russian journalist and political commentator Oleg Kashin joked on Twitter: “Everyone here is cursing the Foreign Ministry for meeting with the Taliban, but remember, the Taliban also risks its reputation [by] meeting with the Russian Federation’s Foreign Ministry.”
Observers acknowledge that Russia did not have much choice but to become more actively involved in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Moscow, they say, is simply acting in its own interests by hedging its bets in the event the Taliban is back in Kabul someday.
More than 30 years after the Soviet withdrawal ended a disastrous, nearly decade-long war of occupation in Afghanistan, Moscow’s willingness to deal with the Taliban is nothing new. In 2018 and again this spring, the Russian government hosted both Taliban and Afghan government officials for so-called “Moscow format” peace talks attended this year by China, Pakistan, and eventually the United States.
Russia has also been accused of more nefarious dealings with the insurgent group, including allegations reported by The New York Times that Moscow was paying bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The White House said in April that the intelligence community does not have conclusive evidence of this, and Russia has denied it.
But with Washington’s footprint in the region diminishing, the Kremlin finally has its long-sought opportunity to again flex its diplomatic and military muscles in the region after a long time on the sidelines following the Soviet military’s pullout in 1989.
“What is happening now near the southern borders of the ‘post-Soviet space’ looks like a consequence of a new geopolitical reality, which Moscow has long dreamed of as a ‘multipolar world,’ Vladislav Inozemtsev, an economist and director of the Moscow-based Center for Research on Post-Industrial Societies, wrote on the Twitter channel Kremlin Bezbashennik.
In recent weeks, Russia has carried out military training exercises in Tajikistan, which it says are designed to help secure the border with Afghanistan, and has made clear it opposes any new U.S. troop presence in Central Asia.
“I don’t think that the establishment of new U.S. military facilities in Central Asia would be in the interests of security,” Lavrov said on July 12.
And ahead of a July 13-14 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Dushanbe, where Kabul was hoping to further its long-standing effort to join the organization whose members all have a stake in its country, a Russian official accused the Afghan government of “hypocrisy” when it comes to efforts to work out a peace deal with the Taliban that would prevent a return to civil war.
The only way forward, Russia’s special representative on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told the state news agency RIA, was for all sides to sit down together at the negotiating table, a scenario that the Taliban thwarted for years and has only half-heartedly entertained since it reached an agreement with Washington in February 2020 that paved the way for direct talks.
In the meantime, Moscow appears to be balancing forces in Afghanistan in the event one side collapses.
To make this work, the analyst Serenko believes, Russia will maintain two relationships in the country — one with the Taliban through the Foreign Ministry, and one with the government in Kabul through President Vladimir Putin’s Security Council.
“Which of these relationships will ultimately turn out to be sincere, time will tell,” Serenko told Current Time.
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Michael Scollon, with interviews and analysis by Current Time
- Michael Scollon is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague.