Last week, Russia hosted its third multilateral meeting between regional partners in central Asia. The meetings have attempted to create a framework regarding negotiations over the fate of Afghanistan. Representatives from China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Afghanistan, and other central Asian countries attended; however, two key actors were missing from the talks, the United States and representatives from the Taliban. Apart from hosting these talks, it has been reported that Russia and Iran are in contact with the Taliban in order to supply the group with weapons and money.
In what appears to be another familiar move from Russia’s playbook, the Kremlin is betting on both outcomes of the same conflict. The Kremlin is hedging its bets against the possibility of a pro-western government in Kabul, while also playing the role as the spoiler in Afghanistan by subverting American efforts to bring stability to the country.
Russia is concerned with the outcome of Afghanistan for several reasons.
First, Russia is concerned with Afghanistan’s proximity to its borders. Moscow fears the idea of foreign fighters leaving Afghanistan and moving into Russia or central Asia. In the wake of the American military draw-down in Afghanistan, the weakened Afghani army has enabled the resurgence of the Taliban and the emergence of new terrorist groups like ISIS. These are major concerns for Russia as it desperately seeks to prevent the spread of radical Islamic groups near its borders. It is estimated that Russian language is the second most popular language of choice for ISIS fighters, after Arabic. This is reflective of the amount of Russians and central Asians that have flooded into Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Furthermore, Russia is home to some 20 million Muslims and the last thing that Moscow wants is an energized Islamic population in Chechnya becoming an emerging hotspot for ISIS recruits.
Second, the Kremlin does not want the United States to form a pro-western Afghani government. Again, due to Afghanistan’s important strategic location in the heart of central Asia, the Kremlin does not want a western friendly government that allows a permanently forward deployed American military and intelligence gathering units so close to its borders and disturbing Russian influence in central Asia.
Third, in the event that the United States leaves Afghanistan, the Kremlin does not want a failed Afghanistan to fester so close to its borders. Such a failed state could allow for an unlimited amount of foreign fighters to find sanctuary in the rocky and extremely inhospitable mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. Russian and American forces know all too well the difficulty in traversing such terrain in hostile conditions.
Fourth, if the Kremlin can bring regional countries to the negotiating table this will improve Russia’s perceived influence and power around the world.
Nevertheless, Russia also has its reasons for supporting the Taliban.
First, by supporting the Taliban in their fight against the United States and ISIS, it will make the war more costly for the United States while also weakening ISIS. This comes at a pivotal time in world politics where many countries are left feeling uncertain as to the United States’ foreign policy goals. Furthermore, the people around the world are aware of the American weariness to escalate their involvement in what is already the longest running war in their history. It would be in the Kremlin’s interests to raise the costs of America’s involvement in Afghanistan so long as it does not force Washington to withdraw from the conflict all together, thereby creating a failed state, which is not an interest of Moscow.
Second, the Taliban will inevitably be a part of any peace agreement reached in the future, so the Kremlin is hedging its bets, as it always has, to ensure that it has at least one party in the negotiations that will support Russia’s interests.
In sum, Russia hopes to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan so long as it precludes the United States. However, in the event that Russia cannot garner enough influence over important parties in the Afghani war then the Kremlin will continue its role as the spoiler, or a country that instigates unrest and violence to prevent the possibility of peace. The role of the spoiler is a familiar one for Moscow and it is especially useful against status quo powers such as the United States. Furthermore, the spoiler does not have to ‘win’ in the conventional sense, they merely have to prevent victory or peace.