Report

Caution and Schadenfreude in Moscow as the U.S. Moment in Afghanistan Ends

Russia signals an openness to working with the Taliban.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Taliban negotiator Shahabuddin Delawar attends a press conference in Moscow on July 9.
Taliban negotiator Shahabuddin Delawar attends a press conference in Moscow on July 9. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

For the United States, the quick collapse of the Afghan government at the hands of the Taliban over the weekend was nothing short of a debacle. But for Russia, which experienced its own military humiliation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was a moment to savor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed the possibility that the Taliban might form a new government in the coming weeks or months. And while the United States and most other countries evacuated their embassies, Russia’s remained open and under the group’s protection.

Lavrov said it would be premature for now to recognize the Taliban as the country’s new leaders, but his remarks reflect Moscow’s cautious pragmatism—seasoned with a dash of schadenfreude—after two costly decades of U.S. military and diplomatic involvement in the country came to an end suddenly.

For the United States, the quick collapse of the Afghan government at the hands of the Taliban over the weekend was nothing short of a debacle. But for Russia, which experienced its own military humiliation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was a moment to savor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed the possibility that the Taliban might form a new government in the coming weeks or months. And while the United States and most other countries evacuated their embassies, Russia’s remained open and under the group’s protection.

Lavrov said it would be premature for now to recognize the Taliban as the country’s new leaders, but his remarks reflect Moscow’s cautious pragmatism—seasoned with a dash of schadenfreude—after two costly decades of U.S. military and diplomatic involvement in the country came to an end suddenly.

On Tuesday, Dmitry Zhirnov, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, held a “positive and constructive” meeting with Taliban representatives, telling Russian media that he had secured guarantees that the Russian Embassy would be spared. “Taliban representatives said that the movement has the most amicable and good regard for Russia,” Zhirnov said

Officially, Russia views the Taliban as a terrorist organization. In 2000, the group called for a holy war in the restive Russian republic of Chechnya in response to Moscow’s brutal counterterrorism campaign in the region. But in recent years, as the Islamic State and its offshoots began to proliferate, Moscow came to see the Taliban as the lesser of the regional evils. 

“They began a dialogue and began parsing what the current Taliban is from the original Taliban that was displaced in 2001,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at CNA, a think tank based just outside Washington. 

Moscow has forged ties with the group’s political representatives in recent years. In July, as the Taliban were rapidly gaining ground, the Kremlin hosted representatives in Moscow, where the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, sought assurances that the group would not try to expand into the Central Asian states and would refrain from targeting Russian diplomatic missions.

While it remains unclear how the political situation will evolve, Moscow’s relationship with the Taliban will ensure that Russia has a seat at the table in any regional confab involving Afghanistan, said Eugene Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. 

Unlike the conflicts in Syria and Libya, where Moscow has intervened to prop up embattled allies and secure a strategic geopolitical foothold, Russia has little direct interest in Afghanistan. Memories of the Soviet defeat in the 1980s are still imprinted on the minds of Russian leaders.

“I doubt that there are significant strategic opportunities to gain great influence,” said Rumer, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Russia’s principal interest is in ensuring that any instability and extremist groups in Afghanistan do not spill over into Central Asia. “They still see themselves as the security manager in that region,” he said. 

Russia has a visa-free travel arrangement with the countries of Central Asia—with the exception of Turkmenistan—and has long viewed the region as its soft underbelly through which foreign fighters, extremist ideology, and drugs could pass into Russia. 

Russia maintains its largest foreign military base in Tajikistan, close to the Afghan border, and it has beefed up its military presence in the region in recent years. This month, as the Taliban were making rapid territorial gains across Afghanistan, some 2,500 troops from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan held joint military drills to simulate a response to any spillover event. 

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States two decades ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin, then in his first year in office, was one of the first world leaders to reach out to then-U.S. President George W. Bush to offer his support. 

Putin did not try to prevent the United States from establishing air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which the Kremlin considers its backyard. Twenty years later, as ties between Washington and Moscow have curdled, the Kremlin has been less amicable. “[T]he redeployment of the American permanent military presence to the countries neighboring Afghanistan is unacceptable,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said in an interview published in July in the magazine Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn.

The speed at which the Taliban were able to seize control clearly caught the United States by surprise; U.S. officials are still scrambling to evacuate American citizens and Afghans who worked for U.S. missions. Rumer said the chaos allows Moscow “to demonstrate and highlight to the world that the United States is not a reliable partner.” 

It could also cast the bitter history of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in a new light, according to Kofman. 

“I think the Russians will watch this moment gleefully while understanding that the main challenges for Russian foreign policy are only just beginning with the U.S. withdrawal,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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