Russian moves in Afghanistan are about regional stability, not revenge on US
Hardly a week seems to pass without some new crisis in Russian-American relations. The most recent was the revelation that U.S. President Donald Trump had ignored intelligence about bounties supposedly paid by Russian operatives to the Taliban in exchange for killing American soldiers. The veracity of this particular intelligence is questionable, in my view, but there is plausible evidence that Russia has been providing arms to the Taliban as Moscow seeks to play a more active role in Afghanistan. What to make of this? Some commentators in the U.S., including intelligence analysts and military commanders, see Russia’s policy as primarily aimed at pushing the U.S. out of what Moscow considers its neighborhood. Commenting on the most recent allegations, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff suggested that Russia should be “pushed out of the community of nations.” For Schiff, Russia’s Afghanistan policy is further evidence of a consistent anti-American agenda. This kind of zero-sum thinking says more about the American foreign policy consensus regarding Russia than it does about Russia’s view of the region or of relations with Washington. Russia’s engagement with the Taliban is not, primarily, about punishing the U.S. or getting revenge for Washington’s support to the mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s. Rather, Moscow is pursuing a pragmatic policy aimed at securing stability and security in Central Asia.
By the time the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the USSR’s leaders had given up any ambition they might have had to transform the country into a socialist state. Rather, their hope was that a stable government could emerge, guaranteeing stability on the Soviet Union’s southern border. After the USSR fell apart, Russian leaders sought ways to maintain influence in the country, eventually supporting their one-time enemies, like Ahmad Shah Massoud, in the latter’s war against the newly emergent Taliban. After 9/11, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to help the U.S. and NATO topple the Taliban, no doubt hoping to see Massoud’s allies take power. Even as Moscow and Washington fell apart over the invasion of Iraq, cooperation on Afghanistan continued. Yes, Moscow did exploit regional disappointment with the U.S. to push out American bases, such as the one in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. But whatever Russia thought of U.S. policy elsewhere, it saw NATO forces in Afghanistan as the best hope for stability in the region.
Although Moscow has avoided intervening directly in Central Asian affairs since the Soviet collapse, Russia and the Central Asian republics continue to exist in a symbiotic economic and security relationship. During the 1990s, Russia’s policy in Afghanistan was informed by the civil war in Tajikistan; Russia was eager to bring that conflict to an end and used its ties to Massoud to make that happen. Today, the Russian economy is highly dependent on Central Asian labor, particularly migrants from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while the economies of those countries are also dependent on remittances from laborers. (An estimated 3.4 million migrants entered Russia from post-Soviet Central Asian republics in 2019, although not all of these were laborers.) At the same time, Russian security officials, as well as security forces in the Central Asian countries, see migrants as a potential threat-this despite the fact that while a number of Central Asians have been arrested on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization or preparing an attack, the only recent act of terrorist violence attributed to a Central Asian on Russian soil was the 2017 bombing in St. Petersburg.
More broadly, Moscow fears instability in the region and has therefore maintained close security ties with these countries. Some of these ties are formalized through the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but even more important are the bilateral ties between security agencies, and the sharing of intelligence, training and equipment this allows. Moscow’s support had been crucial for making U.S. and NATO cooperation with these countries possible from the start of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
By 2016, Russian officials seem to have decided that there was little chance of the U.S. achieving anything like stability in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban were more likely than not going to be a dominant force for the foreseeable future. Moscow’s decision to open a channel to the Taliban, and ultimately supply the group with arms, reflected a desire to be on good terms with whoever ruled the country. But it also reflected a changing security calculus. The appearance of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan worried Russian officials much more than the Taliban. The Taliban had largely proven that their interests were confined to Afghanistan, and even when they harbored fighters from organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, they showed little interest in organizing attacks north of the border. The Islamic State, by contrast, wanted to claim the entire Central Asian region and was actively looking for recruits to take the fight into Russia. Although Russia has only faced isolated incidents connected to IS followers, it sees the possibility of a protracted civil war in Afghanistan as a source of danger for Russia itself. After all, thousands of Central Asians reportedly travelled to Syria to fight on behalf of IS there at the peak of that group’s power; many of them had been recruited in Russia. Afghanistan, which shares a border with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, could be a more tempting destination, although my research indicates only about 200 fighters of Central Asian origin seem to have joined the Islamic State in Khorasan as of 2019.
Evidence of Russia providing military and medical supplies to the Taliban began surfacing in 2016, although political ties almost certainly go back further. Russia has always denied military support to the Taliban; however, it has made a much bigger show of playing peacemaker, including by hosting talks in Moscow. These two approaches are part of the same strategy. Moscow had once supported the Taliban’s enemies; for Russia to play peacemaker, it had to find a way to prove itself helpful to the Taliban and to lay the groundwork for security cooperation after the U.S. withdrawal. Russian officials no doubt realize that supporting the Taliban would further hinder cooperation with the U.S., but they calculated that the U.S. was not going to be a player in Afghanistan for much longer, and being able to guarantee Russian security in the longer term was worth any friction with Washington.
The more recent accusation, concerning bounties for killing American soldiers, seems less credible. Russian support to the Taliban so far has been quite limited (Gen. John W. Nicholson called it “calibrated”)- enough to establish a relationship with the group and allow Russia to play a role as a peacemaker, but small enough for other parties to look the other way. Deliberately targeting American soldiers would be an unnecessary and dangerous escalation on Russia’s part, one that would upset its so far carefully calibrated policy. Moreover, the Taliban hardly needs incentives to fight. It is possible that Russia’s military intelligence, or GRU, hoped to undermine U.S.-brokered ceasefires. But the evidence that has been made public so far seems to be second-hand (coming from informers of Afghanistan’s intelligence service).
The Russian leadership’s policy toward the Taliban might be based on cold, hard calculations of national interest, but it could still backfire. As often happens with foreign involvement in civil wars, support for a belligerent could lead to prolonged civil war rather than peace. If so, Russia’s actions would, paradoxically, make Afghanistan more attractive to groups like the Islamic State. Still, this is clearly not the outcome Russian officials are hoping for. Nor is Russia in Afghanistan to extract payback for American aid to the mujahedeen. Whatever schadenfreude Russian commanders might feel about ISAF’s difficulties in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that their policy in Afghanistan is motivated by revenge. U.S. politicians may feel betrayed by Russia’s engagement with the Taliban, but to understand what Russia is up to, they need to stop imagining that Moscow’s every move is somehow intended to undermine the U.S. If anything, Russia’s engagement with the Taliban is a result of disappointment with American power, rather than an attempt to undermine the U.S.
Artemy M. Kalinovsky is a professor of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet studies at Temple University and the author of “Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan.”