Will Afghanistan’s new chapter be good or bad for Russia?
Almost two months on from the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan — and 20 years after the US led the initial invasion of the country — a new chapter of the country’s development is beginning. Russia is perhaps in the second echelon of external powers to impact on the future of the country, after China and Pakistan, but it is still a very important actor to consider. What can Russia offer Afghans for the future? And what are its limitations?
Russia is interested in Afghanistan’s stability, as this is a strategic goal related to its own security concerns. Afghanistan is a neighbor of some former Soviet republics that remain under Russian influence. Among Moscow’s concerns are the threat from uncontrolled weapons transfers to the Taliban, the drugs trade, and the presence of extremists among the Afghan refugees crossing into Central Asia. Importantly, the potential rise of radicalism and terrorism in Afghanistan will directly affect Russia’s security. Modern Russia remembers the painful Soviet legacy of the withdrawal of its forces in 1989.
The establishment of a theocratic state in Afghanistan is viewed as a negative development by the Central Asian states, as noted by Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov and stated at the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, last month. Consequently, the outcome of the meeting was to prioritize attention toward Tajikistan, which has a lengthy border with Afghanistan. Russia also maintains a military base there, as well as in Kyrgyzstan. As a result, less than a month after the meeting, the Russia-led bloc, which includes Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Belarus, announced that it planned to hold military drills near the Afghan border in Tajikistan on Oct. 22 and 23. More military exercises are to be expected.
At the same time, since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul in August, Russia has cautiously accommodated the Taliban’s seizure of power. President Vladimir Putin stated that he had no plans to meet with the group, though its representatives are due in Moscow this week for consultations. At last week’s Commonwealth of Independent States summit, the Russian president said it is necessary to interact with the Taliban, but one should not rush to recognize them.
Moscow hopes to translate diplomatic expertise into improved security and economic collaboration
Dr. Diana Galeeva
Putin also believes it is necessary to support the process of inter-Afghan reconciliation and to strive to normalize the situation in the country. The Taliban have been identified as a terrorist organization since 2003, but Moscow has maintained informal diplomatic relations with the leadership for pragmatic reasons. So Russia stresses the importance of interacting with, but not recognizing the Islamic emirate — a position echoed by Japarov. Russia hopes to translate diplomatic expertise into improved security and economic collaboration.
Financially, Russia cannot compete with China in the parts of Central Asia that need to develop local economies and create jobs. However, there are some prospects for the realization of infrastructure projects. Here, some positive Soviet legacy might be useful to remember — Russia’s investments in Afghanistan. The most visible remnants of the Soviet era in Kabul are the concrete residential complexes known as “mikrorayon.” Their construction came in two waves: Four-floor apartment buildings, built at the beginning of the 1960s, when the Soviets began investing heavily in Afghanistan, and then six-story buildings that grew into the sky in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation.
Another potential direction could be the development of natural resource extraction. Minerals and rare earth metals in Afghanistan were estimated to be worth between $1 trillion and $3 trillion in 2019, according to a report in The Diplomat. These include cerium, lanthanum and neodymium, as well as veins of aluminum, gold, silver, mercury, zinc, and lithium. However, it will be a challenge for Russia to complete with China in accessing these resources and markets. Beijing dominates the rare earths market worldwide. According to the US Geological Survey, about 35 percent of global rare earth reserves are in China. The country is also a mining machine, with 120,000 tons produced per year (70 percent of the world’s total rare earths in 2018).
China has already offered $31 million in emergency aid to Afghanistan and it appears to have plans to keep pragmatic relations with the main forces in the country in order to increase its investment opportunities. Only after hours the Taliban overran Afghanistan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that Beijing was ready for “friendly cooperation with Afghanistan.”
In any discussion of the limitations facing Russia in its future impact on Afghanistan’s development, we should remember that Moscow’s foreign policy is specifically centralized on the US factor. Arkady Dubnov, a political analyst and Central Asia expert in Moscow, believes Russia can align its interest with China in opposing the US, adding: “What is good for us is bad for Americans; what is bad for us is good for Americans. Today the situation is bad for Americans and so it is good for us.”
This might suggest Russia will try to find alternative ways to fill part of the external power vacuum in Afghanistan left by the US’ withdrawal. For example, it has already floated the possibility of promoting the resumption of the work of the expanded “troika” (Russia, the US and China, with the participation of Pakistan), as well as the Moscow format, in which the key countries of the region participate.
An uncertain new chapter has opened for Afghanistan and its relations with Russia. Only time will tell whether this momentous shift in the region’s stability will prove to be “good” or “bad” for Russian security and commerce.
• Dr. Diana Galeeva is an Academic Visitor to St Antony’s College, Oxford University, having previously also been a Scholar-in-Residence at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. She is a co-editor of the book, “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan).