Russia returns to the graveyard of empires
Even as Russia struggles to achieve military and political success in Ukraine, its leaders have turned their attention to another regional objective: restarting business in the so-called graveyard of empires.
Six months ago, Moscow inked a deal with the Taliban to supply gasoline, oil and wheat to Afghanistan. Some of those commodities are now arriving by road and rail from Central Asia, providing Afghans with much-needed supplies — and Russia with much-needed customers.
The Taliban-led government has also created a consortium of companies, including some in Russia, to fuel investments in power, mining and infrastructure. The group plans to allocate up to $1 billion for infrastructure and energy projects, and Russia is expected to act as a key investor and contractor.
For the Kremlin, key economic goals in Afghanistan include the construction of coal-fired power plants and a facility for turning coal into oil products. Currently, Afghanistan produces only 30 percent of the electricity it consumes and remains heavily dependent on energy imports.
Kabul has made it clear that it wants 1 million barrels of oil from Russia, and would prefer to trade for it — with minerals, raisins and medicinal herbs. If that does not suit Russia, Kabul can also pay with money, said Haji Nooruddin Azizi, the Taliban-appointed minister of commerce and industry.
There is no doubt that closer economic cooperation with Russia would help the Taliban-led government ease the international isolation that has cut it off from the global banking system. To a certain extent, it would also help Russia, especially now that the country is living under the weight of Western sanctions.
The trouble is, the Taliban is not ready to manage foreign investment. Although Afghanistan is one of the world’s most resource-rich countries, political unpredictability and economic unreliability are impeding major foreign actors, including Russia, from launching large-scale business projects in the country.
Last month, top security officials from Russia, India, Iran, China and across Central Asia met in Moscow to discuss what could be done to improve the situation in Afghanistan. Tellingly, the Taliban was not even invited.
Russia labeled the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003. While the Kremlin held numerous meetings with the Afghan group in subsequent years, the first official contact between the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Taliban in the post-9/11 era was in 2015. More recently, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, visited Kabul in January to discuss the prospect of recognition of the Taliban by the international community, including Russia.
However, that does not mean the Kremlin will delist the Taliban as a terrorist organization anytime soon. As Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, stressed at the recent summit in Moscow, the socioeconomic situation in Afghanistan is “rapidly degrading,” chaos that he blamed on the “current Kabul authorities.”
The Russian ambassador to Tajikistan, Semyon Grigoryev, offered a similar view in January, noting that “practically all the promises that the Taliban made when they came to power have not been fulfilled.” In his view, Afghanistan is riddled with terrorists and led by a divisive government that fuels the global drug trade. The “plight of the Afghan people completes this sad picture,” Grigoryev said.
For the Kremlin, key economic goals in Afghanistan include the construction of coal-fired power plants and a facility for turning coal into oil products.
His statement could be viewed by Tajikistan — Afghanistan’s smallest neighbor and the poorest country in Central Asia — as reassurance that Russia will not allow Afghanistan to be used to destabilize the former Soviet republic, where the Russian Federation has a large military base. Tajikistan hosts several Afghan leaders who oppose the Taliban’s rule, including the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan leader Ahmad Massoud, making it a ripe target.
Aware of this vulnerability, Emomali Rahmon, the Tajikistan president, has called for a “security belt” to be built around Afghanistan to protect neighboring states. Despite being Moscow’s ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Tajikistan represents a relatively easy target not only for the Taliban, but also for other radical groups operating in Afghanistan.
And yet, given how poorly Russia has conducted its war in Ukraine, it is not clear that Moscow could uphold its security commitments if called upon to do so. It is also doubtful that the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization could protect Tajikistan in the event of a cross-border attack.
For now, Russia will continue to balance its military and political alliance with Tajikistan as it plans to strengthen its economic position in Afghanistan. But it will do so slowly, painfully aware that Moscow’s involvement in Afghanistan has not always gone to plan.
Still, unlike most Western nations, Russia did not close its embassy in the Afghan capital after the American withdrawal from the country in August 2021. That gives Moscow a leg-up on efforts to turn the Taliban into a reliable trading partner.
* Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and pipeline politics.