Taliban takeover in Afghanistan: a new ally for Russia?

After the rapid US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban takeover has shifted the power balance. How is Russia, the old rival to the US, reacting to this situation?
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell via Wikimedia Commons

Now that America is officially gone after twenty years of military presence, the Taliban have taken over leading Afghanistan. The new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” however causes considerable worry for both neighbouring countries and their allies. For one, the Taliban’s hold of power is still fragile. Afghanistan thus continues to represent a threat to regional stability. And there are also fears that Afghanistan could become a new hub for international Islamist terrorism.

While Western powers are taking a defensive and cautious stance after their hasty retreat, other countries seek out alternatives to rejecting the Taliban. China for example has already made friendly gestures towards the Taliban, being cited as one of their most important new partners. Russia, the traditional adversary of the US, is looking for another course of action altogether.

Are the Taliban a menace for Moscow?

In early August, when the Taliban were rapidly advancing through Afghanistan without resistance from the ANA (Afghan National Army), Moscow was arguably somewhat worried. Together with the Tajik and Uzbek militaries, Russian soldiers held arms drills at the border to Afghanistan.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August, Western countries were scrambling to evacuate their citizens, the Afghan personnel having helped their armed forces during the military presence, and their embassies. Russia emphasised that evacuating its citizens and embassy was not necessary. Yet ten days later, the deterioriation of security in Afghanistan due to the chaos after the takeover pushed Russia to act. Ordered by Putin, four military planes were sent to Kabul to evacuate more than 500 people.

On the same day, a top member of the resistance movement in the Afghan province Panjshir told the newspaper The Moscow Times in an interview:

“Russia should be concerned about the rise of the Taliban. The country will become a terrorist hub that will endanger Central Asia and Russia itself”.

This statement may have represented a potential call for support; yet it also hinted at one of the main fears that Moscow harbors regarding Afghanistan.

Old wounds

For the Taliban are not only the new political leaders of Afghanistan. They also remain an extremist islamist movement. Russia generally takes a wary stance regarding Islamist groups, which fall under the category of “terrorist organisations” in Russia. This is also rooted in history, as the wars against Islamist separatists in Chechnya have left their marks on Russia. And let us remember that Moscow is also still actively fighting the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Of course, it should be noted that the Taliban’s ideology is not based on expansion. Unlike the IS, for instance, they do not want a worldwide caliphate. However, as the interview with Panjshir resistance leaders has suggested, the Taliban are capable of making Afghanistan a safe haven for other terrorist groups with differing ideologies.

Russia also has more specific old wounds in the case of Afghanistan; in the 1980s, the Soviet invasion into the country failed miserably. Almost 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in a guerilla war against the mujaheddin, an Islamist movement which preceded the Taliban. The traumatising Soviet defeat in Afghanistan has made Russia cautious when it comes to the topic.

Afghanistan is not urgent for Putin

Moscow’s actions and words regarding Afghanistan draw a blurry picture; it is that of a balancing act between defying the West in doing the exact opposite from its actions, and looking after its own security in the face of Islamist extremism. Russian officials have also refused to attend the inauguration of the new Taliban government; this was a hint that Moscow is maybe not forcibly looking for an ally in the Taliban.

There is in any case little doubt that the West will steer clear of the region for a while; this is especially likely after President Biden’s insistance on the withdrawal and the need for an official end to the war. Thus, there are few signs that anyone will inhibit Russia in extending its influence over Central Asia; this gives Moscow time in considering a course of action. The Taliban threat especially represents an opportunity for Putin to increase ties with ex-Soviet states, disguised as cooperation against a common enemy.

In the immediacy of the Taliban takeover, Russia has also kept its quiet because it also had other concerns. The parliamentary elections from 17 to 19 September have been an inner political concern, as approval rates for Putin’s party “United Russia” are on a historical low. The protests against the regime sparked by Alexei Navalny’s incarceration at the beginning of the year have contributed to the Kremlin’s concern for its power. This triggered a wave of repression and censorship to pave the way for a decisive victory for “United Russia”. As there is no doubt that the elections could lead to any other result, disadvantageous for the Kremlin, it is likely that, once Putin’s power will thus have been cemented once more, foreign policy will also return to the Kremlin’s focus.

Moscow waits, but carefully

While waiting for new developments in the situation in Afghanistan, Moscow places its bet on its traditional allies. Neighbouring Belarus under the leadership of dictator Alexander Lukashenko has been a loyal follower for Putin for more than twenty years. With him, Russia continues to strengthen its military ties; currently, the two countries are conducting a military training exercise near the EU border together. The exercise is called “Sapad”, meaning “West”. It strongly hints at whom Moscow still perceives as primary enemy.

And of course, Russia is also working closely with the ex-Soviet states bordering Afghanistan. Last week, Russia moved an additional 30 tanks to neighbouring Tajikistan. While Russia aims to distance itself from a Western stance vis-à-vis the Taliban, it clearly does not trust them either.


stance = attitude

wary = méfiant, prudent

for = car

harbor a fear = garder une crainte

steer clear of something = éviter quelque chose

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