Russia sees risks and potential rewards in US exit from Afghanistan

Taliban rule could destabilise Central Asia and accelerate regional rise of China

A Taliban fighter holds RPG rocket propelled as he stands guard with others at an entrance gate outside the interior ministry in Kabul. Photograph: Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images

A Taliban fighter holds RPG rocket propelled as he stands guard with others at an entrance gate outside the interior ministry in Kabul. Photograph: Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images

 

Russia is stepping up diplomatic and security activity around Afghanistan after the return to power of the Taliban, which Moscow sees as a blow to western prestige but also a potential threat to its own neighbours in Central Asia.

US-led forces are making their chaotic departure from Afghanistan just as Russia prepares to mark 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an anniversary that inevitably stirs memories of the Red Army’s own humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 after a bloody and costly 10-year invasion.

While claiming that the turmoil in Afghanistan shows the futility of western efforts to “impose” democracy elsewhere, however, Russia is also wary of regional destabilisation and of how China could now expand its influence in a strategic area that Moscow dominated for decades until the demise of the Soviet empire.

“We know Afghanistan well . . . how it is organised and how it is counter-productive to try to impose some other forms of state governance upon it. But the Americans tried to do what they call ‘democracy’ there,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said this week.

“It is not that they are a ‘wounded beast’,” Mr Lavrov said of western powers, “but this group of countries finds it hard and painful to part with the positions that they enjoyed globally for many decades”.

Dominate

China shares Russia’s dislike for what both see as US attempts to dominate world affairs, but they are also eager to ensure that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan does not fuel insecurity on their remote borders.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told Mr Lavrov this week that Beijing was focused on protecting its business interests in Afghanistan and preventing any spillover of violence into China’s Xinjiang province, where an estimated one million Uighur people and other Muslims have been detained in “re-education” camps.

Afghanistan and Xinjiang border Tajikistan, a mostly Muslim former Soviet republic that hosts a Russian military base and is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Neighbouring Uzbekistan is also member of the CSTO, and Russia has held war games in recent weeks with Tajik and Uzbek troops – and separately with Chinese forces – as it stepped up military activity in and around Central Asia.

The Taliban were making rapid gains at the same time, prompting thousands of Afghan government troops to flee into Tajikistan since late June, and the change of power in Kabul was reportedly followed by the arrival of dozens of Afghan military aircraft at the Termez airfield in Uzbekistan.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the US “tried to do what they call ‘democracy’” in Afghanistan. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the US “tried to do what they call ‘democracy’” in Afghanistan. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Analysts say China and Russia could now work together to stabilise Central Asia and ensure they both avoid any direct military involvement in Afghanistan.

Moscow has said it “will not rush” to recognise a Taliban government, but hopes to benefit from years of quiet engagement with leaders of a movement that is on Russia’s list of banned terrorist organisations.

Mr Lavrov said he hoped national dialogue would “lead to an agreement whereby Afghans will form inclusive transitional bodies, as an important step towards fully normalising the situation in this long-suffering country”.