Russia tries to leverage Taliban ties in Middle East politics

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Russia – along with Pakistan, China, Iran, Turkey and Qatar – was on a fairly short list of states invited by the Taliban to inaugurate their new government in Kabul on September 11. The President of the Federation Council (upper house of the Russian Parliament) Valentina Matviyenko, said in a statement before the inauguration that diplomats would likely be present on behalf of Russia. According to her, the representation should be “at the level of ambassadors or other members of the diplomatic corps, not higher than that”. The Russian President’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has confirmed that Russian Ambassador to Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov will attend the ceremony. However, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Russian delegation would only attend the event if the Taliban government was inclusive.

Ultimately, the question of whether Russian officials would arrive in Kabul was resolved by the Taliban themselves, who decided not to hold a dedication ceremony, instead of simply hoisting their flag above the presidential palace.

However, the fact that Russia was invited to such an event indicates that a special relationship has developed between Moscow and the Taliban. In addition, another sign suggesting the confidential nature of contacts between Moscow and the Taliban was the presence in early September of pro-Kremlin journalists from the Defense Ministry’s pool in Kabul: Yevgeny Poddubny from VGTRK / Russia24 and Alexander Kots from Komsomolskaya Pravda. . Both are known for their support for Russia’s military operations in Syria and the activities of Allied forces in Moscow in Libya.

There was a political strategist in Afghanistan, Maxim Shugaley, who is associated with affiliates of Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (who was long held in a Libyan prison in Tripoli for having ties to Seif al-Islam Gaddafi). The timing suggests that they have been tasked with creating a positive image of the Taliban movement among the Russian public.

This period of intensified ties between Russia and the Taliban coincided with preparations for the launch of the Syrian military campaign by the Russian Air Force in 2015. It was then that Kabulov announced that Moscow and the Taliban maintained a channel of communication. In turn, the Taliban posted a comment via Al Jazeera: “We are in talks [with Russia], but not to fight [the Islamic State]. We want foreign forces to leave our country. This is what we are talking about right now. The movement confirmed Kabulov’s comments about the existence of contacts at the time, although they denied that they affected the fight against ISIS.

Moscow began to rely on the Taliban as an effective force capable of countering more radical groups such as IS, even when the US military contingent was in Afghanistan. The operation of the Taliban of August 2015 to destroy the organization Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, fallen under the banner of the IS and composed of citizens of the republics of Central Asia (of which millions of citizens are in Russia and Moscow fears their radicalization), resonated in the capital. This Taliban act likely further convinced the Kremlin of the need to enter into a dialogue with the group, which would be able to fill the security vacuum in Afghanistan when US troops left.

Relations between Russia and the Taliban have started to progress in a period of worsening relations between Moscow and Washington against the backdrop of events in Ukraine. While Russia has used the Syrian campaign to revert to at least limited dialogue with the United States, Moscow’s relations with the Taliban have demonstrated the Kremlin’s involvement in the failure of the US policy of “meddling.” the internal affairs of independent states and the imposition of values ​​foreign to them ”, thus described the secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev. The Taliban, willingly or not, has in fact transformed in Russia’s eyes into a national liberation movement fighting the American occupation, although officially they remain on Russian terrorist lists and are considered radical Islamists.

Another aspect that forced Moscow to start establishing ties with the Taliban was the complete misunderstanding with the government of former President Ashraf Ghani, which replaced the government of Hamid Karzai, with which the Kremlin had a dialogue. constructive (remember Karzai’s support for Russia not for Crimea). However, during Ghani’s period of leadership, not only did the level of political interaction decline, but many contracts were also revised, including those related to the purchase and maintenance of military equipment. Russia’s contacts with the Taliban have only increased the enmity between the two sides.

However, that was only the tip of the iceberg, and Kabulov expressed the full essence of the misunderstanding between Moscow and Kabul when he said that Ghani “fled the country in the most shameful way” and deserves to be to be brought to justice by the Afghan people.

Publicity of its ties to the Taliban brought an unexpected propaganda effect to Moscow. To some extent, this allowed the Kremlin to save face in front of Sunni Muslims against the backlash it received during its military campaign in Syria, where various groups of Sunni Islamists have also taken a stand against Russia. To some extent, this also served to deflect accusations from opponents who were trying to tarnish the reputation of the Russian Federation with the Sunni world. Of course, this mainly concerned Russia’s relations with the Sunni public, not the ruling regimes in Muslim countries. Nevertheless, it had a positive impact on Moscow’s dialogues with the main capitals of Muslim states. It is likely that such bonuses were not foreseen by Russian diplomats, but were nevertheless welcomed.

With the establishment of ties with the Taliban, the Russian side has demonstrated its readiness to vouch for its Central Asian allies and ward off threats emanating from Afghanistan, and to stop the danger emanating from that country. without the use of force, only by seeking mutual understanding with the Taliban themselves. The latter also seem interested in strengthening ties with Moscow.

By launching a dialogue with the Taliban, Russia has shown that it sees no future for the “pro-American government” of Afghanistan and is ready to work with all the forces in the country which have a real chance of success. access to power. Of course, that mainly meant the Taliban. From now on, the Taliban movement, if the terrorist designations are withdrawn from it, will be ready to become Russia’s partner in Afghanistan, opening up broad prospects for Moscow to strengthen its economic and even political influence in this country through soft power.

In turn, the approach of Russia the Taliban’s victory opens up opportunities for Moscow to reposition itself in the Islamic world. Moscow’s stake in a dialogue with the Taliban, launched six or seven years ago, has been fully justified and Russia can attempt to turn this tactical success into a strategic breakthrough.

Regarding the economic side, here Russia’s main competitor may be China, which has long been committed to building pragmatic relations with the Taliban. At the same time, if international sanctions against the Taliban persist, new opportunities arise for some Russian tycoons, for example, Evgeny Prigozhin and Gennady Timchenko. They can apply in Afghanistan their experience of working in “gray areas”, in states whose regimes are under sanctions or do not fully control the situation in the country. A number of Russian businessmen have similar work experience, for example in Syria, the Central African Republic and eastern Libya, which is under the control of Khalifa Hifter.

Strategically, for Moscow, the precedent of the Taliban and the interaction with it will also be important for the possible construction of links with other Islamic movements that could hypothetically find themselves in power in various states in the Middle East and North Africa. . The Taliban could vaccinate Russia against fears of the Islamic threat and allow it to engage in dialogue with other groups considered radical and from which Moscow previously preferred to distance itself. Nonetheless, this scenario can only come to fruition after the conclusion of an internal discussion in Russia itself on how the Taliban should ultimately be viewed. Despite the generally glowing attitude of Russian state structures towards the Taliban, the influential pro-Kremlin expert community remains seriously suspicious of both the Taliban and the possibility of interacting with similar Islamist forces.


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