Russia’s foreign policy in Afghanistan is divided into two separate periods: 1-The period of the Soviet Union, especially its last 10 years, between 1979 and 1989, when the Soviet Red Army invaded Afghanistan to support the People’s Democratic Government and to fight the Mujahideen. During that period, Russia’s foreign policy toward Afghanistan was based on two theoretical approaches: “ideological” (meaning the realization of the great normative modern power or the great Russian power) and “aggressive realism” (meaning revisionist and aggressive behavior); and 2- The post-Soviet period, especially after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, when Russia’s macro-foreign policy approaches in Afghanistan changed completely. The nature and approach of Russia’s foreign policy in Afghanistan in that period can be assessed on the basis of two theoretical approaches, “ideological” and “defensive realism” (meaning deterrence and balancing of threatening powers).

Afghanistan’s place in Russia’s foreign policy

Afghanistan has always played a significant role in Russia’s foreign policy and national security doctrines. Although Afghanistan is not one of Russia’s neighbors and does not have a border with Russia, in the eyes of the Russians as a country that is a source of export of terrorism, extremism and drugs on the one hand, and on the other hand, bordering the region close to Russia (Central Asia), it is of particular importance to Moscow, and Kremlin officials have mainly sought to reduce and weaken the threatening waves from Afghanistan.

In other words, Russia’s view of Afghanistan is defined by its view of Central Asia, which for decades has considered the region as its backyard and is sensitive against any destructive actions and spread of insecurity and instability to this region, which was once part of Russia’s geography. The importance of the issue is as such that the Russians have made efforts to prevent spread of Afghanistan threats into the depth of strategy and its overflow to its borders as well as limiting the US influence in Central Asia by building and strengthening regional alliances such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and other multilateral security, political, and economic arrangements, as well as strengthening their bilateral security ties. Russia’s alignment with the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, ostensibly to eliminate al-Qaeda and terrorist groups, can also be seen in this context.

Russia and current developments in Afghanistan

Russia’s foreign policy in response to developments in Afghanistan over the past decades to the present day, when the Taliban control large parts of the country, can be assessed from a “geopolitical” perspective. The Kremlin sees the “withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan,” which 1- has “weakened the central government” in Kabul and 2- “strengthened the Taliban” throughout the country, as an “opportunity”. The policy that Russia is currently pursuing in Afghanistan is to try to fill in the gap left by the US withdrawal from the country. Unlike China, which has sought to fill in the gap through economic mechanisms, development programs, and investment in Afghanistan’s infrastructure, Russia seeks to strengthen its presence and influence in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, mainly through political mechanisms and security processes.

Of course, since the issue of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan was raised a few years ago, those processes and mechanisms, including contact with the Taliban and some intelligence and political exchanges and even arms supplies, have been seriously on Moscow’s foreign policy agenda which has been exacerbated simultaneously with the intensification of developments in Afghanistan in recent months. Russia has officially outlawed the Taliban as a “terrorist” group since 2003 and has been associated with that group ever since, although its level of support is unknown.

Russia is feeling good about the dismantling of the US and NATO military bases in Afghanistan, but remains concerned about the consequences of the US withdrawal and that the military withdrawal will be replaced by “smart security” presence and influence. More than 2,000 security and intelligence personnel have been stationed at the US Embassy in Kabul in recent weeks. To overcome the existing concerns, the Kremlin seeks to strengthen the processes that lead to the establishment of a “cohesive state” in Afghanistan; a government that can curb terrorism and extremism, especially in the north of the country, which borders Russia’s southern borders, and guarantee Russia’s economic interests, especially in the energy sector. As a rule, this government cannot be the government of Ashraf Ghani, which operates within the framework of American interests. In Moscow’s view, the Taliban is an effective political and security tool for achieving its targets.

Moscow refers to the Taliban as a “politically capable force” that is “really and clearly entitled to power” that has become more moderate over time and its threats to Russia have diminished; therefore, it has the necessary readiness to enter the government and politics in Afghanistan “seriously and officially”. That is why Moscow’s top officials are more assertive about the need to oust Ashraf Ghani’s government in the future without NATO. This is what Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, is emphasizing. Mr. Kabulov has emphasized in recent weeks that a transitional coalition government that includes the Taliban and “a wide range of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras” is the only way out of the current stalemate; Afghanistan must form a new coalition government with representatives of all political parties, including the Taliban, and this is the only way out of the current crisis in the country.

But Russia has only one concern for the Taliban, and that is what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is referring to. That is, the Taliban’s advance in northern Afghanistan has led to extremist groups such as al-Qaeda invading Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where they have been secretly organizing; this is an important concern that has alarmed the Russian government.

Concluding remarks

Moscow believes that what is happening in Afghanistan has direct and indirect security implications for the Russian Federation. For the Russians, threats include radical and extremist thoughts and behaviors, anti-Russian sentiments among the Afghan people and elites, largely due to very bad memories of the Soviet occupation, anti-Russian political currents, failure of the nation-state process of nation-building and production and processing of narcotics in Afghanistan’s internal environment seriously threaten Russia’s interests and security. The Kremlin is also particularly sensitive to threats to the strategic depth of Russia, Central Eurasia, in terms of the spread of insecurity and instability in Afghanistan.

To contain those threats, Russia’s policy in Afghanistan includes the following strategies: 1. Expanding its influence, political, economic and security presence in the country through various means, including alienating Afghans from the United States (the people of Afghanistan are now deeply dissatisfied with Washington’s unacceptable record of rebuilding Afghanistan, which has led to a staggering rise in corruption among Afghan official); 2- Repelling anti-security waves with the aim of curbing terrorism in Afghanistan and preventing spread of extremism to Central Asian countries; 3- Expansion of economic activities, including in the energy sector; 4- And finally, strengthening the security indicators in the borders of the Russian Federation and the nearby outside region.