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EXPERT COMMENT: Russia and the Taliban: here’s why Putin wants to get closer to Afghanistan’s current rulers

22nd April 2024

In this article originally written for The Conversation*, Intigam Mamedov, Postdoctoral research fellow in Social Sciences  at Northumbria University, discusses the relations between Putin and the Taliban.

Russia is currently considering taking the Taliban off its list of terrorist organisations, officials have indicated.

While no final decision has yet been taken, one sign of their increasingly cordial relationship is the Taliban’s invitation to an international economic forum being held in Kazan, Russia, in May. The Kremlin has opened up discussions with the Taliban before, and Russia was one of the few nations to accredit a diplomat when the organisation took control of Afghanistan.

But Afghanistan’s political and economic crisis and western sanctions on Russia due to the Ukraine war mean both sides have something to gain from a stronger relationship.

In 1999, the UN security council adopted resolution 1267, in which the Taliban was found responsible for “the provision of sanctuary and training for international terrorists”. A few months later, Vladimir Putin signed a decree implementing the UN resolution and imposing sanctions against the Taliban.

In 2003, the Russian supreme court recognised the Taliban movement as a terrorist organisation, saying it maintained links with illegal armed forces in Chechnya and tried to seize power in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia launched a regional initiative in 2017 to negotiate between the Kabul government and the Taliban as an effort to create a peacemaker role for itself.

These negotiations were aimed at offering solutions to the Afghanistan crisis, and were usually held with the participation of China, Iran, Pakistan and central Asian republics. Russia continued to maintain contact with the Taliban, despite labelling them a terrorist group.

Interests and goals

Since taking over control of Afghanistan, no foreign states have recognised the Taliban government. There are few signs yet that many are close to doing so, partly because of the Taliban’s continuing erosion of women’s rights and recognition of human rights more generally.

The Taliban wants international sanctions to be withdrawn, to take Afghanistan’s UN seat and for frozen assets to be released, which will help the country’s economic development.

Afghanistan should benefit economically from developing the important Lapis-Lazuli trade corridor which links Afghanistan to Istanbul and Europe, and the Uzbekistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan railway line, if international sanctions are withdrawn. Russia taking the Taliban off their terrorism list would be a first step toward international recognition for the current Afghan government.

Caption: Afghanistan’s economy is in crisis, one of the reasons the Taliban may be looking to develop its relationship with Russia. Guido Schiefer /Alamy

Russia also benefits from its cooperation with the Taliban. It aims to present itself as the region’s security provider, especially compared to the US’s failure to create stability in Afghanistan. Moscow considers central Asia a zone of historical interest (the Soviet Union was involved in an armed conflict within Afghanistan from 1979-89).

It is also concerned about the stability of the region, drug trafficking and threats from Islamist terrorism, especially after the recent Isis-K attack on the Crocus City Hall, Moscow.

To increase its geoeconomic and geopolitical presence in the region, Russia can use the alliances it has already built – the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a military alliance with Armenia Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, formed in 2002) and the Eurasian Economic Union (an economic union of five post-Soviet states). Russia’s 2023 foreign policy plan mentions prospects for Afghanistan’s integration into “the Eurasian space for cooperation”.

Russia’s relationship building

The increasing cooperation between the Taliban and Russia has implications in terms of the ongoing rivalry between Russia and the west. Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, Moscow has tried to get other nations to support its strategic view of why the war is happening.

This version of history and policy positions Russia as a protector of traditional religions and values and places it among major world civilisations, contrasting it with the “godless” west. It also details the right of civilisations to exist and develop within their own values, something that should appeal to the Taliban, and that Russia presents as a contrast to the west.

In 2022, Putin said:

Real democracy in a multipolar world is primarily about the ability of […] any civilisation to follow its own path and organise its own socio-political system. If the United States or the EU countries enjoy this right, then the countries of Asia, the Islamic states, the monarchies of the Persian Gulf […] certainly have this right as well.

These ideas are popular in the Muslim world because they promise an alternative non-western order and recognise Islamic values as equal and fundamental, with no need to conform to the western interpretations of right and wrong.

The potential rapprochement with the Taliban is a sign to the Islamic world in particular, that, unlike the US, Russia is an ally that will not interfere in another country’s internal affairs or dictate its values.

Economically, and politically, the Taliban needs to cooperate with Moscow, but this doesn’t mean the Taliban trust Russian officials and their official line, or that they have forgotten the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. For now, having Moscow as an ally is extremely useful.

*This article was originally published by The Conversation. Please see here for republishing guidelines.

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