Russia seeks to fill power vacuum in Afghanistan as US pulls out

TOKYO – As the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan, Russia has stepped in as a mediator in the war-torn country, emphasizing its position as a key player and barely hiding its desire to expand its influence in the region to fill the void left by power. by the retreating US military.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently trolled Western countries and their dismal efforts to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan.

“I think a lot of politicians in the West are starting to grab hold of [with the reality that] it is unacceptable to impose foreign standards of political life and conduct on other countries and nations, “the president said at a press conference on August 20 after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

After the Taliban seized the capital Kabul and declared victory on August 15, Putin unleashed a storm of diplomatic efforts to capitalize on the new momentum.

The president tried to show the international community his ability to restore order in Afghanistan after the chaotic withdrawal of American troops by speaking by telephone with the leaders of Uzbekistan, Iran, Tajikistan, the France and Italy.

Putin criticized Western countries’ Afghan policies during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow on August 20. © Reuters

While most Western countries struggled to evacuate staff from the Afghan embassy, ​​the Russian embassy in Kabul was doing business as usual. Russian Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov said on August 15: “We will continue to work here calmly.

Zhirnov explained his decision, noting that “at the moment there are no immediate threats against our staff or our facilities.” He also said he had gained some confidence with the insurgents through talks with Taliban officials on August 17.

In another sign that the Kremlin is preparing for the Taliban’s return to power, President Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said Moscow has been working to establish “contacts with the Taliban movement for seven years”. He added that Russia expected the Taliban “to play a leading role in the future of Afghanistan”.

Moscow has designated the Taliban as a terrorist organization and banned them in Russia. Yet the government unofficially hosted a Taliban delegation to Moscow in July.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, greets Taliban representative Alhaj Mohammad Sohail Shaina at multilateral peace talks in Moscow on November 9, 2018 © Reuters

Russia is reaping the benefits of its years of meticulous preparation for a diplomatic offensive in the event of an American withdrawal from the country.

As his intervention in the Syrian civil war indicates, Putin’s goal is to have a major footprint in the region. The Kremlin has already started to use its power to influence the situation in Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban began to gain ground in early August, the Russian military has conducted joint exercises with Uzbek, Tajik and Chinese forces in areas bordering Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – two of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia – are considered by Moscow to be within its sphere of influence. Russia also has a military alliance with Tajikistan.

All these countries fear that the Taliban or other Muslim militants hidden in Afghanistan will take advantage of the current confusion to infiltrate their territory, disrupting border areas. Through military exercises, Russia has gained international recognition as the guardian of the nations of Central Asia.

Additionally, Putin attempted to portray the US-Afghan debacle as a sign of Washington’s waning influence in the region. Putin’s account of US withdrawal includes veiled reference to Ukraine’s dependence on the United States

Despite its growing profile in the region, it can be said that Russia was not so keen to enter the treacherous political waters of the region. Moscow is simply concerned that the emergence of a serious security threat to Central Asia – its backyard – threatens its own well-being.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has warned of the possibility of terrorists in Afghanistan entering Russia via Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. For Russians, the current situation rekindles bitter memories of the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslim militants in the 1990s and 2000s.

The question is whether Russia will be able to achieve a stable outcome in Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia while strengthening its influence in the region.

Putin knows full well that Afghanistan presents a formidable challenge, a fragmented political landscape ruled by regional warlords fighting for supremacy.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in an ill-fated 10-year war that claimed the lives of over 14,000 Soviets before Moscow surrendered. Many Russians have yet to overcome the trauma of the war in Afghanistan, which was one of the factors leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Some Russians now feel a sense of déjà vu and warn of a repeat of the disastrous conflict.

Uzbekistan armored personnel carriers train in joint military exercises with Russia and Tajikistan on August 10. © AP

The unfolding scenario is worrying on several levels. First, Afghanistan has become ripe for terrorist groups, which is the reason for Moscow’s joint military exercises with its neighbors. Afghanistan is already swarming with waves of refugees. Neighboring Tajikistan has built a facility to accommodate the crowds, which includes many people who cannot be properly controlled.

Uzbekistan also serves as a transfer point for people fleeing Afghanistan. In the 1990s and 2000s, the country suffered attacks from armed and impoverished citizens angry at government corruption and the dictatorial regime. Although the government has succeeded in restoring law and order, it remains committed to eradicating all sources of terrorism. Uzbekistan is also very concerned about Afghan refugees and is one of the few countries that has not signed the Refugee Convention.

Another concern of Moscow is drug trafficking. Afghanistan is one of the biggest producers of opium, which has been a key source of funding for the Taliban.

The Taliban have reportedly promised Russia to eradicate drug production, but cracking down on the criminal organizations involved in trafficking will not be easy.

The biggest worry for Russia, however, is the uncertainty of the Taliban regime. It is still too early to say whether Putin’s strategy for Afghanistan will lead to a diplomatic victory or anything much darker.

One thing is clear: Putin has no choice but to devote massive resources to his security and intelligence agencies to ensure a favorable outcome in Central Asia.

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