Staunton, August 17 – The US presence in Afghanistan was “almost ideal” for Moscow, Sergey Shelin says; and the American withdrawal in the face of the Taliban advance threatens Russia’s interests in Central Asia and the North Caucasus. But since the fall of Kabul the Kremlin hasn’t figured out how to respond.
Russia has a range of concerns, the Rosbalt commentator says. It is worried about the demonstration effect of an Islamist victory which could trigger the collapse of several Central Asian regimes or its own position in the North Caucasus. It also fears that the Taliban will seek to fill their coffers by expanding the drug trade across the former Soviet space.
And, perhaps most of all, it fears the instability and uncertainty that the changes in Afghanistan will bring to the geopolitics of South Asia and the Middle East, with China and Pakistan likely to play an expanded role as the US continues its withdrawal from that part of the world (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2021/08/17/1916641.html).
In its consideration of the recent Afghan events, Shelin continues, Moscow recognizes one thing and hopes for another. It recognizes that the US military was not defeated in the field but chose to withdraw. Had it not left, it could have kept the previous regime in Kabul for some time to come.
And it hopes that Western analyses that the Taliban has changed because Afghan society has changed and become more modern over the last 20 years. The Taliban may try to reverse some of this modernization, but they are unlikely to be willing or able to do so given their limited resources.
What that means, Shelin says, is “the less radically Afghanistan changes in comparison with what it was during the 20 years the Americans were there, the better it will be for Russia. There will be fewer threats, and thus less likelihood of any efforts at regime change in Central Asia that the Kremlin would likely have to respond to.
That is a dangerous prospect, the commentator says because “when one is speaking about our regime, there is no border between state interests and adventurism.” But Moscow must also worry about what will happen in its own North Caucasus and about the likelihood that the Taliban who lack resources will ramp up the drug trade through the former Soviet space.
(For a discussion of the foundations for these fears especially in the North Caucasus, see my “Taliban Triumph in Afghanistan Echoes in Russia’s North Caucasus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, 18: 133 (August 2021) at jamestown.org/program/taliban-triumph-in-afghanistan-echoes-in-russias-north-caucasus/).