Source: Getty

Russia’s Growing Ties With Afghanistan Are More Symbolism Than Substance

As Russia’s relationship with the West has deteriorated, the Kremlin’s view of the Taliban has changed. But substantive economic cooperation will be hard to achieve.

Published on September 19, 2023

Russia is one of just a handful of states in the world actively seeking to strengthen its relationship with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. While Afghanistan’s rulers, the Taliban, are still formally designated a banned terrorist organization in Russia, that has not prevented Moscow from inviting them to economic forums and discussing ambitious joint projects.

While the opportunities for closer economic and cultural ties are limited, the Kremlin is hoping for serious gains. Not only does the Taliban’s ideology of opposition to Western values overlap with Russia’s anti-Western narratives, but other benefits of cooperation could include access to new trade routes (mitigating the effect of Western sanctions) and burnishing Moscow’s reputation as an ally of the Global South.

When the Taliban was in charge of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, friendship with Russia was a distant dream. For a start, the Taliban had recognized the independence of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. Secondly, Moscow was trying to build good relations with the West. Russia’s then-young president, Vladimir Putin, supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and its allies.

As Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated, however, the Kremlin’s view of the Taliban changed. In August 2021, as the Taliban closed in on Kabul, Western diplomats rushed to shutter embassies and evacuate. But the Russian embassy remained open and, within two days of the takeover, Russian Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov had become the first foreign diplomat to meet with Taliban representatives. After that encounter, Zhirnov proclaimed the Taliban fighters to be “reasonable guys,” and the Taliban began providing security for the Russian embassy.  

The Kremlin has been consistently sympathetic to the Taliban’s strident anti-Western rhetoric. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova gloated openly over the failure of the NATO coalition in Afghanistan in August 2021, suggesting that the alliance should have spent less time rehearsing for a conflict with Russia and more time focusing on its operations there.

History is an inevitable part of any discussion of ties between Moscow and Kabul. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Soviet Union aided in the construction of Afghanistan’s industry, irrigation facilities, bridges, three airports, and over 1,000 kilometers of roads, among other things. Soviet-made cars and rusty Soviet military equipment can often be seen on Afghanistan’s streets, and many members of the older generation speak Russian.

These are little more than relics, however. Moscow does not have the influence in Afghanistan it once enjoyed. Young Afghans want to get to the United States, and Russia is merely a backup option.

Firstly, it has been hard for Afghans to get Russian visas because of the closure of the Russian embassy’s consular department. Secondly, judging by recent conversations with Afghans in Kabul, many now see Russia as a dangerous place where drones regularly strike the capital. Thirdly, former cultural levers have been lost: there are no large-scale Russian educational or cultural programs such as language teaching in Afghanistan, and no one seems to want to organize them.

Nor is the economic relationship in good shape. Just 4 percent ($289 million) of Afghanistan’s imports came from Russia in the twelve months ending March 20, 2023, according to the country’s National Statistic and Information Authority (NSIA). Russia trails far behind countries like Iran, which provides 20 percent of Afghanistan’s imports, China (18 percent), and Pakistan (16 percent).

Moscow has professed interest in a whole series of ambitious projects involving Afghanistan: for example, the construction of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Gas Pipeline and the Trans-Afghan Railway linking Uzbekistan and Pakistan. But these are a long way from realization, largely because of the security problems in Afghanistan.

It was reported last year that Russia promised to supply Afghanistan with 1 million tons of gasoline, 1 million tons of diesel, and 500,000 tons of liquified natural gas per year. In addition, Moscow is now supposed to deliver 2 million tons of wheat to Afghanistan every year. Russia has confirmed the agreement, but Taliban sources suggest that the actual deliveries are falling far short of what was promised.

The Taliban clearly want more cooperation with Russia. At every meeting with Russian officials, they seek a plan to move bilateral relations to a new level and the easing of visa rules. After all, the Kremlin remains a convenient partner. Unlike their Western counterparts, Russian officials are not bothered by questions of women’s education, which is de facto banned by the Taliban, or other human rights.

What does worry Moscow, though, is terrorism. Russia experienced it in Afghanistan firsthand on September 5, 2022, when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the embassy in Kabul, killing two Russian diplomats. Islamic State – Khorasan Province took responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban dismiss Russia’s concerns about security, maintaining they no longer have a terrorism problem. It’s true that the dynamic is positive: there were 75 percent fewer terrorist attacks in Afghanistan in 2022 than the year before, according to the Global Terrorism Index produced by Australia’s Institute for Economics and Peace. Nevertheless, the Index continues to rank Afghanistan as the most dangerous nation in the world for terrorism.

One way or another, it’s a Kremlin priority to deepen ties with Kabul. Symbolically, Russia last year issued accreditation to a Taliban official to represent Afghanistan diplomatically in Russia. Only a handful of other states in the world have taken such a step.

Considering its economic isolation from the West, Moscow does not have many options when it comes to building trade ties. That’s why a partnership with Afghanistan is important for the Kremlin (a similar dynamic is at work when it comes to Russia’s ties with Syria and Iran). It’s also a way for the Russian leadership to reassure itself that it’s not alone in its anti-Western convictions.

The Taliban’s next visit to Russia is planned for September 29 in the city of Kazan. Along with Russian and Afghan diplomats, representatives from China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and other countries are also expected to be present. Discussions will focus on the fight against terrorism and narcotics. But, again, such gatherings are more about Moscow seeking to dismiss claims that it is internationally isolated rather than a genuine attempt to solve Afghanistan’s problems.

The likely next step for Moscow is to officially remove the Taliban from Russia’s list of terrorist organizations and recognize the government in Kabul. But even those steps would be purely symbolic. They are unlikely to do much to deepen economic ties between the two countries.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.