Russia Is ‘Enjoying’ America's Failure—and Cozying Up to the Taliban
“The Taliban made all the relevant promises to us, let's hope they will be fulfilled,” the Russian ambassador to Kabul said on Monday.
The fall of Afghanistan’s capital city to the Taliban provided Russia’s state media with plenty of opportunities to churn out streams of anti-American propaganda, all while cozying up to the extremist militant group. Unfavorably comparing the U.S. pullout to the Soviet Union’s inglorious exit from the country known as the “graveyard of empires,” Russian government officials and state news outlets described the takeover as a total defeat for the mightiest nation on earth.
Appearing on the state TV show 60 Minutes on Monday, political scientist Oleg Matveychev asserted that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is beneficial for the Russian Federation: “Russia’s authority is on the rise... this situation is beneficial for us... America no longer matters.” He added that Russia should continue to “quietly strangle the United States... which is what Putin has already been doing.”
Russia’s courting of the Taliban extended to the Kremlin’s English-speaking media, with RT providing a podium to the group’s spokesman on August 14, 2021, aiming to prove that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan amounted to nothing more than a waste of time and money. “Where did the money go?” asked Mohammad Naim, appearing on RT Arabic.
The Taliban spokesperson went on: “We want the countries who still don’t understand the reality of what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan, those countries that came to Afghanistan 20 years ago, we want them to understand who represents the Afghan people...These countries have to understand the reality.” Referring to the Afghan government supported by the U.S., Naim asserted: “Why are people forced to have something they don’t want, something that contradicts the principles and values of the people?”
While western countries evacuated their embassies as Kabul was being overtaken by the Taliban, Moscow didn’t feel the need to do the same. Nikita Ishchenko, spokesman at the Russian embassy in Kabul, told the state media channel Russia-24 on Sunday that Moscow had no intention of evacuating the diplomatic mission: “The situation in Kabul is tense, but there is no war in the city... There are no threats to the embassy, no evacuation is required.”
With respect to Russia's relationship with the transitional government of Afghanistan, Ishchenko said that Russia is “very actively” involved. The Russian embassy in Kabul told state TV Channel 1 that “everything is peaceful and everyone is calmly fulfilling their duties.”
Currently, only the embassies of Russia and China are functioning in Afghanistan. Both are being guarded by the Taliban, Russian ambassador to Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov told state TV channel Rossiya-1. “We want Afghanistan to be civilized so that there is no terrorism, there is no drugs, so that human rights are respected. The Taliban made all the relevant promises to us, let's hope they will be fulfilled,” the ambassador said on Monday.
In spite of the undisguised glee in Moscow caused by the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the reality on the ground and the potential spread of terrorism in the region do present a cause for concern, even to the Kremlin. State TV host Skabeeva acknowledged: “We can savor America’s failure, yes, perhaps we are enjoying it... but it will cause problems for Russia as well.”
In July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from Afghanistan represents a total failure of America’s stated mission. This outcome is exactly what the Kremlin has been urging Washington to accept.
The withdrawal, set in motion by the Trump administration, was always a thrilling prospect to the Kremlin. In early 2020 the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan. In February 2021, NATO alleged that the Taliban has committed serious breaches of the peace deal and the U.N. questioned the assassination spree targeting Afghan human rights defenders and journalists. The Kremlin jumped to the Taliban’s defense, with Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, claiming: “The Taliban adhere to the agreement almost flawlessly... which cannot be said about the Americans.”
Russian state media experts openly worried that the Biden administration might not follow through with the U.S. exit. Nonetheless, pro-Kremlin analysts were encouraged by the fact that the terms of the peace deal Trump signed with the Taliban placed President Joe Biden in a no-win situation. Writing for state media outlet RIA Novosti, in February 2021 political analyst Pyotr Akopov pompously claimed that by pushing the U.S. to proceed with the troop withdrawal announced by Trump, Russia is trying to save America “from inevitable war and shame.”
The Kremlin’s real motives have long been in question, especially after reports that Russia has been arming the Taliban and its foreign military intelligence service offered bounties to the militants to kill American soldiers. After the Soviet Union’s humiliating departure from Afghanistan in 1989, Russia has been seeking to increase its influence in the region, while edging out the U.S. and NATO.
Even though the Russian Supreme Court declared the Taliban to be a terrorist organization in 2003, Moscow embraced its representatives and frequently hosted them for consultations and negotiations. During one such visit to Moscow in July of this year, the Taliban assured the Kremlin of its intent to curb drug production and trafficking. Participating in a webinar in July, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the radical group as “rational people.” On August 15, state media outlet Vesti credulously repeated the Taliban’s promise “to respect the rights of women.”
One day later, host Olga Skabeeva reported on the state TV show 60 Minutes, “Sharia Law is being imposed by the Taliban across Afghanistan. The rights of women are already being limited.” She added that in Herat University in western Afghanistan all women were forcefully removed, and all female teachers will now be replaced by males. Skabeeva predicted that Russia will run into “colossal problems” in dealing with the new government in Afghanistan: “Some of the Taliban are giving us guarantees while others are cutting off heads.” Skabeeva surmised: “We will have to deal with these terrorists. Perhaps we will even have to stop calling these people terrorists.”
In addition to strengthening their geopolitical stance, the withdrawal provided priceless propaganda opportunities to undermine the idea of alliances between the United States and other countries. China's state-run Global Times discussed the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a signal to democracy activists in Hong Kong that they should not believe American promises to stand by their side. Likewise, Russian state media peppered its broadcasts with repeated warnings to Ukraine, claiming that at some point America will abandon the country, just like it did with Afghanistan.
“Americans are traitors, it’s dangerous to be friends with them”, asserted Olga Skabeeva during the broadcast of 60 Minutes on August 3, 2021.
In a wider context, Russian government officials claim that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan represents a global failure of democracy. On August 15, on his Telegram channel, Senator Alexei Pushkov called the events in Afghanistan “a revenge of history, religion, and ideology over modernity and globalism.” Pushkov described this course of events as “dramatic, or even catastrophic” not only for the United States but also for the entire ‘liberal world order.’
Pushkov concluded: "Now the United States is retreating, along with its doctrine, which for 30 years has been the basis of their policy of “exporting democracy.” Russian state media outlets approvingly re-printed Pushkov’s conclusions.
On Monday Skabeeva described the situation with the withdrawal as a major blow to the reputation of the United States—and democracy. She referred to the current atmosphere in Afghanistan as “total hell,” drawing comparisons to the fall of Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War. Skabeeva said, “August 15 can be officially considered the end of American hegemony and the end of Afghanistan as we knew it since autumn of 2001. We’re watching the most shameful escape of world hegemon.”
Appearing on 60 Minutes last week, Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Defense Ministry's public advisory council, described the United States as a “dinosaur, whose time is up.” Retorting to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s description of Russia as a gas station, during the August 16 broadcast of 60 Minutes Korotchenko gloated: “I don’t want to stomp on the American flag, but America is no longer a superpower. It’s a regional power. The United States of America is North America’s gas station. American greatness is over... Russia’s hands are untied to do whatever is necessary.”