Russia Is Putting the Lives of Its Diplomats in the Taliban’s Hands
“I am not worried about the safety of our diplomats in Kabul,” one expert told The Daily Beast. “They are guarded by the best terrorist organization right now.”
MOSCOW—Events developed faster than anybody in Moscow could have predicted. On Monday, armed Taliban forces “took under guard” the perimeter around the Russian embassy, a spacious autonomous camp in the outskirts of Kabul. The following day, Russian Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov had “a positive and constructive” meeting with representatives of the banned Russian Taliban, later confirming that the movement’s oldest representatives promised security for Russian diplomats in Afghanistan.
One thing was made clear: Russia is now trusting the Taliban with the lives of its own people.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was telling journalists in Moscow: “We are watching a positive process on the streets of Kabul; the Taliban is effectively providing order.” Lavrov affirmed Russian support the for the Taliban’s dialogue with other ethnic groups who gathered in Kabul on Tuesday to discuss a joint transitional council with the militant group.
“Russia is ready to recognize the Taliban’s political power but we cannot do that alone, but preferably in a coalition with China, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey,” a longtime expert in Russia-Afghanistan relations, Yuriy Krupnov, told The Daily Beast.
But this quick embrace shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s in line with Russia’s decades-long game plan for Afghanistan and the Taliban.
The Russian Supreme Court banned the Taliban as a “terrorist organization” in 2003 and has yet to cancel that decision. But since then, the Kremlin has continued to form strong ties with various groups in Afghanistan, including those from Pashtun areas, where the Taliban movement had originally emerged in 1994.
The first Afghan Forum took place in Moscow in May 2009, just a few weeks after Hillary Clinton presented Lavrov with a red “reset” button to fix Russia-U.S. relations. Dozens of Afghan businessmen and politicians led by then-Vice President Karim Halili discussed Moscow’s role in the country with a score of Russian bigwigs, including the head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russian oil giant Rosneft, Igor Sechin, and Russian drug tsar Victor Ivanov. In a gesture of friendship during the event, which was organized by Krupnov, Moscow delivered 18,000 tons of all purpose flour to Afghanistan.
The following year, Russian businessmen, including Ivanov, traveled to Kabul to negotiate and sign business deals. Ivanov and his team met with the U.S. army and DEA officials to discuss joint operations to cut down on mass heroin trafficking from Afghanistan to Russia. Since 2016, the Taliban’s delegations have been coming to Moscow almost every year. Some were led by Taliban leaders, including Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai and Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Krupnov is convinced that Russia can build reliable business relations with the Taliban. “It’s good that the foreign ministry has been negotiating with the Taliban since we brought Pashtuns to Moscow in 2016. Now we should have leverage for the Taliban to focus its economy on building railroads, hydroelectric stations, instead of producing drugs. Today, 70 percent of Afghanistan’s $19 billion economy depends on heroin trafficking,” Krupnov told The Daily Beast. “The Taliban is interested in rebuilding Afghanistan’s economy, of becoming a legit power, so a Russian coalition with China, Pakistan, Iran and other allies can help Afghanistan to develop the alternative economy.”
Markov also thinks Moscow could lay out other conditions for the Taliban, in exchange for the Kremlin recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political power. “Along with them beating ISIS and cutting down on drug traffic, we should demand the rights for women. But right now, Russia cannot afford the fight for Afghan women. Our main goal is to focus on the safety buffer for Central Asian countries, just in case there is a negative development,” Markov said.
He added: “For now, our plan is to push for the recognition of Taliban’s political power at the U.N., and if that does not work, we’ll try to recognize the Taliban with a coalition of Afghanistan’s neighboring Central Asian countries, including China, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.”
Like millions around the world, Russian liberals were shocked to watch the horrifying images from Kabul earlier this week. “I simply cannot understand how the Kremlin can trust serial killers, terrorists responsible for thousands of deaths,” St. Petersburg local deputy Boris Vishnevsky told The Daily Beast. “At the same time, many members of the [Russian] opposition, who have never killed anybody, are persecuted as ‘extremists’ all across the country.”
It is unclear how long it will take for Russia to remove the Taliban from its list of terrorists. Despite the Soviets’ 10-year-long war in Afghanistan, Russians are still known in Kabul as “shuravi“ (friend). The Soviets dreamt of building a socialist paradise in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans were educated by the USSR, many of whom have strong connections with the Afghan diaspora in Russia.
There is also a generation of post-Soviet experts in Russia who speak the Afghan languages Pashto, Dari, and Farsi. Arkady Dubnov, an expert at Carnegie Moscow Center, has been traveling around Afghanistan for more than two decades.
“I am not worried about the safety of our diplomats in Kabul,” Dubnov told The Daily Beast. “They are guarded by the best terrorist organization right now. Yes, there is bitter irony in my words–everything about this situation is ultimately cynical.”