On July 16, 2018, the Russian President’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, announced that the Russian government would invite Taliban representatives to a Moscow-format meeting on Afghanistan before the end of the summer. Kabulov justified Moscow’s decision to hold talks with the Taliban by stating that the Taliban controls “more than half of Afghanistan’s territory,” and, therefore, must be included in an eventual Afghan peace settlement.
Although the Moscow format’s exclusion of the United States limits its ability to exert influence over the trajectory of the Afghanistan conflict, the upcoming talks advance Russia’s interests in Afghanistan in three critical ways. First, Russia will use the talks to demonstrate its potential to act as an effective mediator between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government. Showcasing the constructive nature of Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan is of vital importance for Russian policymakers, as Russia has been accused of arming the Taliban by the United States and Afghan officials.
On June 20, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells condemned Russia’s strategy of arming the Taliban against ISIS, and urged Russia to support peace talks that strengthened the position of Afghanistan’s legitimate government. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova replied by vigorously denying Wells’ allegations. In spite of Zakharova’s denials, Washington’s chief military commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Scott Miller, stated on Afghanistan’s largest media network, Khaama News Agency, that Russia supported Taliban fighters, alongside Pakistan and Iran.
The wave of U.S. allegations of Russian collusion with the Taliban has increased anti-Russian sentiments in Afghanistan. On June 27, the Afghan Defense Ministry rebuked Russia for claiming that ISIS had established a significant presence in nine provinces of Afghanistan, and insisted that only 2,000 ISIS fighters remained in Afghanistan. On July 6, Afghan peace activists staged a protest outside of the Russian embassy in Kabul, and urged Moscow to refrain from further interference in the Afghanistan conflict.
In order to combat these anti-Russian sentiments and ensure Russia remains a trusted arbiter in Afghanistan, Moscow has recalibrated its relationship with the Taliban. On July 17, Russia and Tajikistan staged an anti-Taliban military drill aimed at strengthening the Tajik military’s resistance capacity in the event of a Taliban attack in the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border region.
This drill aimed to assuage concerns in Kabul that Russia is an ally of the Taliban and to demonstrate that Moscow is only engaging with the Taliban to restore political stability to Afghanistan. If Moscow can highlight its commitment to political stability in Afghanistan through peace talks, Russian policymakers will be able to reverse the trend of growing hostility towards Russia within the Afghan political establishment and retain influence over the conflict’s endgame.
Second, Russia is using the Moscow format peace talks to increase the credibility of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)’s efforts to facilitate a political settlement in Afghanistan. During last month’s SCO summit in Qingdao, Chinese President Xi Jinping outlined his strategy to increase the role of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group in bringing about a peaceful solution to the Afghanistan conflict. As Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Ghani, who attended the SCO summit, have both urged the SCO to consolidate its counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan under one banner, Xi’s statement was positively received in Kabul.
Xi’s desire to expand the SCO’s presence in Afghanistan was welcomed in Moscow, as it aligns closely with Russian policy preferences. In recent months, the Russian government has diplomatically engaged with and given media attention to Afghan politicians sympathetic to SCO involvement in Afghanistan, like Afghan lawmaker Jafar Mahdawi. Russia was also an active participant in a recent gathering of intelligence chiefs from China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran that discussed strategies for combating ISIS.
In addition to demonstrating its commitment to the SCO, Russia wants to challenge the assumption that it is merely a second-tier power in the SCO that follows China’s lead. By hosting major peace talks on Afghanistan, Russian officials will be able to demonstrate that Moscow is the preeminent crisis negotiator within the SCO and that Russia is a major contributor to the rising prominence of the collective security organization.
Third, the Russian government is using the Moscow-format talks to present Russia as a potentially vital bridge between the Taliban and the United States, as Washington seeks to end its 17-year military campaign in Afghanistan. Kabulov recently claimed that the Taliban is interested in holding direct dialogue with the United States. As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for renewed peace talks between Ghani’s government and the Taliban during his recent visit to Kabul, Moscow believes that Washington will eventually need to re-establish lines of communication with the Taliban.
The precedent of Russia’s successful outreach to the United States during the September 2013 chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria provides a useful benchmark for how Washington could find itself reliant on Russian mediation assistance, even during a period of heightened Moscow-Washington tensions. Much like Russia acted as the diplomatic bridge between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the United States over destroying Damascus’ chemical weapons arsenal, Russian policymakers believe that the United States might be forced to communicate with Russia over engaging the Taliban in peace talks.
In order for this scenario to play out, Russia must successfully entice moderate Taliban members to attend its upcoming Moscow-format talks. This success would place Russia in a position in which it can act as a diplomatic conduit between the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban on an Afghan peace settlement.
Although Russia continues to face criticisms from the United States and Afghan government officials over its clandestine links with the Taliban, the upcoming Moscow-format talks provide an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate that its Taliban links are constructive in nature. If the Moscow-format talks result in Taliban participation, Russia’s great power status will be highlighted to the international community, and Putin’s flagging public image within Russia could receive a critical boost in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to The Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.