On September 9, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that talks with the Taliban were “dead,” after the militant group carried out a car bombing in Kabul which killed a U.S. soldier. Trump’s remarks followed his cancellation of a meeting with the Taliban at Camp David and dashed hopes for a U.S.-Taliban agreement to end the war in Afghanistan.
Like much of the rest of the international community, Russia expressed disappointment with the breakdown of U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations. Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said that Trump’s cancellation of U.S. talks with the Taliban was a “negative signal,” but claimed that statements from Taliban representatives and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised hopes for future dialogue. On September 14, a Taliban delegation traveled to Moscow to discuss a revival of peace negotiations with the United States, and Taliban spokesman Mohammed Suhail Shaheen vowed to continue negotiating with Washington, provided that the United States “shows commitment to what they have agreed.”
Russia’s decision to host Taliban representatives just days after the collapse of U.S.-led peace negotiations suggests that it is serious about assuming a more prominent role in the conflict resolution process. Russia also views the breakdown of U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations as an excellent opportunity to strengthen its cooperation with two other major stakeholders in Afghanistan: China and Pakistan.
Russia’s Expanded Arbitration Ambitions in Afghanistan
Although Russia has spearheaded numerous multilateral diplomatic initiatives on Afghanistan since late 2016, Moscow has insisted that its involvement in peace negotiations is motivated by national security concerns, rather than aspirations for diplomatic influence. Andrey Kortunov, the Director-General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), told me in January that Russia does not have any particular interest in “filling the vacuum in Afghanistan,” and that Moscow perceives the country as “more of a challenge than an opportunity.” Kortunov also argued that Russia’s most important task is to “prevent Afghanistan from turning into a foothold for international extremists and terrorists,” and Moscow’s engagement in multilateral peace talks helped facilitate these goals.
While national security considerations remain of critical importance to Russia, recent developments suggest that Moscow is seeking to exert greater influence over the Afghan peace process. Over the past year, Russia has participated in trilateral summits with the United States and China on ending the war in Afghanistan, allowing Moscow to exert influence over discussions on a withdrawal of U.S. troops. As the United States stood on the precipice of a historic deal with the Taliban, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated that Russia was ready to be a “guarantor” of any future Afghan peace settlement.
Russia’s growing assertiveness as a diplomatic player in Afghanistan is opportunistic and strategic in nature. Russia views the Trump administration’s withdrawal from talks with the Taliban as an opportunity to rebrand its role in Afghanistan. Faiz Zaland, an academic at Kabul University, told The Diplomat that Russia was historically viewed as a “hegemonic and oppressor power” in Afghanistan and all Afghan factions, including the Taliban, were wary of closely associating themselves with Russia. Yet Zaland noted a shift in the Afghan public’s reaction after the Taliban’s visit to Moscow on September 14. Although the Afghan government disapproved of the Taliban’s trip to Russia, Zaland stated that participants in pro-peace gatherings viewed the Taliban’s visit as a constructive step towards peace.
If Russia can distinguish itself from the United States by framing itself as a pro-peace actor in Afghanistan, it could overcome suspicions about its motivations and entrench itself as a major diplomatic stakeholder in Afghanistan. As Russia seeks to extend its diplomatic influence beyond crises where it is militarily involved, such as Syria and frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space, to extra-regional collective security challenges, Moscow views a position of diplomatic prominence in Afghanistan as a major geopolitical prize.
Russia’s Partnership Building Ambitions and Diplomacy in Afghanistan
The collapse of Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban also gives Russia an opportunity to strengthen its partnerships with China and Pakistan on conflict resolution in Afghanistan. While Russia and China have coordinated on Afghanistan-related diplomatic negotiations through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and independent multilateral initiatives, the collapse of Trump’s dialogue with the Taliban heralds a unique opportunity for both countries to upgrade their partnership. The most immediate area for Russia-China cooperation on Afghanistan relates to facilitating a U.S. troop withdrawal. China’s support for an “orderly and responsible” exit of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan closely mirrors Moscow’s perspective on this issue.
A June 2019 report from the China Institute for International Studies, a research institute that is closely aligned with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, argued that U.S. operations in Bagram military base are a form of deterrence against Russia and China. The perception in Russia and China that the United States is subjecting their countries to a dual containment policy in Afghanistan could encourage them to legitimize the Taliban’s efforts to expedite a U.S. withdrawal. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia’s efforts to facilitate a compromise solution in the China-U.S. diplomatic standoff on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’s place in Afghanistan highlights the potential for a self-reinforcing partnership between Moscow and Beijing in Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Russia’s mutual frustrations with the breakdown of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban also provides an opportunity for both countries to ameliorate tensions accrued by Moscow’s support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to revoke Article 370 on Kashmir. Although Pakistan and Russia have both consistently supported a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Umar Karim, an expert on Pakistan at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told me in August that Pakistan believed that ending the war in Afghanistan required “active engagement” with the U.S., and that “Russia may be considered a negative influence.” If the United States does not wish to revive its dialogue with the Taliban, Pakistan could engage with Russia on Afghanistan with fewer inhibitions and facilitate an upgrade of its partnership with Moscow.
Even though Russian policymakers expressed public frustrations with the abrupt breakdown of U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations, the collapse of these talks gives Russia an opportunity to bolster its influence over the Afghan peace process and strengthen critical diplomatic partnerships. A potential expansion of Russia’s diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan could help non-Western powers expand their say over Afghanistan’s political future and entrench Moscow’s value as a stakeholder on collective security issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a geopolitical analyst, who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Al Monitor. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2.