Afghanistan could offer a good platform for cooperation between Moscow and the new government in Washington, Russian experts say. They explain what the country means to the Kremlin today.
Following the transition of power in Washington, Russian observers have identified new opportunities for Russian-American cooperation on Afghanistan. Initially, Russia gave the impression that it had a positive view of the US and NATO mission in Afghanistan. In the first few years, Washington and Moscow actively worked together. But the deterioration of bilateral relations towards the end of the 2000s led to Russia and the West drifting apart on the issue. For example, Washington criticized alleged secret negotiations that Russian diplomats held with representatives of the radical Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan. The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that no such negotiations have ever taken place.
By the end of 2015, the aim of Russia's Afghanistan policy was already to initiate dialogue with the Taliban, said the Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov in an interview with Deutsche Welle. He pointed out that at the time, the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, spoke of shared interests with the Taliban.
Dubnov says that in recent years, the Kremlin has re-evaluated threats emanating from Afghanistan. Formerly, Russian leaders feared that Afghanistan's instability could spread to neighboring states in Central Asia and thus pose a threat to Russia. "These days, Moscow realizes that as a political force in Afghanistan, the Taliban - even if it is of a radical nature - does not pose a threat to Central Asia, which Russia sees as its sphere of influence," explains Dubnov.
Moscow's interests in Afghanistan
Alexey Malashenko, research director at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute and expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees with Dubnov. "There is no need to fear that any instability in Afghanistan could spill over into Russia. This danger simply does not exist," said Malashenko to DW.
He believes that Russia's activities with regard to Afghanistan should not be overestimated. Moscow is well aware of the fact that Afghanistan is one of the most problematic countries in the region, he says. According to Malashenko, the Kremlin has no objection to involvement in mediation and peacekeeping, as long as it does not cost anything. "Russia has no significant interests in Afghanistan," says the expert. He adds that it is impossible for a relatively poor country like Russia to have its finger in every pie: "Moscow already bears the costs of the Eurasian Economic Union, Crimea, the Donbass region, Abkhazia and Syria." Furthermore, he says, the trade volume with Afghanistan is worth only a billion US dollars: "There are barely any Russian investments there."
Afghan government under pressure
Despite all this, Moscow wants to fill the vacuum after NATO troops leave Afghanistan, believes Arkady Dubnov. However, in his opinion, that is not the only reason why Moscow has a heightened interest in Afghanistan. The expert feels that the Kremlin is trying to pit the different extremist groups in Afghanistan against each other. "It is well-known that the Taliban and the 'Islamic State' terrorists, within whose ranks men from Central Asian countries are fighting, are pursuing different interests in northern Afghanistan, and that these differences can be reinforced by supporting the Taliban - and that includes with weapons," said Dubnov.
According to him, establishing dialogue with the Taliban would also put pressure on the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whom Moscow has considered to be a puppet of Washington - at least under the Obama administration.
Expectations of Washington
Moscow expects US President Donald Trump to set new focuses in Afghanistan policy. The Kremlin is particularly interested in finding out whether Washington is willing to withdraw the last 9,000 soldiers from Afghanistan and to discontinue support for the current Afghan president. "If the new US administration no longer insists on unconditionally backing Ghani, then Moscow may offer Washington a new form of joint action for the regulation of the Afghanistan question," surmises Dubnov.
Afghanistan could became a topic of Russian-American negotiations, believes Malashenko. If "Islamic State" maintains its strategy of being active in Afghanistan in the long run, then the country could become an area where Moscow and Washington could work together in the fight against terrorism. "It would be good platform for cooperation and negotiations," says Malashenko.