MOSCOW – When the Taliban swept over Afghanistan, Russia was ready for the rapid developments after working methodically for years to lay the groundwork for relations with the group that it still officially considers a terrorist organization.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized this week that Moscow was “in no rush” to recognize the Taliban as the new rulers of Afghanistan, but he added there were “encouraging signals” of their readiness to let other political forces join the government and allow girls into schools.
The Taliban was added to the Russian list of terrorist organizations in 2003, and Moscow has not yet moved to remove the group from the list. Any contact with such groups is punishable under Russian law, but the Foreign Ministry has responded to questions about the seeming contradiction by saying that its exchanges with the Taliban are essential for international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
Unlike many other countries, Russia said it wouldn't evacuate its embassy in Kabul, and its ambassador quickly met with the Taliban for what he described as “constructive" talks after they took over the capital.
The Soviet Union fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that ended with its troops withdrawing in 1989. Since then, Moscow has made a comeback as an influential power broker in international talks on Afghanistan. It has worked continuously to cultivate ties with the Taliban, hosting their representatives for a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings.
“We have maintained contacts with the Taliban for the last seven years, discussing many issues,” Kremlin envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said earlier this week. “We saw them as a force that will play a leading role in Afghanistan in the future even if it doesn't take all power. All those factors, along with guarantees given to us by the Taliban's top leaders, give us reason for a calm view of the latest developments, although we remain vigilant.”
A month before Taliban militants unleashed their offensive that ended with the seizure of Kabul, their delegation visited Moscow to offer assurances that they wouldn't threaten the interests of Russia and its ex-Soviet allies in Central Asia — a sign that they consider ties with Russia a priority.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen said during a visit last month to the Russian capital that "we won’t allow anyone to use the Afghan territory to attack Russia or neighboring countries,” noting that “we have very good relations with Russia.”
Russian diplomats say they trust the group's assurances, noting the Taliban's focus on fighting the Islamic State group, which Moscow sees as the main threat from Afghanistan. Moscow also has hailed the Taliban's pledge to combat drug trafficking and stem the flow of drugs from Afghanistan via Central Asia.
Russian ambassador to Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov, praised the Taliban as “reasonable guys” following a “positive and constructive meeting" this week. He added that the Taliban guaranteed the embassy's security.
“Russian diplomats are doing all they can to consolidate the contacts they have established with the Taliban,” Moscow-based analyst Alexei Makarkin said in a commentary. “Russian representatives cast the Taliban as moderate and responsible, acting as their advocates in the public sphere.”
He argued that the Taliban might not try to project their influence to the ex-Soviet Central Asian nations for now, but that could change later after securing a hold on Afghanistan.
“The Taliban's leaders will be unlikely to launch an expansion now, but that doesn't mean that they won't take such steps in the future,” Makarkin observed, noting that multiple factions inside the Taliban may have varying goals.
Despite the Taliban’s assurances, Russia has held a series of joint war games with its allies in Central Asia in recent weeks to underline its pledge to help them fend off any possible security threats from Afghanistan. The latest of those drills began in Tajikistan this week.
While cultivating contacts with Taliban officials, Russia will be unlikely to move quickly to formally recognize their government, at least not until the group is removed from the United Nations list of terrorist organizations.
“It's premature to say that we would make any unilateral political steps,” Lavrov said this week.
Kabulov, the Kremlin envoy, emphasized that Moscow’s recognition of the Taliban will hinge on “whether they will govern the country in a responsible way in the near future, and proceeding from that, the Russian leadership will make the necessary conclusions.” He added that Russia would only take the Taliban off its list of terrorist organizations after the U.N. Security Council decides to remove it from its terror list.
Russian diplomats argued that the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan helped change Afghan perceptions of the Soviet invasion and made many local leaders willing to accept Moscow’s mediation.
When Washington went to war with the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, Moscow offered a helping hand, welcoming U.S. bases in the Central Asian nations of the former Soviet Union to support operations in Afghanistan. But as U.S.-Russia relations have grown increasingly strained, Russia grew more critical.
Still, Moscow and Washington have continued to coordinate their diplomatic moves on Afghanistan, and Russian officials have angrily rejected the allegations last year that Moscow paid the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, driven by fears that the U.S. was trying to establish a foothold there after losing Iran to the Islamic Revolution. The Soviet plans for a quick campaign bogged down in fierce resistance by the U.S.-backed guerrillas, known as mujahedeen, or holy warriors. The Soviet Union lost more than 15,000 troops, according to official count, while estimates of civilian casualties in that period have varied widely, from more than 500,000 up to 2 million.
Many in Russia gloated over the quick collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, pointing out that President Mohammad Najibullah's communist government held on for three years after the Soviet withdrawal until Moscow’s aid completely halted following the 1991 collapse of the USSR.
"The regime created by the Americans tumbled down even before they left, that’s a principal difference,” Kabulov said, adding that he and others in Russia didn't expect such a fast meltdown.
Franz Klintsevich, the first deputy head of the defense and security committee in the lower house of Russian parliament, told The Associated Press that the U.S. has left behind huge arsenals of weapons that fell into the Taliban's hands.
“Who would make such gifts to terrorists after fighting them for 20 years?” said Klintsevich, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Harriet Morris in Moscow contributed.