Why friendship between Russia and the Taliban is impossible

20 February 2017 Petr Topychkanov
Media reports about a rapprochement between Russia and the Taliban are not even close to reality. Moscow, however, has opened communication channels with the Afghan group, with an eye on protecting its own interests in the country.
Taliban
Russia is believed to have limited contacts with the Taliban. Source: AP

The Russian authorities do not have a plan to make friends with the Taliban. The Afghan group was blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the Russian Supreme Court on Feb. 14, 2003. Any cooperation between Russia and the Taliban would be considered a criminal offense.

If the movement stops terrorist activities, the Russian Supreme Court would be able to remove it from the blacklist. But the Taliban continues its attacks on civilian and military objects in Afghanistan. Foreigners, including Russians, are usual targets for these attacks. Almost every year the Russian special services arrest suspects in Russia for alleged links with the Taliban. This is proof that it is too early to discuss the removal of the Taliban from the Russian blacklist.

The Taliban is also unacceptable for Russia on account of its role in the production and trafficking of narcotics. According to the United Nations, Russia and Ukraine host 24 per cent of the total number of people worldwide who inject drugs. These drugs are mainly of Afghan origin and their production and trafficking is facilitated by the Taliban.

Communication channel with the Taliban

The clearest articulation of the Russian position about the Taliban was made on Sept. 30, 2016, by General Oleg Syromolotov, Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of counter-terrorism: “This is a terrorist group that is on the UN sanctions list. Therefore, we do not have any contacts with the Taliban. We only have a communication channel on humanitarian issues related to human rights and hostages. No more than that.”

The 2014 release of Russian pilot Pavel Petrenko from Taliban captivity proved the effectiveness of this communication channel between Moscow and the group. “My freedom became possible, because Russia has gotten new capabilities in Afghanistan,” Petrenko told to the Afghanistan.ru website after his release. “These capabilities allow Moscow to have influence on the process inside Afghanistan without third countries.”

On Aug. 16, 2016, joint efforts of Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan facilitated the release of another pilot, Sergey Sevastyanov, just nine days after he was captured by the Taliban.

‘Friendship’ with the Taliban

Diverse views on the Taliban emerge from a number of politicians, experts, and journalists, who follow the developments in Afghanistan.

By reading recent headlines about Russia and the Taliban, it is easy to believe that big changes have taken place in the Russian position towards the movement: “Moscow's New Ally in Afghanistan”, “Russia’s New Favorite Jihadist”, “Russia’s New Friends in the Afghan Taliban.”

 Some people believe that Russia has started supplying the Taliban with weapons and equipment, and repairing the group’s weapons, including tanks and vehicles.

According to Russian officials these reports are false. This was confirmed by the Russian side during the Moscow visit of Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Advisor, on Jan. 31, 2017.

On Feb. 10, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed allegations by General John Nicholson, Commander of the U.S. and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, of Russian supplies of weapons to Taliban. On Jan. 2, the spokesman for Tajikistan’s border guard agency Muhammadjon Ulughkhojaev said, that the allegations were “baseless.”

This exchange of allegations and denials will remain verbal until the United States and its allies are able to make solid evidence public.  During the 1979-89 Afghan War, the Soviet Union provided proof of the United States and other countries heavily supplying the Afghan Mujahideen.

Common Interests with Taliban

The reports on Russia and the Taliban are, however, not fully baseless. A number of interviews and statements from the Russian officials made these reports possible. For instance, on Dec, 31, 2016 in an interview to Anadolu Agency Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, the Russian President’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, said: “But the bulk, main leadership, current leadership, and the majority of Taliban now – as a result of all these historical lessons they got in Afghanistan – became a local force. They gave up the global jihadism idea. They are upset and regret that they followed Osama bin Laden.”

In 2015, he titled the Taliban a national liberation movement to defend cultural and religious traditions from “Americans.”

However, Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Alexander Mantytskiy said, “Russia and Taliban’s interest only matches when it comes to combating Daesh.”

Russia was preparing to revisit its position on sanctioning some members of the Taliban, according to the press release of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Dec. 27, 2016. “Russia and China, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, reaffirmed their readiness for flexible approaches to the prospect of excluding certain individuals from the list of sanctioned persons as part of efforts to promote a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement,” the ministry said.

It became a significant step of Russian diplomacy regarding the Taliban. But this step wasn’t made in the direction of the legalization of the Taliban, as some observers rushed to conclude. This is just a demonstration of the same kind of Russian flexibility when it comes to the Taliban, that Moscow already demonstrated in 2010, when it allowed the removal of five Taliban leaders from the sanctions list of the UN Security Council.

Russia’s Taliban policy

The Russian policy towards Afghanistan generally, and the Taliban in particular becomes more visible due to more attention to this country from the Russian side recently, and less attention to Afghanistan from the side of its usual partners.

At the start of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, Moscow decided to limit its involvement by playing a supporting role. But after the U.S. decided to limit its military footprint in Afghanistan, the Russian leadership realized that neither Kabul nor Washington and it allies had enough capabilities to end terrorism and drug trafficking from Afghan soil. That is why Russia ceased to play a supportive role for the U.S./NATO mission and started its own policy toward Afghanistan.

In short, this policy means contacts with various actors inside Afghanistan and efforts to create a regional framework for resolving problems in this country. It still unclear, what the Russian authorities want from Taliban: a communication channel only, as General Syromolotov said, or dialogue and common interests, as ambassadors Kabulov and Mantytskiy stated several times?

There is no doubt, that Russia needs a communication channel with the Taliban and other armed groups inside Afghanistan. The release of pilots Petrenko and Sevastyanov from the Taliban’s captivity explains that the main role for this channel is to help Russian citizens.

As for the Russian common interests and dialogue with Taliban, these possibilities will remain cloudy due to the Taliban inability to stop both terrorist activities inside Afghanistan and neighbouring countries and involvement in drug production and trafficking.

There are two more or less realistic ways of interpreting Russian statements about the common interests and dialogue between Moscow and Taliban. The alleged attempts of Russia to destabilize Afghanistan are hardly seen as an anything close to reality.

The first way could be a look at these statements through the context of serious tensions between Moscow and Washington after the developments in Crimea and Ukraine in 2014.

“Russian statements about contacts with Taliban were linked to the U.S.-Russian relations,” Dr. Omar Nessar, Head of the Centre for Modern Afghanistan Studies says. “It looked like a signal from Moscow, that at the time of President Obama the situation was deteriorating more and more. It would help to create a good atmosphere for quickly improving relations with the Trump administration. After the end of 2016 the Russian officials stopped talking about the dialogue with Taliban, though the contacts could remain between Moscow and the movement.”

If the relations between Russia and the United Sates improve, Moscow will most likely keep the communication channel with the Taliban open, but it will not raise questions about common interests with the movement. If the U.S.-Russian relations go bad, Moscow will probably try to challenge every part of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, and Russian statements about the Taliban will be used for this purpose.

The second way of interpreting the statements about common interests and dialogue between Moscow and the Taliban could be a look at them as a test for the Taliban. If the movement is responsive, positive, and ready for serious concessions in the fields of terrorism and narcotics, Russia could move forward. But if the Taliban is not ready to quit its long-term criminal practices, Russia will return to minimal level of contacts with the movement.

These versions may not be absolutely correct, but they seem to be much closer to reality than the version about friendship between Russia and the Taliban, that is absolutely impossible due to the threats imposed by the group on Russia.

Petr Topychkanov is an associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, and a senior researcher at the Center for International Security of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Read more of his articles here.​

Views expressed in the column are personal.

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