What’s next for Russia’s Afghanistan policy?

With the scheduled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, August 31st, 2021, looming near, Russia has adapted to the rapidly changing reality on the ground.

As explored in previous Ru-PAC articles, whether it’s a historical pull towards the country or a key opportunity for strategic partnership with the United States, Afghanistan will always maintain a presence in Russia’s foreign policy. Moscow and Washington continue to cooperate on the Afghan peace process. Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, emphasized mutual interests: “We proceed from the understanding that no one is interested in Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for international terrorism once again. That affects, first and foremost, the Afghan people itself and the entire world around it. In this sense, our goals coincide.” The media has reported that this partnership in stabilizing Afghanistan has manifested in the form of Russia “offering use of its military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Washington” – though there have been official statements from the Kremlin or White House confirming this matter.

The U.S. is likely working to accept this offer as it needs to maintain a regional presence. Iran and China will not host U.S. bases and previous arrangements with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were “made possible by a personal agreement between Putin and former U.S. President George W. Bush. Now, Putin is extending a similar offer to Biden.”

This is not to say Russia is idly waiting for the United States to accept – active steps are being taken to deal with the terrorism threat from Afghanistan. In Tajikistan, Russia is “supplying additional military equipment and stepping up training for the Tajik military.” Russian Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, “told a meeting of defense ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization …[that] military exercises involving Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will take place next week in the two central Asian states in response to the worsening situation in Afghani.”

Doctoral student, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, identifies the scope of Russia’s ambition in Afghanistan: “Russia’s goal is not to resolve or manage the civil war in Afghanistan. Instead, its objectives are operational; namely, to ensure Russia’s own security by ‘containing’ the ‘instability’ from Afghanistan, ensure a continued Russian presence in Central Asia and facilitate Russia’s peace initiatives.” Three measures are taken to achieve this: “border protection, direct engagement and diplomatic engagements with other external actors.” Klyszcz speculates that “Russia will welcome other third parties willing to contribute to its ‘containment policy by engaging Afghanistan along parallel lines” – including welcoming Chinese presence. TASS has reported that “Russia-China-led bloc set to fight terrorist after NATO pullout from Afghanistan.” A senior Russian diplomat has also said that “Turkey could take part in Afghan peace process.”

Though there are concerns over security matters in Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal has benefited the central pillar of Russian foreign policy: multipolarity. Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director, Sergey Naryshkin, explained in an interview with TASS: “The U.S. move to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end the Iraqi military campaign once again proved that the so-called hegemon is no longer able and willing to bear responsibility for resolving complicated political situations and global crises.” The future of Afghanistan no longer solely rests on the United States but must be developed in consultation with Russia and China – the two aspiring regional hegemons in Central Asia. Russia’s Afghanistan policy will likely evolve to ensure that Russia remains a critical actor in the region and promotes a multipolar world order.

Katrina Kalamar is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).