When, on February 15, 1989, General Boris Gromov crossed the Friendship Bridge on an armored car, the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan , the whole world experienced it as a sort of happy ending, justice that was fulfilled. ten years after an invasion as absurd as it was disastrous, the last imperialist jolt of a regime that was teetering under the weight of its own inefficiency .
It is inevitable that, 32 years later, any dramatic change in and around Kabul is seen in Moscow through the lens of this memory. Withdrawing from a country that has a reputation as a “tomb of empires” is a defeat of global ambitions, and the Kremlin – for which anti-Americanism has been a pivot on which the “geopolitical” vision revolves for years – has failed to hide his satisfaction with the hasty retreat of the US .
In that vision of international politics as a zero-sum game, a Joe Biden defeat is already a half victory for Vladimir Putin, or at least puts the Russians on an equal footing with the Americans, making their own defeat less humiliating, in a political phase. of 360-degree revisionism of the Soviet past that is reconsidering as negative even events universally perceived as positive, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the nuclear disarmament agreements with Ronald Reagan or the failure of the Communist “hardliner” coup of thirty years ago .
Beyond the anti-American rhetoric, the Russian establishment still seems to have overcome the Afghan trauma which for thirty years had put the taboo on any involvement in the events in Kabul. In 2001, Putin – at the time an ally of George W. Bush in the operation against the Taliban and al Qaida – had granted NATO the right to fly over Russian territory and the logistical support of its military bases, justifying however the lack of involvement in the first person of the military of Moscow with obvious reasons of a past that is still too recent. Twenty years later, leaders of the Russian Defense Ministry “do not rule out” participation in Afghan events, and diplomacy speaks of an “active role in socio-economic reconstruction”, allegedly alongside the Taliban.
The dialogue with the new Afghan government has already started ; Moscow had opened negotiations with the Taliban as early as 2018. Officially, the Taliban movement has been included by Russia on the list of “terrorist organizations”, and any mention of them in the Russian media must by law be accompanied by a disclaimer reminding them of this. But the head of diplomacy Sergey Lavrov said in July that the Taliban are “reasonable people”, and the head of the second Asian directorate of the Russian Foreign Ministry Zamir Kabulov, former ambassador to Afghanistan, called them “more interesting to negotiate than the puppet government of former president Ghani ”. Moscow was among the few countries that did not recall its diplomats from Kabul, and the current Russian ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov has publicly praised the Taliban escort around the Russian mission, which has come to “protect us from terrorists and madmen”.
Despite these public gestures of sympathy, the official recognition of the new Afghan government is not on the agenda for now , also due to the strong pressure of internal public opinion, strongly negative compared to a country seen as a stronghold of fundamentalism, where more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers died. Opponents are also using pro-Taliban sympathies to point out how the Kremlin negotiates with Islamic extremists while arresting and banning liberal political “extremists”, even far from Alexey Navalny’s orbit. Furthermore, Russia has the eternal problem of jihadism at its core, and it is likely that a resounding victory like that of the Taliban could serve as a model for Russian fundamentalists in the Caucasus as well.
Any move to open up towards the Taliban would also worry the historical partners of Russian diplomacy : India , troubled by the arrival of a regime supported by Pakistan (and China), and the former Soviet countries of Central Asia , which there are now difficult neighbors like the Taliban. Central Asian post-communist regimes – including Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan , both bordering Afghanistan – have long enjoyed tolerance if not support (not only from Moscow, but also from Washington) in their very role as authoritarian but secular embankment against a hypothetical spread of fundamentalism.
Moscow could justify its openness to the new Kabul regime with a sort of resigned pragmatism: if you cannot prevent something, it is better to try to put it under control, and Lavrov assures that he has obtained guarantees from his Taliban interlocutors that he will not interfere in affairs of the Neighboring countries, and a hard fist against Isis (which, moreover, Putin himself suspects of being a creature of the Americans). But the risks of the settlement of the Taliban appear for the moment to outweigh the (largely imaginary) advantages for Moscow from the American withdrawal from the Great Game .