Much of the discussion on the geopolitical implications of the former Afghan government’s recent collapse has focused on what China may do next. However, Russia is the active regional influencer in the unfolding crisis, given its decades-old experience and networks in Afghanistan. In the weeks and months ahead, Russia can apply its diplomatic, intelligence, and military tools to prevent the spread of instability beyond Afghanistan. Some of Russia’s choices may conflict with U.S. goals for Afghanistan, but there are areas of alignment.
Russia’s Goals for Afghanistan
For many years, Russian officials predicted that the former Afghan government and its Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) would likely collapse without U.S. support. In 2017 Russia’s special representative to Afghanistan noted that “a whole set of factors makes the ANSF incapable of putting up resistance to the armed opposition on their own” and that a rapid U.S. pullout would likely prompt an unraveling of key institutions.
Moscow has spent the last few years developing a relationship with the Taliban and bolstering its force posture in Central Asia. Even though Moscow may not be surprised that the former Afghan government collapsed, the Kremlin considers the current situation to be dangerous. On August 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the growth of terrorist groups in Afghanistan is a “direct threat to our country, our allies.” He also clarified that Russia will not militarily involve itself in Afghanistan again, saying that “the former Soviet Union has its own experience in that country. We have learned the lesson.”
Moscow has two core interests related to Afghanistan: supporting its Central Asian allies during the regional instability that is likely to come and preventing international terrorism from spreading to the Russian homeland. Nikolai Patrushev, chair of the Russian Security Council, outlined Russia’s immediate goals for Afghanistan in August: 1) controlling migration flows from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Russia, 2) protecting Central Asia from terrorists pretending to be refugees, 3) preventing the spread of radical ideology beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and 4) protecting against arms smuggling and drug trafficking. Other goals articulated by senior Russian officials include preventing the United States from unilaterally negotiating military base access with Central Asian states and avoiding involvement in a military conflict in Afghanistan.
Russia’s Networks in Afghanistan
For several years, as part of a hedging strategy that entails engagement with all powerbrokers in Afghanistan, Moscow has provided overt political and intelligence support to the Taliban and was also accused of covertly assisting the group. Russia’s efforts have produced some early results. As the Taliban rapidly swept across the country this summer, its officials promised the Kremlin that the Taliban will contain instability and not allow anyone to use Afghanistan to attack Central Asia and Russia. The Taliban also quickly moved to control border crossings with Central Asian countries.
Russia officially considers the Taliban a terrorist group and, as of writing, has not recognized the group as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Removing the terrorist designation and recognizing the Taliban will be key signposts that Russia views the Taliban as its best long-term bet for stability.
Other parts of the Russian government, like the military and security services, are more skeptical of the Taliban’sability to govern the country and contain terrorist groups like ISIS-K, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State-aligned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Despite the Taliban’s recent promises, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu noted that Russia must still improve security along the border with Afghanistan “even though the Taliban leaders say they will not make any incursions across the border and attacks on neighbors.”
Shoigu is also concerned with the amount of weapons the Taliban seized during its takeover. In the past, including after the Taliban’s 2015 capture of Kunduz city, he has responded to the terrorist group’s gains by ordering force posture improvements in Tajikistan. The military is conducting frequent exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan a few miles from the Afghan border, focusing on counterterrorism operations like airstrikes against vehicles or notional militant camps. Future exercises scheduled throughout the fall signal Russia’s commitment to its Central Asian allies.
Russia’s Intelligence, Security Service, and Military Options for Afghanistan
Russia has several options to support its core interests of stabilizing and reinforcing its position in Central Asia and preventing the spread of terrorism. These options are listed from the least resource-intensive to the most resource-intensive, not by order of likelihood.
Intelligence support to Central Asian States. The easiest step for Russia to take is to provide intelligence to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan on border security and terrorist plans and activities. Intelligence support could come through the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which likely has a presence inside Afghanistan and ties with Taliban networks. Russia’s counterdrug organization and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Troops could also support these countries.
Intelligence support to the Taliban regarding terrorist groups inside Afghanistan. Russian intelligence has been actively tracking ISIS-K in Afghanistan since 2015, and officials have publicly admitted to sharing intelligence on ISIS-K with the Taliban since late 2016. Although Moscow and the Taliban have a complicated history, they are currently aligned in their objective to limit ISIS-K. From Moscow’s perspective, collaborating with the Taliban, which claims to hold few cross-border ambitions, is the lesser of two evils. Through this lens, Moscow could justify future collaboration with the Taliban.
Border security and humanitarian relief for Central Asia. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have all said they do not wish to house permanent Afghan refugees. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have had their own security problems at their Afghanistan borders in recent years, and in August defecting ANSF pilots flew into Uzbekistan and refugees attempted to cross by river. Tajikistan said it will seek assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if the refugee crisis worsens.
The borders of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan with Afghanistan are long—over 2,000 km, somewhat porous, and often mountainous. Russia could provide reconnaissance drones, remote sensing technology, and even FSB Border Troops to reinforce official border crossings or monitor unguarded areas.
For humanitarian assistance and border support, Russia can use its national guard Rosgvardiya, the military, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which manages humanitarian relief and disaster response. Rosgvardiya can support multiple types of operations given its subordinate agencies’ capabilities for crowd control, counterterrorism, counterdrug, and border security missions. On the Russian President’s orders, these forces can be used abroad.
Use of Russian mercenaries or Special Forces inside Afghanistan. There are no indications that Russia is currently considering direct military action against terrorists in Afghanistan, as the Taliban and the United States have ample motivation to neutralize ISIS-K. However, if ISIS-K or other extremist groups in Afghanistan grow and spill over into Central Asia, threatening the Russian homeland, then Moscow has several options to directly intervene.
The first option, and the choice that would give the Kremlin the best plausible deniability, is the use of skilled Russian mercenary groups. Russia could offer the use of mercenaries as a carrot to the Taliban; Russia has incorporated mercenaries into a blended package of support to unstable governments like the Central African Republic in the past.
Russia can also deploy small groups of special forces to border areas in Central Asia to combat worsening terrorist, drug, or arms trafficking flows. Although highly unlikely under current conditions, special forces could deploy into northern Afghanistan to spot terrorist targets or conduct covert counterterrorism operations. These forces have experience operating deep inside the ISIS-held territory in Syria and have far better training and resources than mercenaries. But Russian boots on the ground are an obvious political risk for Moscow.
Bolstering counterterrorism efforts inside Russia. Moscow appears less concerned with the Taliban exporting terrorism than it is with the prospect of a failed state providing safe harbor to terrorist groups with international objectives. Russia seeks to prevent the spread of these groups to Central Asia and the homeland, which suggests a Russian effort to bolster its counterterrorism capabilities, especially in the North Caucasus. Russia is concerned about its citizens from the North Caucasus region who are part of Imarat Kavkaz or other groups that previously pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and now want to return to Russia after fighting abroad. Thousands of militants left Russia to fight for ISIS or al-Nusra in Syria in recent years, and it is possible that some of these fighters ended up in Afghanistan.
Russia’s leaders have a lot of baggage when it comes to foreign fighters in Afghanistan. In the 1990s and 2000s, members of several terrorist groups, including Chechen militant leaders Ibn al-Khattab and Shamil Basaev, found safe haven there. During this time, the Taliban recognized Chechnya’s independence from Russia. Putin was the FSB director, prime minister, and a new president during some of the worst domestic terrorism incidents in this period and does not want these events repeated.
Military support for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. As mentioned previously, the Kremlin has signaled it does not want to militarily involve itself in Afghanistan. Military actions are highly unlikely in present conditions and would be a last resort for Moscow considered only after other levers have been exhausted. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “We will do everything, including using the capacity of the Russian military base on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, in order to prevent any aggressive moves against our allies,” the military reality is more complicated.