Does Russia have a new strategy for Afghanistan?

Moscow will seek ‘pragmatic’ engagement with the Taliban after the armed group seized control of Afghanistan, analysts say.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan transformed the Westernised, largely secular nation into a haven for al-Qaeda and a battleground for the US's longest armed conflict [File: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters]

Nearly 40 years ago, the Friendship Bridge was unveiled with much pomp to link the USSR with its new satellite – the fledgling, socialist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

But Pyotr Gavrilenko thought the 800 metre-long steel-and-concrete construction divided two radically different worlds.

In May 1982, he was a frightened, sweating 19-year-old in a badly fitting uniform and oversized boots who crossed the bridge from the town of Termez in what is now southern Uzbekistan.

In the blistering heat, he crossed the Amudarya River in a military truck and entered a dystopia where identities and loyalties were protean and lethally unpredictable, he recalled.

After sundown, a friendly man with a wrinkled, smiling face would turn into a merciless “Dushman,” or “enemy” in Dari, as Soviet soldiers called US-backed mujahideen.

A smiling boy yelling “hello” in Russian would plant a booby trap near a Soviet base.

“They were like werewolves. They still are,” Gavrilenko, now a retired 58-year-old living in the western Russian city of Bryansk, told Al Jazeera.

The 1979-1989 Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil war killed more than two million Afghans, turned many more into refugees and transformed the Westernised, largely secular nation into a haven for al-Qaeda and a battleground for the US’s longest armed conflict.

Gavrilenko has a pale scar from a bullet wound to his right thigh that still makes him limp.

His occasional nightmares are filled with the high-pitched whistle of bullets and the shouts of his dying comrades-in-arms.

He binge-drinks for days three or four times a year and visits the graves of other Afghan vets who died of old wounds, alcoholism or after joining criminal gangs in the post-Soviet 1990s.

He voraciously read and watched the news about the Taliban rushing through Afghanistan and taking over major cities.

“When I hear them pledge eternal peace and see them shake hands with our diplomats, I know they would stab us in the back the second we turn around,” Gavrilenko said.

But Russia’s top diplomat does not think so.

“They are sane people,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said on July 23.

“They clearly stated that they have no plans to create problems for Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, that they would uncompromisingly fight the ISIS (ISIL), and that they are ready to discuss the political structure of their nation with other Afghans because they used to be accused of wanting to create an Islamic emirate based on the Sharia law,” he said.

He referred to the latest delegation of Taliban officials who visited his ministry in central Moscow in early July, for talks behind closed doors.

Such talks were held in Moscow since 2017 and Taliban officials rubbed shoulders with Russian diplomats at countless peace talks in Qatar.

On Monday, as violence gripped Kabul, Russia said it was in contact with Taliban officials through its embassy in the Afghan capital, but said Moscow would take its time to decide on whether to recognise the new authorities.

But Russia’s attitude towards the Taliban “hasn’t changed” Moscow-based analyst Aleksey Mukhin told Al Jazeera.

“There is no objective to legalise the Taliban, but yes, there is an objective to talk to them to reach certain agreements, accords, limitations in Afghanistan and adjacent nations. The approach is purely pragmatic,” he said.

This approach follows years of mutual contempt and distrust.

In 2000, when the movement controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan, it recognised the independence of Chechnya, allowed Chechen separatists to train on their territory and declared a “jihad” on Russia.

The Kremlin still bans the Taliban as a “terrorist organisation”; Russian courts have sentenced half a dozen of its adherents to jail.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sought closer ties with the West at the time, allowed the US-led coalition to use Russia’s airspace and tacitly approved the deployment of US and NATO troops in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

But then, Moscow lambasted Washington and NATO for turning a blind eye to the skyrocketing cultivation of poppy and production of heroin that was smuggled northward via Central Asia – and turned Russia into the world’s largest consumer of opiates.

Moscow’s unchanged approach is the problem, another expert claims.

“Even though Russia’s attempts to continue the dialogue with the Taliban is pretty logical, Russia has no conception about what it wants to see in Afghanistan after NATO’s departure, how it wants to interact with Afghanistan and what it wants at all,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based defence analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

Today’s Afghanistan is very different from the nation the Taliban nearly controlled between 1996 and 2001.

Its population nearly doubled – reaching 38 million people – and is increasingly urbanised, he said.

The Pashto tribal structure that spawned the Taliban is falling apart, and the group is seeking the support of Afghanistan’s minorities – Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras.

Russia is not planning to invade Afghanistan again, but it tends to exaggerate its threat to boost its presence in its own back yard, said Luzin.

“The only thing Moscow pursues for sure is to be the dominant military power in Central Asia selling its ‘services’ as a defender of regional rulers from the mythical Afghan threat.”

These regional rulers tend to oppose Islam in politics and have their own history of bad blood with the Taliban.

Ex-Soviet Central Asia is a region of 74 million where Beijing is boosting its economic clout, but Russia reigns supreme in terms of military presence and soft power.

In mid-July, Lavrov warned regional diplomats and the embattled Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.

“Everyone understands that the [West’s] mission failed,” he told a regional conference in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan that lies some 1,000km (621 miles) north of the Friendship Bridge.

Shortly before his speech, Uzbek authorities reportedly constructed dozens of huge tents next to the bridge to prepare for a possible flow of refugees.

Around the same time, hundreds of Afghan refugees defeated pro-Ghani soldiers crossed into neighbouring Tajikistan from Afghanistan, but were sent back to Kabul on chartered planes.

“There are real risks of instability spilling over into neighbouring nations,” Lavrov said.

An exiled opposition leader says the Taliban-led state could destabilise Uzbekistan, the region’s most populous nation whose President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been criticised by rights groups for alleged violations of religious freedom in spite of his removing restrictions on religious life.

“There is an alarming growth of radically-minded youngsters encouraged by the government. Coupled with growing corruption, a weak secular civil society, uneducated youth and omnipresent lawlessness, it creates a combustive mix that only needs a spark,” Nigara Khidouytova, who led an opposition party but now lives in exile in the US, told Al Jazeera.

But the spillover is not necessarily related to the Taliban.

Thousands of ISIL fighters found refuge in northern Afghanistan, including Central Asia natives.

They may want to fight their way home, but their immediate objective is survival and possibly, resistance to the Taliban.

Source: Al Jazeera