Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the International Military-Technical Forum “Army-2021” held in the Patriot Park, in Kubinka outside Moscow on August 23, 2021.
RAMIL SITDIKOV | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON — The unfolding crisis in Afghanistan poses substantial risks to Russia and Central Asia, geopolitical experts have warned, even as the Kremlin seeks to claim a propaganda victory over the U.S.
Initially, Russia’s response to the Taliban’s insurgence appeared to celebrate the defeat of the American-backed and trained Afghan government, as well as the U.S. departure. Russia’s ambassador to Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov, praised the Taliban’s conduct and said the group had helped to make the Afghan capital safer in the first 24 hours after the U.S. exit. This is despite Russia officially recognizing the Taliban as a terrorist organization.
“The Russians feel as though they have achieved a major triumph,” Kate Mallinson, associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, said during a webinar for think tank Chatham House.
“They feel they are going to reassert their influence in Central Asia,” she said, noting that Russia was likely to try to further entrench its position as the region’s key security guarantor.
Moscow has a significant military and economic influence over former Soviet republics in Central Asia, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all of which directly border Afghanistan.
“But I would say that this kind of propaganda victory is more pyrrhic than triumphant,” Mallinson added.
Russia on Wednesday started its own evacuation plans, sending four military planes to evacuate 500 Russian citizens and those of its regional allies. The directive, which came on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, marked an abrupt shift in the Kremlin’s stance to the Taliban’s takeover.
It came amid a massive withdrawal effort at Kabul airport, with countries scrambling to get people out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden.
Tens of thousands of people had chaotically gathered at Hamid Karzai International Airport in the days since the Taliban took the capital, desperately seeking to secure safe passage out of the country.
The Kremlin’s envoys have insisted the U.S. should not shift responsibility for Afghanistan’s collapse onto others and state media channels have sought to portray the departure of American troops from Afghanistan as a significant coup.
More recently, however, the tone appears to have shifted. “The situation is developing, time is running out, the situation remains extremely tense and we still follow it most closely and retain our concerns,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said on Wednesday.
Putin has previously said he hopes the Taliban will deliver on assurances that they will restore order, saying it is important not to allow terrorists to enter neighboring countries.
“It is going to be much harder than the Russians make out. Even if the Taliban keep their promises to the Russians, they’ll be having to deal with much more asymmetric warfare and it will be much more unpredictable than the Russians will be able to cope with, I think,” Mallinson told CNBC.
That’s because the crisis comes at a time when many Central Asia countries are at their “lowest ebb,” Mallinson said, citing disenfranchised populations throughout the region, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and extremely severe drought this year.
Russian servicemen are seen during a joint military exercise by Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the Harb-Maidon military training ground, at 20 km from the border to Afghanistan.
Nozim Kalandarov | TASS | Getty Images
Moscow has reinforced its military base in Tajikistan, a country that shares an 843-mile border with Afghanistan, where it is holding a month of military exercises.
Reuters reported Wednesday that the Kremlin said it had learnt the lessons of the Soviet Union’s failed intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s and will not deploy armed forces there.
Olga Oliker, director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, told CNBC that Russia “very much recognizes” the potential security issues as a result of the Afghanistan crisis, for Central Asia and also for itself.
“They can be simultaneously somewhat pleased that the U.S. has egg on its face and nervous about the implications. They fear destabilizing refugee flows, they fear safe haven for groups that might attack them from Afghanistan, and they fear, as Putin recently said, that militants could hide amongst the refugees,” she said.
“If stability holds under the Taliban, and the Taliban keeps to its promise not to let Afghanistan be a base for attacks on Russia and Central Asia, and, ideally, stops the flow of opium, then Russia can live with it,” Oliker added. “But things could go badly — Russia will be looking to reinforce Central Asia as needed.”
Afghan people who want to leave the country continue to wait around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 26, 2021.
Haroon Sabawoon | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Putin has slammed the idea that some Western countries are looking to relocate refugees from Afghanistan in Central Asia while their visas to the U.S. and the European Union are being processed.
“Does that mean that they can be sent without visas to those countries, to our neighbours, while they themselves [the West] don’t want to take them without visas?” Putin said, Russian news agencies reported last week. “Why is there such a humiliating approach to solving the problem?”
Among Afghanistan’s neighbours, Tajikistan has pledged to take in up to 100,000 refugees. It is working with the U.N. and other agencies to establish camps and other facilities as the humanitarian crisis unfolds.
“I think it will be a particular concern [to Russia] that ethnic Tajik and Uzbek regions of Afghanistan, normally a buffer against the Taliban, have also gone over to Taliban control,” Tim Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, told CNBC via email.
Ash said he would expect Russia, which he described as having previously used a “hard fist” approach to Islamic extremism, to bolster its already large military presence in Tajikistan and perhaps even extend it to Uzbekistan.
“Central Asian states though will be nervous that Moscow might use the threat of Islamist insurgency to push its Eurasian Union idea and centralising agenda that Putin is pursuing across the CIS space — look at Belarus,” Ash said, noting that this comes ahead of the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR in December this year.
The Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, refers to a regional intergovernmental organization of nine former Soviet Republics in Eurasia.
Russia is expected to ratchet up the pressure on countries in Central Asia to make them join the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led initiative that currently includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
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