The Moscow Format Meeting and Russia’s Afghanistan Policy

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The Russian city of Kazan hosted the “Moscow Format” consultations on Afghanistan, which saw the participation of 14 countries. Apart from the permanent members of the mechanism—China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—the representatives of Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) attended the meeting as guests of honour. The Taliban delegation, led by the acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, was also part of the talks.

Launched in 2017, “the Moscow Format” consultations on Afghanistan have become a regular venue for the Afghan settlement discussions. Russia managed to sustain this dialogue platform and ensured that all its partners from across Eurasia, despite having different approaches to the Taliban grouping, gathered here to exchange their views and concerns on the situation in and around Afghanistan.

Being an outlawed terrorist organisation in Russia does not prevent the Taliban from getting invitations to different Moscow-led events. Just four months ago, in May 2023, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s acting trade minister Nooruddin Azizi and the acting culture minister Khairullah Khairkhwa participated in the conference “Russia and the Islamic world”, also held in Kazan. The interaction paved the way for some agreements, like the opening of Russia’s business centre in Kabul, though full-fledged economic cooperation with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is at a nascent stage and the long-term ambitious projects, like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline or the Trans-Afghan railway road, in which Russian public companies have taken an interest, still remain far-fetched.

While making overtures for developing economic ties and sending humanitarian aid, Russia has kept its relationship with the Taliban vague. The Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, in his recent interview insisted that Russia had no intention to recognise their government. At the same time, he claims that “we do not regard [the Taliban] as terrorists in substance” since they “have evolved as the national movement” of Afghanistan. It is not quite clear if the same opinion is shared by all in the Russian political elite. Earlier, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev took a negative view of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan while the Russian Ambassador to Tajikistan Semyon Grigoriev has been explicitly critical of the Taliban for their poor governance and the free rein given to terrorist organisations. But the major terrorist threat emanating from the Afghan soil, as per the Russian officialdom, is still the Islamic State (Islamic State Khorasan Province, IS-K), which purportedly “gets financial support from foreign intelligence services” and whom “the Taliban has been fighting against”.

Moscow is trying to employ the carrot-and-stick approach towards the Taliban in which the recognition of their regime can be the ultimate “bonus” in return for “a truly inclusive government”.

Moscow is trying to employ the carrot-and-stick approach towards the Taliban in which the recognition of their regime can be the ultimate “bonus” in return for “a truly inclusive government”. According to Kabulov, Russia will not “impose” particular ethno-political groups being included in the governing process, because the intra-Afghan dialogue should be promoted by the Taliban themselves. Yet, Russia has also stepped up its ties with the anti-Taliban forces, implicitly signalling its displeasure with the situation in Afghanistan.

In late August 2023, Akhmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF) of Afghanistan, made a surprising visit to Moscow and was hosted in the Russian Parliament. The first such visit to Russia by the main Opposition leader from Afghanistan, which reportedly was to continue some previous unofficial talks with the NRF representatives, prompted the views that Moscow had lost faith in coming to an arrangement with the Taliban and was changing its Afghan policy course. Even though Massoud was invited to Moscow by the “Spravedlivaya Rossiya” party—the third largest in the Russian State Duma—and the meeting was limited to the party’s chairman Sergey Mironov and a handful of members, it is hard to believe that this engagement could happen without a nod from the Kremlin. Notably, the party’s press service also published excerpts from the discussion, in which Massoud calls out the deterioration of the political situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban: “Terrorist organisations and drug trafficking are thriving in the country, [while] the rights of the population are being violated.”

The Kazan Declaration—an output document of the Moscow Format meeting 2023—is very tactful in its wording, which makes it quite different from the November 2022 joint statement (the Taliban was not invited to the consultations back then). Obviously, a light-touch approach to dealing with the Taliban was not accepted by all the participants. Tajikistan refused to sign on to the declaration and was even not mentioned in the Russian MFA’s press release among the participants of the meeting. As was revealed later by Mr Kabulov, Tajikistan’s delegation did not approve two points: The acknowledgement of the Taliban’s successes in fighting against IS-K and its “effective” anti-drug policy.

After breaking off contact with the US, Russia has been promoting the Moscow Format as a regional club of discussions on Afghanistan and has been seeking to drive a wedge between its participants and the West.

This dual attitude towards the Taliban aside, it is the never-ending confrontation with the United States (US) that lies at the heart of Russia’s Afghan policy. With the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow has been keen to fill the vacuum and take a lead in building closer ties with the Taliban. After breaking off contact with the US, Russia has been promoting the Moscow Format as a regional club of discussions on Afghanistan and has been seeking to drive a wedge between its participants and the West. For instance, speaking for its partners, Moscow, states that “[a] full-scale pooling of efforts between the countries in the region and the NATO states is only possible under the condition that the latter fully recognise[s] their responsibility for the lamentable results of their 20-year military presence in Afghanistan, which has culminated in a complete fiasco.”

Another important talking point for Moscow is that the return of US and NATO military infrastructure facilities in Afghanistan is “under any circumstances unacceptable”. Even though similarly formulated points are included in the Kazan Declaration, it does not mean that Russia and its regional partners are on the same page on this issue. Except for China and Iran, who have had their own tensions with the US, other participants do not support the strident rhetoric on the US’ regional role.

In fact, many regional stakeholders have been in close touch with the Biden administration on the Afghan topic. The issue figured prominently recently, both at the C5+1 format meeting in New York and at the conference on regional security in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in which General Staff Chiefs of the Armed Forces of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the commander of the US Central Command took part. The Taliban themselves have met US officials recently and have discussed lifting sanctions, unfreezing bank reserves, the economic stability of Afghanistan, and countering narcotics and human rights issues.

While sharing concerns about the humanitarian and security situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule, India has not propelled any anti-US sentiments and has not endorsed the claims about the Taliban’s contribution to stability in the region.

What about India’s position? New Delhi has been closely engaging with Russia on Afghanistan, specifically between their national security advisers. While sharing concerns about the humanitarian and security situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule, India has not propelled any anti-US sentiments and has not endorsed the claims about the Taliban’s contribution to stability in the region. With that in mind, Moscow can still rely on India’s support of its regional initiatives if these are genuinely aimed at easing the suffering of the Afghan people and are without any geopolitical strings attached.

Source : ORF