Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the International Military-Technical Forum “Army-2021” held at Patriot Park in Kubinka, near 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 United States.
Initially, Russia’s response to the Taliban insurgency seemed to celebrate the defeat of the US-backed and driven Afghan government, as well as the departure of the US. Russian Ambassador to Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov praised the conduct of the Taliban and said the group helped secure the Afghan capital within 24 hours of leaving the United States. This despite Russia’s official recognition of the Taliban as a terrorist organization.
“The Russians think they have a big victory,” Kate Mallinson, associate member of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, said during a webinar for the Chatham House think tank.
“They believe they will restore their influence in Central Asia,” he said, noting that Russia may seek to further consolidate its position as the main guarantor of security in the region.
Moscow wields significant military and economic influence over the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, most notably Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, all of which directly border Afghanistan.
“But I would say that kind of promotional victory is more pyramidal than victorious,” Mallinson said.
Russia launched its evacuation plan on Wednesday, sending four military planes to evacuate 500 Russian citizens and its regional allies. The directive, ordered by President Vladimir Putin, marked a brutal change in the Kremlin’s stance on the Taliban takeover.
It came amid a massive withdrawal effort at Kabul airport, with countries scrambling to get people out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan before the president’s August 31 deadline. Joe Biden.
Thousands of people had gathered chaotically at Hamid Karzai International Airport after the capital was captured by the Taliban, desperately trying to find safe passage out of the country.
” Hurry up “
Kremlin envoys insisted that the United States should not blame others for the fall of Afghanistan, and state media sought to portray the departure of American troops from Afghanistan as a major coup.
Recently, however, the tone seems to have changed. “The situation is changing, time is running out, the situation remains extremely tense and we are still monitoring it more closely and keeping our concerns,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.
Putin had previously said he hoped the Taliban would give assurances that they would restore order, adding that it was important not to allow terrorists into neighboring countries.
“It will be much more difficult than the Russians. Even if the Taliban keep their promises to the Russians, they will face a much more asymmetric war and it will be much more unpredictable than what the Russians face. To do, I guess, ”Mallinson told CNBC.
This is because the crisis comes at a time when many Central Asian countries are at their “lowest level,” Mallinson said, citing disenfranchised populations across the region, the coronavirus pandemic in courses and extremely severe droughts this year.
Russian troops are seen 20 km from the Afghan border at the Herb-Madan military training ground during joint Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan military exercises.
Nozim Kalandrov | TASS | Getty Images
Moscow has beefed up its military base in Tajikistan, a country that shares an 843-mile border with Afghanistan, where it is conducting a month-long military exercise.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that the Kremlin said it had learned lessons from the Soviet Union’s failed intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s and would not deploy armed forces there.
Russian influence in Central Asia
Olga Olikar, director of Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, told CNBC that Russia “fully recognizes” the potential security concerns for Central Asia, and for itself. , following the Afghan crisis.
“They can be both somewhat happy that America has an egg on its face and terrified of the implications. They fear destabilizing the flow of refugees, they fear a refuge for the groups that attack them. attack from Afghanistan, and they fear, as Putin recently said, that militants may be hiding among the refugees, ”she said.
“If stability under the Taliban remains and the Taliban keep their promise not to allow Afghanistan to be a base for attacks on Russia and Central Asia, and ideally to stop the flow of opium, then Russia will stick to it. Maybe, ”Olikar said. . “But things could get worse – Russia wants to strengthen Central Asia if necessary.”
Afghans wishing to leave the country continue to wait around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 26, 2021.
Aaron Sabavoon | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Putin has denounced the idea that some Western countries wish to relocate refugees from Afghanistan to Central Asia while their visas are being processed in the United States and the European Union.
“Does this mean that they can be sent visa-free to these countries, our neighbors, while they themselves [the West] Don’t you want to take them without a visa? Putin said, Russian news agencies reported last week. “Why such an outrageous approach to solving the problem? “
Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, Tajikistan has pledged to host more than 100,000 refugees. It works with the United Nations and other agencies to set up camps and other facilities in case a humanitarian crisis arises.
“I think it will be particularly worrying [to Russia] The Tajik and Uzbek ethnic regions of Afghanistan, usually a buffer against the Taliban, have also come under Taliban control, ”Tim Ashe, senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, told CNBC by email.
Aish said he would expect Russia to strengthen its already large military presence in Tajikistan and perhaps extend it to Uzbekistan, which he had previously used a “hard fist” approach. Against Islamic extremism.
“While the Central Asian states will fear that Moscow will use the threat of Islamic extremism to advance its idea of a Eurasian Union and centralize the agenda – look at Belarus,” Ashe said. he said. 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 pressure Central Asian countries to join the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led initiative that currently includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.