Memo to Afghanistan: Don’t forget Russia

Russia is alarmed by security threats on its southern border – watch out for a non-conventional response.

Special Forces soldiers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states in joint military exercises near Bishkek [AFP]
Russia has been holding 'combat readiness exercises' with its partners, writes Torfeh [AFP]

When Ashraf Ghani became the president of Afghanistan last September, he pledged to improve relations with all neighbours, mainly Iran and Pakistan. While he has focused almost entirely on improving relations with Pakistan, and on bringing China on board for his top priority of talks with the Taliban, Ghani has lost sight of another powerful neighbour in the north, namely Russia.

In an unexpected move, Russia announced it was stopping the transit of NATO military cargo to Afghanistan through its territory. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev revoked all previous agreements with NATO for the delivery to Afghanistan of military hardware and equipment through rail, vehicle or Russian airspace.

Recent Taliban advances in the northern provinces of Badakhshan and Kunduz as well as in Badgis, Faryab and Jowzjan have alarmed the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan which share over 2,000 kilometres of border with Afghanistan.

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Russia regards these republics as its southern border and has been holding “combat readiness exercises” with its partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Combat readiness

Some 2,500 servicemen, 200 military hardware, 20 combat jets and helicopters as well as 30 military transport planes were deployed in an exercise that is supposed to respond to urgent situations within a maximum of three hours. The military exercises are being conducted in the Tajik southern province of Khatlon close to Afghanistan.

Russia is alarmed at recent Taliban advances in northern Afghanistan which have included ISIL, al-Qaeda and some of the central Asia extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that has declared its allegiance to ISIL.

Russian security officials estimate that about 300 Central Asian citizens could be fighting alongside ISIL. They also say they have information about the rising contact between ISIL and other terror groups working in Central Asia and North Caucasus, such as Imarat Caucasus group.

Russia is alarmed at recent Taliban advances in northern Afghanistan which have included ISIL, al-Qaeda and some of the central Asia extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that has declared its allegiance to ISIL.


“The militants’ behaviour is increasingly audacious,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations. “They often seize entire provinces,” he said, adding that the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan had “nearly doubled” since 2014, demonstrating the “serious potential” of the threats.

“An alarming outcome of 13 years of NATO military operation in Afghanistan is that a well-developed grouping of anti-governmental armed formations had emerged with a total numerical strength of more than half a million gunmen,” said Victor Ivanov, Russia’s chief for drug control.

Tajik President Emomali Rahman has also criticised the “intensification of activities of the Taliban militants” near the borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States saying the appearance of ISIL militants poses a serious threat to Tajikistan. 

Armed groups have been operating within 60 kilometres of the Pyandzh border areas, and 10 Tajik soldiers were recently kidnapped. Additionally Rahman has reportedly not been enjoying very cordial relations with his Afghan counterpart, Ghani.

Russia’s game players

In the absence of consultation with Ghani, Russia is approaching other game players in Afghanistan. The acting governor of northern Balkh province, Ata Mohammad Noor, is one such contact.

Speaking at the Russian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory over the Nazis, Noor criticised the bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul as having “proved to be useless”.

He also blamed the government for inaction towards the deteriorating security situation in northern provinces and warned to take action by joining an uprising if the situation further deteriorated.

Ghani’s handling of the security challenges has also been widely criticised by the parliament and military analysts in Afghanistan who are angered by an unprecedented attempt at improving cooperation with Pakistan. Some have described the latest pact between the intelligence services of both countries for sharing information as “selling out to mortal enemy“.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani [EPA]
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani [EPA]

Russia has also recently signed a defence cooperation pact with Pakistan, which could lead to intelligence sharing, joint exercises and arms sales.

Russia is, however, historically distrustful of Pakistan and has always harboured the belief that Pakistan has designs on Afghanistan and Central Asia.

So, through this recent pact, Russia aims primarily to remain in touch with what is going on vis a vis the talks with the Taliban, and Afghanistan’s relations with the US and Pakistan.

Over the past 14 years, Russia has remained reasonably neutral watching Afghanistan fall under US domination, and its southern borders increasingly threatened by Islamic extremism.

Post-Ukraine, however, when Western countries have imposed multiple layers of sanctions targeting the Putin leadership, Russia’s financial institutions, and its oil and gas exploration industry, there is no guarantee that this neutrality will continue.

Russia would be likely to opt for a non-conventional approach should Islamic extremists make incursions along the Tajik border. 

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.