The seemingly warm relations between the Russian leadership and the Taliban, an extremist Islamic movement that many in the West consider a terrorist organization, have been a kind of mystery for a rather long time. In 2003, Russia declared the Taliban an “extremist organization,” and banned the movement by a ruling of Russia’s Supreme Court. Russian law prohibits the overruling of the case except under substantially new circumstances. The Supreme Court decision mentions not only the Taliban, but also other organizations. For this reason, a ruling’s reversal would concern all the organizations mentioned in the Supreme Court’s decision. Hence, since 2003, every time the Taliban are mentioned in the Russian media, the movement must be referred to as “an extremist organization outlawed in the Russian Federation.”
Additionally, according to recently approved legislation, individuals involved in the activities of or having contacts with “extremist organizations” cannot run for office in Russia. Nevertheless, for years, Russian officials have maintained ties with the Taliban, and have meetings with the movement’s representatives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet, neither Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov nor other Russian officials that had contact with the Taliban were excluded from the United Russia party list in the recent State Duma elections.
Russia Applauded The Taliban’s Political Advances
Russia’s game with the Taliban is based on both geopolitical and ideological grounds. For some time, Russia has supported the Western powers in their “War on Terror,” but – as the current antagonism between the U.S. and Russia turned into a sort of “new Cold War” – Moscow has become more hostile to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and believes that it can benefit from any U.S. geopolitical defeat. This has been the major rationale behind Russian policy since at least 2008 (since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, in which he challenged the unipolar world), and as a consequence the Russian public sphere has been particularly hostile to the Western presence in Afghanistan.
Indeed, Russia has been depicting the Taliban as a “sane,” “reliable,” decent, and responsible popular movement standing for Afghan dignity and sovereignty, while the United States has been described as a nation with no respect for the right to self-determination of peoples (the concept of sovereignty, or better of “real sovereignty” – i.e., when the state sovereignty is exercised by an individual or institution – lays at the core of the contemporary Russian political debate). Furthermore, Russia condemned all along U.S. efforts for promoting “state-building” in Afghanistan, and kept, for several years, relations with the Taliban political wing in Doha.
When the movement then took over Kabul in August, Russia applauded the Taliban’s political advances and Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov infamously said that life in the city “became better managed and organized than when it was under the Ghani government.”
The Taliban’s Conservatives Stances Are Compatible With Russia’s
Russia has more than one reason to warm up to the Taliban. The Kremlin has actually almost openly accepted the Taliban’s “conservative” stance, as it saw the radical movement compatible with its own views. In recent years, the Russian political elite has started to impose a more and more conservative ideology on its own country, by approving laws that decriminalize domestic violence inside the home, criminalize “homosexual propaganda,” and by introducing, among others, ideologically motivated requirements for the study of history.
Furthermore, Russia defends the idea that a country’s human rights situation should be evaluated in the context of its history, values, cultural traditions, and national conditions, and cannot be assessed using the Western concept of the universalism of human rights. According to the Kremlin, human rights are a relative notion and can be understood in different ways according to local cultural traditions. For this reason, Moscow considers that Russia and Taliban’s Afghanistan should stay “immune” to Western values.
Reflecting on Russia-Taliban relations, the book “The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left And Its Responsibility For 9/11” by American conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza came to my mind. In the book, D’Souza suggested that the political right should ally with “traditional Muslims,” as he is convinced that the two groups should unite against liberals in order to oppose “American social and cultural depravity.” Some similar positions have been expressed by Russian officials since at least 2007.
For The Kremlin, The Major Threat For The Region Comes From The United States Not The Taliban
Recently, Russia’s Special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, along with the special envoys of Pakistan and China, met acting Afghan Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund in Kabul as part of diplomatic efforts to seek the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan acceptable to the international community.
However, though Russia formally agrees not to recognize the Taliban regime until the UN Security Council sanctions are lifted, Moscow seems to be pretty comfortable talking with the Taliban. Russia is in fact one of the few countries that (alongside with China and Pakistan) kept its embassy in Kabul fully functional (which, in all these cases is a bit tricky, since foreign ambassadors presented their credentials to the former government of Afghanistan and are not obliged to contact the new Taliban-led government, which is not yet internationally recognized). 
Russia has even pushed the narrative of “the tale of two Talibans,” arguing that today’s movement differs a lot from what it was in the late 1990s. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a press conference on the sidelines of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly: “The reality on the ground is based on statements made by the Taliban who proclaimed their commitment to fighting extremism and terrorism, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, not to project instability on their neighbors. They committed themselves to respecting women’s rights and to creating an inclusive government… What matters the most at the moment is that they fulfill their promises.”
The Kremlin keeps acting as if Afghanistan were ruled by a legitimate government and as if the major threat for the region came from the U.S. This same attitude against the West applies to other scenarios. On September 14, 2021, President Putin met at the Kremlin with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, and told him: “I believe that the main problem lies in the presence in some parts of the country of foreign armed forces [i.e., the U.S.-armed forces] without any mandate from the United Nations or your permission.”
Russia Tries To Benefit From The Afghan Situation
As for now, Russia assesses the Afghan situation from a different angle than most Western analysts. First of all, it is worth noting that Russia (and China as well, but in a much less open manner) has been trying to make sure that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan does not threaten the power balance in Central Asia. In fact, Central Asian countries feel at risk, even though the movement has already declared that it has no extraterritorial goals. Playing on Central Asian countries’ worries, Moscow can once again be an important and influential political player in Central Asia, a region where Russia’s economic influence has been in decline. Recently, in fact, tensions mounted between Tajikistan, a hub for the resistance against the Taliban, and Afghanistan. Reports suggest that both countries are pulling thousands of armed forces fighters toward the common border. Thus, Russia immediately took the role of mediator and called both Dushanbe and Kabul to search for mutually acceptable options to resolve the situation.
Secondly, Russia may want to use the Afghan crisis to make some tradeoffs with the West, in the same way it used its 2015 involvement in Syria. It is actually known that President Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed in June in Geneva the possibility that U.S. servicemen could use Russian military installations in Central Asia to monitor the situation in Afghanistan. According to the media, during a meeting in Helsinki on September 22, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov discussed how to advance those negotiations. Hence, Russia seems trying to benefit from the situation around Afghanistan rather than from the developments within the country.
It is worth noting that the Russian media reported about Afghanistan’s vast natural and mineral wealth. However, most experts consider the country’s resources to be overvalued and their exploration seem unlikely even under a more stable and predictable government than the one formed by the Taliban. For years, Afghanistan will remain a poor country offering almost nothing to the outside world. In order to pursue economic interests in Afghanistan, a country should be prepared for long-term and costly efforts that only China (and surely not Russia) may be able to afford.
Nevertheless, Russia may be pressured to change its friendly attitude toward the Taliban in the near future. As the Taliban move further with the Islamization of education, the introduction of shari’a into everyday life, and the curbing of people’s rights, the international community may become less tolerant toward the movement, and Russia’s stance will once again be scrutinized and criticized.
These days, the situation in and around Afghanistan is becoming more and more worrisome, and both analysts and policymakers realize that the international community is facing now a new long-term challenge with no one being sure of its outcomes. Many countries will adopt the “wait-and-see” approach, as Western powers will neither recognize the new Afghan government nor try to depose it. As President Biden put it in his address to the United Nations, which marks the end of the U.S. “nation-building” experiments: “We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan. And as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.”
As for now, Russia may feel a bit victorious and enjoy that fact that the party that the Kremlin sided with won in the prolonged struggle for Afghanistan. However, one’s failure is not necessarily other’s victory. Russia may soon realize and feel that there is not much to gain from the current crisis, as the deepening rift with the West is not serving Moscow’s long-term interests. But, for the time being, people in the Kremlin are enthusiastic about the U.S. “defeat” and the Taliban now appears in the list of Russia’s notorious allies along with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.