Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

From Point Zero to ‘New Warmth’: Russian-Afghan relations since 1989

Thomas Ruttig 24 min

After the Soviet occupation years, Afghan-Russian relations were on absolute zero. But post-Soviet Russia has worked carefully on improving the situation step by step. This strategy is based on an about-face under Yeltsin: dropping Najibullah and building a relationship with the mujahedin, beginning in 1992. In recent years, mounting Afghan-US and Russian-US tensions have made governments in Kabul and Moscow more interested in each other. Many Afghans have even started looking back more favourably at achievements of Soviet-Afghan cooperation, both pre-1978 and, although the experience of the occupation still weighs heavily on their minds, the 1979–92 period. Even some of the Soviets’ toughest former Afghan opponents accept the view that Moscow has distanced itself from its USSR past and that the Russians’ “Afghan syndrome,” acknowledged even by Russian scholars, makes a military return very unlikely. AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig reviews the developments of the past decades of relations, mainly from the perspective of Russian sources and opinions, specifically how the Russians look at Afghanistan and how they define Russia’s interests there.

Decades before Point Zero: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on a state visit to Afghanistan in 1955. Photo: archiveDecades before Point Zero: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on a state visit to Afghanistan in 1955. Photo: archive

Over a year ago, in April 2013, a high-ranking official of the government in Moscow, Sergei Koshelev, the head of the international co-operation department of the Russian defence ministry, aired the idea of creating Russian ‘maintenance bases’ in Afghanistan for Soviet- and Russian-made military equipment widely used by the Afghan armed forces. This would cater for a real need: Over the past decade, the US has “purchased hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Russian weapons, including helicopters, from Russia” for Afghanistan (see here and here) as the country’s forces have been equipped with Soviet arms since the mid-1950s. (1) Koshelev’s statement sparked wild speculation about whether that meant Russia would try to make a comeback in Afghanistan and would go so far as to redeploy military personnel in the country.

This is obviously a highly controversial issue, given the deeply-seated sensitivities among Afghans only 25 years – a generation – after the devastating ten-year Soviet occupation (that started in December 1979) ended in February 1989. This became evident when, on 28 October 2010, US and four Russian anti-drug enforcement agents staged a joint airborne operation on Afghan territory, destroying drug labs near Jalalabad. According to a Time magazine report, the Russian side had pushed for this operation, and Afghan police participated in it. However, Karzai’s office, claiming he had not been informed, reacted with outrage, calling the operation “a clear violation of Afghan sovereignty as well as international law”. (2)

Wreck of a Soviet fighter jet at Kunduz airport. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

Wreck of a Soviet fighter jet at Kunduz airport. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

The Russian foreign ministry quickly denied Koshelev’s statement: “Moscow’s position, that a return of the Russian military to Afghanistan is impossible, remains unchanged.” The ministry’s spokesman added that such speculations were the “fruit of someone’s sick imagination”. But when the same official repeated his earlier idea in March this year, no such disclaimer followed.

As Russia, at least currently under President Vladimir Putin, is not known for producing contradictory statements on central foreign policy issues, it can be assumed that Koshelev’s remarks reflected official thinking on both occasions and were attempts to test the waters. Another factor may be at play behind the Russian statement – normal commercial interests in selling and maintaining Russian-made weapons systems, still one of the strengths of the struggling Russian economy.

As the rationale for his statement, Koshelev cited “the danger of the restoration of a regime on Afghan territory that would foster the spread of terrorism, drug trafficking and instability” after the planned withdrawal of NATO combat forces by the end of this year. The Russian government, including Putin, has often raised this threat scenario in public. For example the Russian president said, when speaking at the Russian Security Council in May last year: “There is every reason to believe that in the near future we may face a worsening of the situation [in Afghanistan]. International terrorist and radical groups do not hide their plans to export instability.”. Practical steps have already been taken: under the NATO-Russia Council cooperation, Afghan armed forces have been re-equipped with Russian-made military materiel (see, for instance, here and here). And in late April, without causing much of a public reaction, India signed an agreement under which it will pay Russia to supply arms and equipment – including light artillery and mortars – to the Afghan military.

Re-starting from point zero

Moscow had actually, slowly but steadily, started working to improve its relationship with Afghanistan long before Koshelev first aired his idea for overcoming what Russian scholar Vladimir Boyko, one of the country’s most long-standing Afghanistan analysts, calls Russia’s “Afghan syndrome”.

The ground was laid when the USSR still existed (although for another six weeks only) and Soviet-backed Afghan president Najibullah was still in office in Kabul. In September 1991, the US and Soviet governments signed an agreement about so-called ‘negative symmetry,’ that is, the simultaneous cessation of military support to the warring Afghan sides. In November 1991, the president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin (3) – in an unlikely political about-face – received a delegation of mujahedin leaders, led by soon-to-be Afghan interim president Borhanuddin Rabbani, in Moscow for talks. Najibullah supported the surprising trip of the mujahedin delegation. He hoped that a UN peace plan on the table to form an interim coalition government would guarantee him and his party a political role in the future of Afghanistan. However, the outcome of Rabbani’s trip sealed his fate and paved the way for the mujahedin takeover in Kabul on 27 April (7 Saur) 1992. According to a contemporary description of this visit,

[r]epresentatives from four of the seven resistance parties based in Peshawar visited Moscow from 11–15 November 1991. The two sides issued a joint communiqué in which, in return for a commitment by the participating resistance organizations to commence releasing groups of Soviet POW’s by 1 January 1992, the Russian government reaffirmed its pledge to curtail its arms shipments [to the Najibullah government] after this date, denounced the 1979 Soviet invasion, expressed support for an Islamic transitional government to implement the UN peace plan . . . and pledged to withdraw its military personnel [there were still some military advisors] from Afghanistan.

The visit was probably made possible by earlier contacts between commander Ahmad Shah Massud (from Rabbani’s party, Jamiat-e Islami) and the Soviet military. During the Soviet occupation, Massud had negotiated a number of temporary ceasefires (4) that earned him the scorn of other mujahedin leaders but allowed him breathing space to consolidate his stronghold in the Panjshir valley, build up military and administrative structures and survive several subsequent Soviet offensives. In early December 1988, then mujahedin leader Rabbani met Soviet first deputy foreign minister and Kabul ambassador Yuli Vorontsov in Taif, Saudi Arabia.

Relations between Russia and the mujahedin government remained cool, though. This was mainly because of Afghanistan’s reparation demands for the destruction caused by the Soviet forces, and Moscow’s rejection of those demands. Russia held on to Afghanistan’s debt, estimated at 12 billion US dollars, which had accumulated in the Soviet time, as a security against Kabul’s demands. When the Taleban began taking over Afghanistan, starting in 1994, however, Russia provided military support to the ‘Northern Alliance’ – a coalition of anti-Taleban factions officially called the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan and led by Rabbani and Massud – and allowed it access to their airbase in Kulyab (Tajikistan) for supplies and as a fallback position. This was done in what Boyko describes as an “alliance with Iran as well as [in] cooperation with India”. Russia was particularly upset that the Taleban recognised the Chechens’ unilaterally declared independence during the height of the war in the northern Caucasus, in January 2000 (read here and here) and hosted a Chechen ‘embassy’ in Kabul (read here and here).

Rabbani’s government practically resided in the Tajik capital Dushanbe in 2000–01. According to Boyko, politically “Russian support was critical for [the] Islamic State Afghanistan and helpful for maintaining her internationally recognised status [particularly] after [the] defeat by [the] Taliban movement in the middle of 1990s”.

Russia’s post-2001 step-by-step approach

On 26 November 2001, immediately after the liberation of Kabul from the Taleban, a group of Russian diplomats came to the city to open a diplomatic mission, according to a 2011 paper of the Polish think-tank OSW. Moscow received the then as yet unelected Afghan head of state, Hamed Karzai, twice, in March and June 2002. Even earlier, in February 2002, defence minister and Massud successor Muhammad Qassim Fahim went to Russia on his first official visit abroad and arranged training programmes for Afghan military personnel in Russia and Tajikistan where Russian troops were still based. From 2002 to 2005, Russia provided Afghanistan with free military hardware, training and logistical services worth 30 million dollars a year. But due to the debt problem, the 17 bilateral agreements signed and 142 potential reconstruction sites identified during Karzai’s visit – mainly of Soviet-era projects – did not result in much economic co-operation. This was reflected in figures: according to official Russian data, between 2002 and 2009, Moscow sent humanitarian aid to Afghanistan worth 40 million US dollars only. Russian official development assistance (ODA) in the same period amounted to 147 million US dollars (only 0.4 per cent of the total international development assistance transferred to Afghanistan in this period); with this, Russia ranked only eighteenth among Afghanistan’s donors.

Salang Tunnel, build by the Soviets before the occupation. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

Salang Tunnel, build by the Soviets before the occupation. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

According to the OSW paper quoted above, Afghan-Russian relations deteriorated in 2004 as a result of a “distinct cooling of relations between Russia and the West . . . mainly against the background of events in Ukraine,” the so-called Orange Revolution. Then, the Karzai government was still perceived as unwaveringly pro-Western. In 2006, Moscow stopped all military aid to the Karzai government.

A serious deterioration of both US-Afghan and US-Russian relations was needed to kick-start Afghan-Russian co-operation again. In 2008, during Obama’s bid for the White House when he made the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan one of his major campaign issues, his team publicly criticised Karzai and the corrupt system he was presiding over. As a result, Karzai tried to diversify his country’s foreign relations, away from its fixation on the US and NATO. At the same time, NATO’s offer of membership to Georgia in April 2008 and the five-day war between Russia and Georgia (started by the latter in an attempt to re-conquer its Russian-occupied territory of South Ossetia) in August 2008 led to a freeze between Moscow and the West. As a result, Afghan-Russian government-level contacts restarted in 2009, after an exchange of letters between presidents Karzai and Dmitry Medvedev (initiated by Karzai) and publicised by the Afghan government just a few days before Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009. As Kabul-based Daily Afghanistan commented, “the president has intended to tell the West that Afghanistan has other options to strengthen relations and make friends” (source: BBC Monitoring). In his letters, Medvedev stated that Russia was ready to help Afghanistan in equipping and training the Afghan army again. But most importantly, in 2007, Russia had already cancelled 11.1 billion of the original 12 billion dollars of Afghan debt.

In 2010, the Russian government took its first practical steps by delivering 20,000 AK-47 rifles and ammunition to the Afghan interior ministry and training some 250 Afghan police. At the same time, Russian companies were already busy modernising Naghlu dam east of Kabul (a contract valued at 32.5 million US dollars), and building electricity generating facilities in Badakhshan, Parwan, Paktia and Bamyan and a 3G mobile communication network in northern Afghanistan. The Russian-Afghan joint transport venture AFSOTR, a company established in Soviet times and now one of the country’s biggest logistic companies, (5) had already been reactivated in May 2008 (read here and here). Russian provision of humanitarian aid to destitute families and victims of natural disaster in northern Afghanistan and Afghan exportation of pomegranates to Russia were two other strides forward in this row of small but persistent steps.

Two former key Soviet ‘Afghan hands’-turned-business-representatives were central to resetting Russian-Afghan economic relations. The first was Yevgeni Primakov, chairman of Russia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) until March 2011 who headed two of the leading Soviet research institutions (the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1977 to 1985 and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations from 1985 to 1989; he became head of civilian intelligence, then foreign minister and then prime minister under Yeltsin). The second was his deputy, Boris Pastukhov, Soviet Ambassador to Kabul from 1989 to 1991 during president Najibullah’s regime.


After years of residing in a temporary venue in Wazir Akbar Khan, Russia’s embassy in Kabul returned to its traditional large Soviet compound near the Afghan parliament. It had seen heavy destruction after the takeover of Kabul by the mujahedin. Currently, the former House of Soviet Science and Culture in the western Kabul district of Deh Mazang is under reconstruction. It has been a burnt-out ruin for the past decade or so, sheltering first refugees and later drug addicts. And for years already, Russia has been seconding diplomats for high-ranking positions in the UN mission in Afghanistan. (6)

In January 2011, Karzai followed up with his third official visit to Moscow. Another meeting with President Putin took place in Kyrgyzstan, at a summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation in September 2013. Despite an invitation to then President Medvedev announced in January 2011, the highest-ranking Russian politician to visit Afghanistan so far has been Sergei Naryshkin, the Speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s parliament, who was there in December last year.

In February, in a symbolic gesture, Karzai travelled to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi that was boycotted by a number of Western heads of state, even though no Afghan team was participating. (See the famous photo Karzai having a coffee at the bar there, here.) The Washington Post already saw “new warmth between the Kremlin and Afghanistan”. But the best was still to come: Karzai publicly supported Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, a territory with a long Muslim history. This was justified as backing “the rights of people who were historically deprived of their rights across the world” (quoted here) and put in the context of Afghan claims on territories across the Durand Line, the contested Afghan-Pakistani border. Russian special envoy Zamir Kabulov, during a visit to Kabul, thanked the Afghan government for its “independent and realistic stance.”

Russia’s economic return

In the economic field, Russia finally picked up on the 2002 proposal to rehabilitate 142 ex-Soviet economic projects in Afghanistan. In February 2010, the Russian delegation informed the other participants of the international Afghanistan conference in London (and at an earlier meeting of the NATO-Russia Council) that this was its contribution to the Afghan ‘transition’. However, as Boyko explains, the expectation in Russia is that its own companies “have a privileged right to these projects, without any tenders” and that the Russian governments rejects to “provide financial cover for these projects”, ie export guarantees as normal in other industrialised countries (see here, p 27).

Also in 2010, Russia cancelled Afghanistan’s remaining debt of 891 million US dollars, paving the way for larger-scale economic co-operation. It still took until spring 2013 for Afghanistan and Russia to sign a memorandum of understanding about the projects. In autumn of 2013, the first one, the Kabul Prefabricated Housing Factory, that had produced the apartment blocks for Kabul’s ‘microrayons’ and housing projects in Mazar-e Sharif, received 25 million US dollars in new equipment from Russia.

Soviet-built housing project at Kod-e Barq, Mazar-e Sharif. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

Soviet-built housing project at Kod-e Barq, Mazar-e Sharif. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

The trade volume between the two countries was 200 million US dollars in 2008. It almost tripled to 571.3 million in 2010, grew to 984.96 million in 2011 and 1 billion in 2013 after a high-ranking Russian governmental and business delegation visiting Afghanistan in September 2013 signed MoUs with their Afghan counterparts in various areas including “civil aviation, construction, transportation, energy, agriculture, mines and higher education”. Russia now is the fifth-largest importer of goods from and sixth-largest exporter to Afghanistan. According to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, Russia has doubled its investment in Afghanistan in each of the past two years, to more than 100 million US dollars altogether – still far from being an impressive figure. At the same time, the number of students learning Russian at Kabul University has doubled, as has Russia’s provision of scholarships for Afghan students. (7)

In an interview in early 2013, Russian Ambassador to Kabul Andrey Avetisyan said that “cooperation in hydro power generation is developing very well,” that Russian companies – among them Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil – were interested in the exploitation of Afghanistan’s natural resources and the construction of railways. (Russian companies had unsuccessfully bid for the Ainak copper mine.) He added, “We are prepared to participate in multilateral projects as well, such as the construction of power transmission lines from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan. We also support and are ready to participate in the construction of the TAPI natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India” (see also here).

Regional mechanisms

As AAN guest author Dmitry Shlapentokh pointed out in his recent dispatch, Russia implements its policy of hedging possible security threats expected to emanate from post-NATO Afghanistan – mainly the proliferation of terrorism and drugs –by working through its Central Asian allies. Russia’s main focus is on what constitutes its forward line of defence, the borders of these states, and uses them as a de facto cordon sanitaire. The main mechanism for this is the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), something like a Eurasian mini-NATO – further including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which also has a Parliamentarian Assembly, to which Afghanistan’s parliament was accepted as an observer in April 2013. (Russia also has a military presence in Tajikistan – “officially 7000 troops in three bases plus other military assets . . . the largest [Russian] military deployment outside” the country – and Kyrgyzstan: read here, p 32.)

Russia also offered Afghanistan the status of observer in the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) – which includes itself and China as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – as early as in 2001; Afghanistan was admitted as one in 2012. (Other observers are Pakistan, India, Iran and Turkey.) Before, Afghanistan participated in SCO meetings as a guest. Furthermore, Afghanistan is part of the so-called Central/South Asian “anti-narcotics quartet” that also includes Russia, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Most of these regional mechanisms, however, have never really been tested in a crisis or even failed, as during the violent ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Therefore, whether they will be able to hold up to what is promised remains open to debate (see our earlier discussion of CSTO, for example here).

Football diplomacy and aid

How Afghans see the Soviet’s role in their country depends on which side they stood on the political divide between supporters and opponents of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the regime it led (1978–92) and the Soviet occupation (1979–89). The people-to-people relationship has experienced a détente over the past decade. Frustrated with many aspects of the US-led post-2001 intervention, some people in Kabul and elsewhere have started speaking more positively about social and economic achievements of the pre-occupation and even the occupation time. This trend is even noticeable among some of the hardest opponents, the former mujahedin.

Soviet contributions to Afghan infrastructure, before and during the occupation, receive praise, as they still symbolise the era of attempts to modernise and industrialise the country. Examples are the Salang highway and tunnel opened in 1964 – the shortest transportation link between the areas south and north of the Hindukush – industrial enterprises that are still the country’s biggest, including Kabul’s pre-fabricated housing factory (that provided the building blocks of Kabul’s microrayons, today among the most-desired accommodations in the Afghan capital), and Kod-e Barq, a chemical fertiliser plant with electricity generation and housing facilities in Mazar-e Sharif, the grain storages, bakeries and cement factories in Kabul, Pul-e Khumri and other cities as well as the large-scale irrigation project in Nangrahar that became the basis for the area’s citrus fruit and sugarcane production. Afghans also fondly remember the coupon system for government employees that provided flour, rice, sugar and soap at subsidised prices while in the post-2001 free market the prices for staple food constantly rise.

Even President Karzai, in an interview with the Washington Post in March, in which he sent his “extreme anger” to the US government, found words of praise for the Soviet development projects: “The Soviet money went to the right place. They were efficient in spending their money and doing it through the Afghan government.”

It is also necessary to remember that Afghan-Soviet relations were favourable for both sides for many decades before the ten occupation years turned them upside down. In 1921, in Lenin’s time, beleaguered Soviet Russia (the USSR would only be established in December 1922) signed the first friendship treaty with King Amanullah’s Afghanistan, extended diplomatic recognition and provided military assistance against tribal uprisings; in exchange, Amanullah stopped supporting the so-called Basmachi, anti-Soviet rebels in Central Asia. (Lenin also recommended not exporting communism to Afghanistan.) (8) Trade relations were developed early. Leading Afghan businessmen like Abdul Majid Zabuli – known as the father of Afghan private economy and founder of the Afghan National Bank – regularly travelled to the Soviet Union (as he did to the US and Germany); he was even married to a Russian-German wife. The USSR also backed Kabul in its claim of the Pashtun areas that went to Pakistan in 1947 and provided the country with transit routes when relations with Pakistan were in crisis and the border closed.

Soviet airplane provided for King Amanullah's fight against a tribal uprising. Photo: archive

Soviet airplane provided for King Amanullah’s fight against a tribal uprising. Photo: archive

In addition, a large group of Afghans – pro- or anti-PDPA – who received their education in the Soviet Union or allied countries; many speak the language and/or are married to Russian or Central Asian wives. Not least, the last PDPA head of state, Najibullah (killed by Taleban in 1996), has experienced a nostalgically inflated renaissance as one of the few past ‘can do’ leaders of the country, together with President Muhammad Daud (killed during the PDPA’s 1978 coup). Najibullah’s posters and photos are displayed and DVDs and books with his speeches are on sale.

“Military assistance from Russia will be welcome,” Fahim Dashty, a journalist and close associate of late Ahmed Shah Massud, said as early as 2011. “The goals of the Russian Federation are quite different from that of the Soviet Union,” he said, although he was quick to reject the possibility of any Russian troops on Afghan soil. When a friendly football match took place in Kabul in April 2013 between war veterans of both countries, it was widely welcome, apart from some bickering on the social media. Due to security fears, there had been no pregame publicity but Panjshir governor Keramuddin Keram, himself a former mujahed, gave his blessing before kick-off by shaking the hands of the Russian players. (The Russian side, however, did not display more courtesy than the ISAF team that played the first match in Kabul’s national stadium after the fall of the Taleban in spring 2002, beating a cobbled-together Afghan ‘national team’, and also won.)

The three-threats scenario, but realism on the rise

The threat scenarios reflected in the remarks by Koshelev and Putin are the official line and, therefore, are widely reflected in the analysis of Afghanistan, both in government and among Russian security and regional analysts. (See also our recent guest blog on Russian elite views on Afghanistan.) For example, Michail Konarovskiy, Russia’s ambassador in Kazakhstan and a historian, spoke at a conference in Almaty in October 2013 that was mainly attended by old Soviet school Russian and Central Asian ‘Afghanists’ about a “new configuration in and a possible long-term destabilisation of [Afghanistan] after [the Western troop withdrawal] in 2014.” He listed a number of “not so optimistic scenarios” he deems more realistic than the former ones: “the maintenance of only partial control of the central government over the territory of the country; a de facto geographical and political fragmentation of Afghanistan and the emergence of a number of quasi-states on its territory; a general civil war of ‘all against all’; a complete takeover of power by the Taleban” or “a combination of those scenarios” (read his paper in Russian here). This, he concluded, will “inevitably – through Central Asia – also influence Russia” and this influence will be “more negative . . . the more radical” the new regime in Kabul turns out to be. (Apparently, he expects the Taleban to have some role in it.) He conceded, however, that it cannot be predicted “how effective” the activity of Central Asian groups linked with the Taleban and present in northern Afghanistan will be.

Others are more sober and distant from the alarmism displayed at the Almaty conference and also by some governments in the region and a number of Western analysts. Ekaterina Stepanova, one of Russia’s leading Afghanistan analysts with a specialisation on the drugs issue, lists Russia’s “security concerns in the region” as follows: “instability, extremism and narcotics.” But she makes clear that “for Russia, the inflow of the Afghan heroin became the largest challenge from Afghanistan, posing a vital threat to its human security and outweighing other Afghanistan-related concerns . . . [because] during the 2000s Russia became the single largest country end-market for the Afghan heroin.” Putin, accordingly, criticised during his speech quoted above that “the international forces are doing practically nothing to eradicate drug production in Afghanistan.”

A recent joint analysis of the Russian-Afghan relationship by four Russian researchers published by Carnegie tones down the rest of the spill-over theories: “Afghanistan does not currently pose a direct military threat to Russia, nor will it pose such a threat in the foreseeable future – even if the Taliban comes to power in Kabul and manages to gain control over the entire Afghan territory, including its northern regions. This is a fairly unlikely scenario.” It also states that “for al-Qaeda, Afghanistan stopped being its major base a long time ago,” thereby pulling the plug on a threat scenario that is still widespread in the West. Also Christian Bleuer and Reza Kazemi, in their recent AAN report about Central Asia, state that “threats for Central Asian governments rather emanate from militants originating in their own countries who spent time in Russia’s unstable North Caucasus region.” The same can be said for Russia, despite repeated allegations about Chechens active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (9)

“No vital stakes”

The authors of the Carnegie paper continue to lay out Russian interests with regard to Afghanistan saying, for example, that as “the future stability and development of Afghanistan will affect the interests of the Russian Federation . . . Russia should consider a strategy that helps maintain stability in the region but that does not require Moscow to intervene in the domestic disputes that will likely characterize post-withdrawal Afghanistan.” And they add, matter-of-factly, that “at the moment, Moscow has no significant economic interests in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if the situation there stabilizes, the Russian Federation might take part in rebuilding the Afghan economy within the framework of international assistance efforts.” (Read also this article – in Russian – about Russia’s strategy in Central Asia with regard to Afghanistan.)

At the same time, the authors underplay the Russian potential in Afghanistan. Statements that “Moscow does not have vital stakes in any of the possible Afghan regimes,” “Moscow’s historical record of supporting Afghan minorities in the Northern Alliance against the primarily Pashtun Taliban is irrelevant under current conditions” and even that Russia “has no allies inside the country” need to be taken with a pinch of salt, given its post-1992 relations with the ‘Northern Alliance’ and the large community of Soviet-educated and Russian-speaking Afghans in the country and in the diaspora. This includes a number of former PDPA leaders who continue to be politically active, and former military officers trained under the different PDPA regimes (and before) some of whom joined the ‘Northern Alliance’ in 1992 and went on into commanding positions in the ANSF. Without doubt, Russia has clearly far better relations with former ‘Northern Alliance’ mujahedin groups than with any other Afghan group. But Russian diplomats have courted individuals linked to ‘Pashtun’ factions, from the left to the Taleban, already more than a decade ago, as Afghan interlocutors involved in such contacts told the author as early as 2000. (10)

Mosque in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, with a significant Afghan diaspora. Photo: S. Reza Kazemi

Mosque in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, with a significant Afghan diaspora. Photo: S. Reza Kazemi

The Afghan diaspora in Russia alone is estimated at between 50,000 and 150,000 people, “with the lower number more likely,” according to a 2011 article on the leading Russian-language website (see more on this issue here). (11) (In comparison, Germany has around 125,000 people of Afghan origin, 66,974 of them without German passports.) Exact figures for Afghans living in the Central Asian republics are lacking. Bleuer and Kazemi, in their recent AAN report, estimate them at “several thousand refugees,” some 230 students and a “significant” number of businessmen in Tajikistan, “several hundred” (migrants, refugees, students and business people) in Kyrgyzstan, an unspecified number of “shuttle traders” and an Afghan community in the border town of Termez in Uzbekistan, including some 600 refugees (some now with Uzbek citizenship) and around 500 Afghan students in Kazakhstan. No figures are given about Turkmenistan.

New strategic options

The language in one part of the Carnegie study – speaking of “minorities” rather than political factions – shows one weakness of Russian Afghanistan analysis, the tendency to ‘ethnicise’ conflicts. This seems to be a legacy of Afghan studies in the Soviet Union where this trend was very obvious – possibly to avoid analysing societies, as demanded by official ideology, in terms of “classes.” (12) (The ‘over-ethnicisation’ of Afghan conflicts is not only a Russian problem but widespread in the West, too.) Nevertheless, in the Russian-Afghan relationship, some hurt pride for the military humiliation in the 1980s – a Russian ‘Vietnam syndrome’ – still lingers on the minds of Russian actors; many of the key figures have been socialised in the Soviet times and the elites have not changed yet. This has become visible when, at times, the West’s own troubles in Afghanistan triggered some schadenfreude (see here for example). On the political level, Russia always has insisted that the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan is covered by a UN Security Council mandate, while maintaining some degree of military cooperation through the so-called Northern Distribution Network. In April 2008, at the Russia-NATO Summit in Bucharest, agreements were concluded on waiving railway transit costs for ISAF non-lethal cargo via Russian territory to Afghanistan.(13)

With the withdrawal of most US-led NATO forces by the end of 2014, the complete withdrawal now scheduled for 2016 and the Western interest in Afghanistan waning, Russia’s role – like that of China, India, Iran and Pakistan – automatically grows. What the withdrawal means is still a debate, as Stepanova puts it, whether it “is seen as more of a gain or a loss depends on how Moscow itself assesses and balances its own security concerns in the region.” But Russia has started to better define its interests in Afghanistan. This is done in a rather defensive and indirect way; Russia’s main interest, in this region of the world, is stability in the Central Asian republics north of Afghanistan, formerly part of the USSR and called ближнее зарубежье (the “near abroad” in Russian); another term popular in the Russian discourse is зона/сфера привилегированных интересов (“zone” or “sphere of privileged interests”). And this region is no priority for Russia; politically, it will be overshadowed for some time to come by developments in eastern-central Europe and, of course, internal developments such as in the northern Caucasus. Economically, the Russian economy is far less dynamic than those of China or India which not only Boyko sees as the main players in the region for the time being, with Russia as a comparatively “marginal player in Afghanistan”.

The tendency to ‘securitise’ the vision for Afghanistan and Central Asia in public statements just echoes the tone of some regional governments and creates political overlap with actors like China that tend to overplay terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan for domestic reasons. This, as Boyko adds, opens up “new strategic options” for Russia. For the moment, however, Russia, like any country in the region, is preparing for any post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan and is keeping its options open.


(1) This happened after the US repeatedly shunned Afghan requests for military co-operation, after Kabul insisted on remaining non-aligned and refused to join the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO) (more details in this AAN paper).

(2) Earlier on, the US and Russia had established a contact group for exchanging drug trafficking-related intelligence. Russia also has trained more than 300 officials of the Afghan anti-narcotic police (read here, p 26).

(3) The Russian Federation then was still formally part of the USSR that would be dissolved in December that year. Yeltsin had, in effect, replaced Gorbachov – the USSR’s head of state until his resignation on 25 December 1991 – after the attempted coup d’état by hardline communists in August 1991.

(4) See for example: Imtiaz H. Bokhari, “Evolution of a Dual Negotiation Process: Afghanistan.” In Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 518.

(5) AFSOTR was established in July 1976 as a joint stock company, owned by the Afghan Ministry of Commerce and Industries (51%) and the Soviet foreign trade transport company Soyuzvneshtrans (49%), today apparently under the Ministry of Transport; the latter has functioned as a private ownership company since 2003. In the mid-1980s, it had over 750 trucks and 2,500 workers (see: Robinson and Dixon, Aiding Afghanistan: A history of Soviet assistance to a developing country, London: Hurst, 2013). AFSOTR’s Kabul compound now houses US Camp Phoenix in eastern Kabul (see here, p 12 footnote 4 and here) with, as it can be assumed, significant income for the company.

(6) One of them was UNAMA chief political advisor Vadim Nazarov, killed in the Taverna attack in Kabul earlier this year.

(7) In 2004, there were 50 scholarships per year, 75 in 2007, and from 2008 onwards, 80 scholarships. For 2010, 100 scholarships were prepared, and 115 for 2011–13. In 2011, about 400 Afghans were studying at Russian universities. These seem to be particularly attractive for those Afghans who do not belong to the Afghan nouveau riches and cannot afford expensive British or US universities. (The author has a friend’s son studying in Nalchik, in the widely unknown northern Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.)

(8) As a result, the USSR refrained from having the Komintern set up a communist party in Afghanistan, although Afghans participated in the 1920 “Congress of the Peoples of the East” – held by the Komintern in Baku one attempt to revolutionise the so-called “exploited and oppressed peoples” in colonial and semi-colonial countries and to win them over as allies for the Soviet government. This was in contrast to Turkey and India (both founded at the Baku congress) and Iran (there were different groups, one established in Baku and another in 1921 in the Moscow-protected and short-lived Soviet Republic of Gilan in northern Iran). A breakdown of the Baku Congress participants by country of origin had 40 from Afghanistan, while a breakdown according to ethnic groups lists, among others (Turks, Arabs, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Uzbeks, Tajiks and different Caucasian groups), “192 Persians and Farsis [maybe, Farsiwans, as Tajik speakers in western Afghanistan are called] . . . 12 Jamshidis [and] 11 Hazaras,” probably migrant labourers in Russian Central Asia. The congress’ presidium which was composed of representative of the “communist faction” and “non-party delegates” (also sometime called the “Muslim” faction) had one Afghan each, “Ag[h]azade, from Afghanistan” from the communist faction and “Azim” from the non-party faction. (According to a 1983 article in the Central Asian Survey (CAS), Aghazade was no Afghan at all, but “an Iranian Communist, a worker in Baku.”)

(9) Christian Bleuer has already earlier looked at these reports and reiterated in 2011: “About four years ago I wrote about the myth of Chechen fighters in Afghanistan. Up to that point there had not been a verified Chechen in the country post 9-11. And since I wrote that article no Chechen has turned up” (read full article here). He also explained elsewhere how such ‘identification’ is done (quoted here):

We see it here [in Mazar-e Sharif] in the provincial hospital, where dead bodies of insurgent KIAs [killed in action] are brought to. When the bodies are not claimed by family members they are automatically labeled Foreign Fighters and depending on their faces: Asiatic = Uzbeks; dark-skinned = Pakistani; and caucasian = Chechens. This is done by doctors as well as police and everybody takes it at face value.

In contrast, he commented in an email to the author, “Syria has shown that it is possible to name and document the presence of Chechens in foreign wars. They are not ghosts. We have names, hometowns and quotes from people who know the Chechen ‘martyrs’ in Syria. Basically, Chechens are interested in Syria in a way that they were never interested in Afghanistan.” A website dedicated to this issue can be found here.

(10) According to the OSW paper, talks between Russian and Taleban envoys were held between April and August 2000 in Turkmenistan. From “the end of 1999 until probably September 2000,” Russia even “suspended its military aid to the Northern Alliance, which allowed the Taliban to achieve major successes in their offensive against the Alliance in northern Afghanistan,” according to the authors of the Polish paper. The “possible explanation for Russia’s attitude to the Taliban [was] that Moscow was convinced that they would defeat the Northern Alliance while the Western states and other actors stood passively by. In this situation, Moscow decided to prepare for a new status quo.” According to the same study (quoting the Chinese news agency Xinhua, 29 March 2011), the Russian President’s special representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, denied that there were any recent contacts with the Taleban, “but at the same declared that Russia would be ready for this.”

(11) The article describes a “Sevastopol hotel in southern Moscow where 8,000 Afghans live and work. They have their own mosque, television station and weekly newspapers. An on-site school teaches children Afghanistan’s two main languages, Dari and Pashto, while adults learn Russian. Refugees sell Chinese-made gadgets and fluffy toys out of a thousand converted hotel rooms and the smell of freshly baked Afghan bread permeates the shops, which are packed with Russians seeking bargains. Their channel ‘Afghan TV’ blasts out songs in Pashto.”

(12) This sometimes leads to strange consequences, like the split in the Russian Afghan analysis community along (Afghan) languages. A prominent author, late Vladimir Basov – a rare Pashto speaker among them – spends pages denouncing the “rival faction” in his latest book (Natsional’noe i plemennoe v Afganistane or The National and the Tribal [Question] in Afghanistan, Moscow 2011). Some of his former students, now already in their best years, recently showed up at an Afghanistan conference in Central Asia with large Najibullah stickers at their lapels. As a former trainee of the Military Academy in Kabul told this author, Soviet military advisors also preferred the Dari speakers. He recalls the hurt he felt when a Soviet lecturer condemned the Pashtuns in general as “untrustworthy.”

(13) Boyko mentioned the following countries using the Northern Distribution Network: “US, UK, Belgium, Spain, Norway, Sweden and other countries” (find here, p 26).


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