A Taliban delegation in Doha on August 12, 2021. The regime is still struggling to gain international recognition. Photo: AFP / Karim Jaafar / Getty Images

More than three months after US forces left Afghanistan, Russia started fighting for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The first batch of Russia’s humanitarian aid arrived in Afghanistan on November 19. But what the Taliban rulers also desperately need is financial backing and investment, and they are willing to offer Moscow whatever it requires in support of its geopolitical goals in return.

Russia, however, is prepared to make them wait.

The United Nations has warned that Afghanistan is on the brink of economic collapse, with the country’s gross domestic product expected to shrink by 20% within a year of Taliban rule. The foreign aid that propped up the economy has been cut off since the group seized the capital in August.

Foreign-currency reserves have been frozen and the country is shut out from international financial institutions. Meanwhile, Afghans are on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, with more than half the population facing food shortages.

The Taliban desperately need formal recognition by major global and regional actors, namely Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran, to kickstart investment. That is why the new Afghan rulers aim to develop friendly relations with those countries, and have made numerous promises to them.

The Taliban-appointed Afghan ambassador to the UN, Muhammad Suhail Shaheen, recently said the group wants Russian businesspeople, investors and entrepreneurs to come to Afghanistan. This is why the Taliban plan to introduce investor-friendly laws in the country devastated by decades of war.

But Russian business is expected to come only after Moscow formally recognizes the Taliban as Afghanistan’s de jure rulers and removes the group from its list of terrorist organizations. In a speech at the annual Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi in October, President Vladimir Putin stressed that such a decision could be made once the UN Security Council makes the same move.

Meanwhile, the Taliban will continue to count on Russia’s assistance to hand over Afghanistan’s seat at the UN to representatives of the extremist movement.

To get support from Moscow, Taliban officials recently suggested they could recognize the Kremlin’s incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. Speaking with Russian journalists in Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said he fully respects the choice of people living on the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 amid outcry from the West.

“We are on the side of the people who live in Crimea and we need to listen to what they want, because people have the right to vote. If people want to live in Russia, we agree with them,” Mujahid said.

It is worth remembering that former Afghan president Hamid Karzai openly backed Russia over Crimea in 2014, angering his US backers. Now that Washington does not recognize the Taliban government and is in a new cold war with Russia, the Afghan rulers aim to develop as close a relationship with Moscow as possible.

Mujahid also hosted in Kabul journalists from the Russian organization Octagon Media that is run by Sergey Mikheyev, an adviser to Sergey Aksyonov, the leader of Crimea. Such a move indicates that the Kremlin, in the long term, counts on the Taliban’s formal recognition of Crimea as part of Russia.

That, however, does not mean that Moscow will recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban’s gesture. The Taliban still lack legitimacy in the global arena and therefore until Taliban rule is internationally recognized, Russia will probably not rush to make any deal with the group regarding the status of Crimea.

As Mujahid pointed out, the Taliban are trying to resolve the issue of Islamic State (ISIS) operating in Afghanistan, a group that Moscow sees as an existential threat to its allies in Central Asia. It is estimated that several ISIS-Khorasan factions are active in Afghanistan and they represent a serious threat not just to neighboring countries, but to the Taliban themselves.

Quite aware that the Taliban are anything but a monolithic movement, the Kremlin has declared multiple times that it is ready to support the moderate wing of the group, but if the hardline faction eventually prevails, Moscow is expected to protect its allies in case of a potential Taliban incursion into neighboring former Soviet republics.

At this point, however, the Taliban seem focused purely on domestic issues. As Russia’s ambassador in Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov, has said, the Taliban are facing difficulties in effectively fighting terrorism. 

“The new Afghan authorities now have no money, the country’s financial accounts have been frozen by the Americans, and Western sanctions have paralyzed the Afghan banking system. In such conditions, it is difficult to talk about effective fight against terrorism,” Zhirnov said.

Many of the older members of the Taliban would once have been mortal enemies of Russia when they fought as part of the mujahideen against Soviet troops. Now, the Taliban need Russian money to develop the country’s economy, Russian support in the international arena, and Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

But is Russia, faced with growing tensions with Ukraine and potential severe Western sanctions, really willing to provide such assistance? 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”