Russia: Taliban No Threat to Central Asia or Afghan People

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks with the UN Special Envoy for Syria during their meeting in Moscow, on July 22, 2021. (Photo by SERGEI ILNITSKY / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Russia said on Monday that it would cultivate friendly relations with the Taliban, which Russian officials insisted was not a security threat to Central Asia.

The Russians also said the Taliban posed no threat to the people of Afghanistan and urged them to stop trying to flee the country.

“In any country, when the government changes — particularly, all of a sudden — some people prefer to leave. Not everyone has the opportunity to leave the country by helicopter like President Ghani and members of his close circle,” Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov said Monday.

“People seek to leave based on their own assessments and fears. However, many of their fears are groundless. As far as I know, the Taliban told experts who cooperated with Western countries not to leave, saying they will work with them,” Zhirnov said.

Zhirnov claimed the scenes of chaos and death at the Kabul airport on Sunday and Monday did not reflect the view of most Afghans toward their new rulers.

“There is a group of people, I think that their share is very low,” he said. “A stampede at the airport does not mean that all of the Afghan people are trying to flee.”

The Russian embassy in Kabul on Monday claimed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled his country with expensive vehicles and bags of cash, contemptuously implying Ghani and his cronies looted the national treasury so thoroughly that they could not carry all the money with them.

“Four cars were full of money, they tried to stuff another part of the money into a helicopter, but not all of it fit. And some of the money was left lying on the tarmac,” embassy spokesman Nikita Ishchenko said, citing unnamed “witnesses” to these events.

“I hope the government that has fled did not take all the money from the state budget. It will be the bedrock of the budget if something is left,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in a separate interview. Kabulov said Ambassador Zhirnov is scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Taliban leaders to discuss the security of the Russian embassy in Kabul.

“The Russian leadership will make a decision on recognizing the regime of the Taliban movement, depending on how responsibly they will govern the country,” Kabulov said.

“No one is going to hurry in this regard. The recognition or the non-recognition will depend on the behavior of the new authorities. We will watch closely how responsibly they will govern the country in the near future. Following these results, the Russian leadership will make the necessary conclusions,” he stated.

Although the increasingly frantic Biden administration threatened to isolate the Taliban from the rest of the world last week, the Taliban said on Sunday it has long maintained “good relations with Russia” and would “ensure safe conditions for the functioning of the Russian and other embassies.” China, Pakistan, and Turkey are also reportedly prepared to recognize and do business with the Taliban regime.

Kabulov said last week that staffers at the Russian embassy were “calmly carrying out their duties” as Taliban forces surrounded Kabul. On Monday, he told Reuters by telephone that Taliban fighters have been deployed to protect the Russian embassy.

“It went absolutely calmly and without incident. They came and took it under guard,” he said.

“Our embassy will stay in contact with specially assigned representatives of the Taliban higher leadership to work out a permanent mechanism of ensuring the safety of our embassy,” he said. 

Kabulov said some embassy staffers would be “sent on vacation” so as “not to create too much of a presence” during the transition to Taliban control of Kabul.

Nikita Ishchenko, the Russian embassy spokesman, added that Taliban fighters wearing traditional shalwar kameez regalia (baggy trousers and a long tunic) “replaced representatives of government forces on duty today by disarming them absolutely peacefully and took the place of policemen.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the Taliban as “sane people” in late July and said they “have no plans to create problems for Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours.”

Lavrov said Taliban representatives in Moscow promised they would “uncompromisingly fight ISIS” and are ready to “discuss the political structure of their nation with other Afghans, because they used to be accused of wanting to create an Islamic emirate based on the Sharia law.” 

Lavrov judged the Taliban to be “reasonable” while blasting the civilian government in Kabul as hypocritical and greedy. He appeared to welcome Taliban rule as the best way to restore stability to Afghanistan.

“It’s wrong to try to maintain the current uncertainty as long as possible and there are forces in Kabul which want this to happen because it allows them to stay in power,” the Russian foreign minister argued three weeks ago.

The Taliban is technically a banned terrorist organization in Russia and Moscow has frequently complained about the flow of heroin from the Taliban’s poppy fields of Afghanistan into the veins of Russian drug addicts.

Radio Free Europe (RFE) suggested the July 8-9 trip by a Taliban delegation to Moscow, alluded to by Lavrov in his remarks, marked a shift in Russian policy towards the insurgency — a shift Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s critics were vocally displeased with.

Russian sources told RFE that Putin’s government is developing a relationship with the Afghan Taliban that will grant them economic, military, and political benefits in exchange for a few security guarantees. Part of this emerging bargain seems to include the Afghan Taliban distancing itself from the remaining Taliban devotees in Russia.

Russia can then sell its protection to Central Asian countries that fear the destabilizing influence of the Taliban and foreclose the possibility of American political or military influence spreading through the region. The Russian agenda seemed to originally envision perpetual double-dealing with the Taliban and the U.S.-backed administration of former President Ashraf Ghani, but was revised weeks ago to accept the inevitable Taliban conquest, as the sneering commentary from Lavrov, Kabulov, and other Russian diplomatic officials suggests.

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