The Evolution of Russian Geopolitical Interests in Afghanistan: From Opportunity to Liability
This paper explores the development of Russian geopolitical interests in Afghanistan since the Great Game of the 19th century. Particular consideration is given to the period following the US-led international intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001. Russia’s interests in Afghanistan have evolved from considering it as an opportunity for territorial expansion during the Great Game, to accepting Afghanistan as a neutral ‘buffer zone’ around the turn of the 20th century, and to military invasion and failed stabilization attempts in the 1980s. Afghanistan is no longer seen by Moscow as an opportunity; rather it has become a source of anxiety over extremism and instability spillover to Russia’s southern Central Asian allies, an encroaching US/NATO security presence, and huge drug flows that have a detrimental impact on Russian society. As Afghanistan continues in a state of flux, Russia is evaluating how to tactfully proceed with bi- and multilateral stabilization support.
Afghanistan: from ‘untapped opportunity’ to ‘buffer’ in the Great Game
Any attempt to understand contemporary Russian interests in Afghanistan requires a brief review of Russian perceptions of and interaction with Afghanistan and the broader region in the 19th century. The two imperialist protagonists of the Great Game, Victorian Britain and Czarist Russia, brought Central Asia back to the global limelight in the 19th century after nearly three centuries of relative great power disinterest. Russia annexed Central Asia in that same century at the expense of the Ottomans and Qajar Persians. However, in order to further Russian territorial expansion into South Asia, Moscow would need to overcome the formidable challenge of British diplomatic skill and politico-military might. Russia saw the Emirate of Afghanistan as a regional nexus, and the last hurdle to near-access to the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. In the Great Game Russia did not necessarily see Afghanistan itself as a threat or a liability, but as a strategic territory that could well serve its geopolitical interests.
However, the Afghans, supported by the British, hindered Russian advances into Afghan territory and this conflict slowly turned into a stalemate. German encroachment in the Middle East in the early 20th century alarmed both British and Russian empires, and thus Afghanistan officially became a convenient “buffer state” in the British zone of influence after the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907—effectively the end of the Great Game. The distance between the two empires had shrunk from some 3000 kilometers at the beginning of the Great Game to merely 25 kilometers at the narrowest point of the buffer strip that is Afghanistan’s northeastern Wakhan corridor. For a while, thereafter, Afghanistan served as a “psychological cushion” to both empires. In 1921, an Afghan-Russian non-aggression pact was signed, just before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union) was conceived. Nevertheless, the Afghans, and the British for that matter, had left the USSR with a bitter aftertaste—and Afghanistan as an “untapped opportunity.” After a period of internal turmoil in the USSR and subsequent relative disinterest in Afghanistan, Soviet interests in the country would once again grow to become a focal point and a geopolitical opportunity. This time, however, Russia was competing with a non-Eurasian ideological adversary, the USA.
Support to Afghanistan and meddling in its political affairs during the Cold War
Amidst the ideological competition between the USA and the USSR, which intensified after 1945 and resulted in militarization of the world economy, the periphery of the Soviet space became a battleground. Afghanistan’s strategic geography and ethno-political fragmentation, among a selection of other drivers, facilitated the country becoming a key site for Cold War competition, and an element of Russia’s complicated relations with the USA and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Afghan government initially profited financially from USA and Russian competition for influence: the Afghan government had grown adept at manipulating great power rivalries to advance its own interests since the Great Game days. In the 1940-50s Afghanistan attempted to strengthen statehood and experimented with the establishment of political parties, some of which aligned with foreign powers’ ideologies. From 1956 to 1973, up to 80 percent of the country’s investment and development expenditure was made up of foreign loans and grants, and the majority of it came from the USSR. While this resulted in notable infrastructure improvement in Afghanistan, it nurtured a dependence-culture that is still present today. It also limited incentives for the Afghan government to setup competent and sustainable government structures to provide public goods, encourage private enterprise and collect taxes. This left Afghan rural power holders with a great deal of autonomy. Basically, the Afghan social contract boiled down to a minimum level of public service provision for a minimum level of loyalty. This weak social contract and looming conflict plagued the country for decades to come. By the late 1970s, the USSR increasingly interfered in Afghan political affairs and “installed” a socialist pro-Soviet regime. It was the prelude to the 1980s’ bloodiest superpower proxy war.
1979–1989: invasion and modernization attempts
When nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism increasingly marginalized the Afghan socialist regime and Russia feared a new US-leaning regime under Hafizullah Amin, Moscow decided to ‘restore order’ and stabilize the government through a military invasion. A planned military presence of a few months ultimately lasted over nine years. The signal of “strength” and “support” that Moscow wanted to send to other satellite states and allies, instead became one of incompetence as the mujahedeen, covertly supported by the US and anti-Soviet states, grew more resilient. US policy toward Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s remained the same: to prevent “excessive” Soviet influence in South Asia and the area around it, so that it could not use Afghanistan as a launching pad for aggression in the region. While there is little direct evidence of the true nature of USSR intentions regarding its invasion of Afghanistan, arguably the main drivers were to: (a) deter US interference in the USSR’s “backyard”; (b) gain a strategic foothold in South Asia; (c) to better protect its sensitive southern border; (d) stop pro-Islam and anti-Soviet movements in the country; and (e) contain the radical Islamic revolution emanating from Iran, which was seen as a threat to the Central Asian Republics. The latter was obviously a gross strategic miscalculation, as the invasion of Muslim Afghanistan deteriorated Soviet ties with the Islamic world – today Russia is still repairing these ties.
By the late 1980s new thinking within Russia on the war in Afghanistan had developed under then general secretary of the communist party, Mikhail Gorbachev. The resilience of the Afghan mujahedeen, growing war fatigue among Russian civil society, marginal success in state building efforts, and increasing international pressure were the main drivers to military withdrawal in 1989. Some 100,000 Soviet troops left Afghanistan demoralized, and the socialist revolution had failed. While czarist Russia/the USSR had long desired to annex and subjugate Afghanistan, the outcome was very different: Russia became scarred by the “Afghan syndrome” and had damaged relations with the Islamic world. The invasion and occupation had also left Russia-Afghan relations at “point zero.” Afghanistan had now moved from “opportunity” to “liability” for Russia. Strikingly, this liability did not disappear after military withdrawal: from the chaos left behind violent extremism and a vibrant narcotics industry emerged that causes major concerns to Russia and its allies today.
The 1990s: Russian reform and introspection, Afghanistan of marginal interest
The power vacuum created by the Soviet Union’s disintegration and the following years of introspection and domestic reform in the 1990s led to renewed great power interest in Greater Central Asia, especially by a reemerging China and the US. In the 1990s China initially prioritized resolving border disputes, and initiated a multilateral mechanism for this, the Shanghai Five, which later morphed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the drugs trade stemming from Afghanistan became an impetus for Russia to seek closer security cooperation ties with China – the SCO was one such mechanism to serve this end. The US was initially interested in a liberal values agenda in Central Asia, particularly democratization, but the majority of Central Asian states clung dearly to their newly gained independence and regime survival. Russia remained Central Asia’s main security guarantor through new multilateral mechanisms such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and was only marginally interested and involved in Afghanistan. Soviet economic and military assistance to its Marxist protégés in Afghanistan continued until late 1991. Russia became less involved in the country in subsequent years. The civil war in Afghanistan was a useful justification for Moscow to expand military presence in Central Asia, including in Tajikistan. In the late 1990s, Russian ties with the Taliban became particularly strained as the Taliban recognized the Chechens’ unilaterally declared independence in January 2000. This in turn fostered Russian ties with the Northern Alliance, which it supported with arms and equipment in the 1990s and 2000s.
Russia’s policy toward Afghanistan in the 1990s thus evolved from support and funding in the early 1990s, to relative apathy in the first half of the 1990s, to increased concern over Taliban rule by the mid and late 1990s.
9/11: prelude and intervention – Russian relief, Russian concern
Instability in Afghanistan is historically a product of foreign interference and rivalry over domination in the country and wider region. It is also the result of being a borderland state, with significant ethnic spillover into Afghanistan, breeding a charged ethnic, religious and political environment. The 1990s again exemplified this internal ethno-political division and foreign interference: popular urban discontent with political infighting and protracted conflict indirectly facilitated a stronger Pakistani hand in Afghan domestic affairs, which in turn facilitated the emergence of the Taliban. Pakistan saw a crippled Afghanistan as an expedient occasion to create a puppet state. Following the events of 9/11 the US-led international intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001 created mixed responses in Moscow. On the one hand, Russia was fearful of growing violent extremism in the broader region; however, mitigating extremism in Asia at the expense of mostly US and Western resources was not necessarily unsettling to Moscow. The intervention had the potential to make the US (and its Western allies) “suffer,” just like the USSR had in the 1980s. There was some notion of “schadenfreude” as time progressed and the US and its allies become increasingly aware that modernizing Afghan society was no easy task. Yet Moscow also saw the intervention as further US/NATO military encroachment close to Russia’s sphere of interest and as a potential pretext for further US power projection— partly at the expense of Russia. However, US policy toward Central Asia turned out to be mainly an appendage of its involvement in Afghanistan. In practice, this translated mostly through transit facilitation in Central Asia. Russia pursued a pragmatic path in regard to the International Community’s intervention in Afghanistan: it was largely collaborative, but was cautious not to trespass beyond the minimum.
There was doubt in Moscow about the USA’s long-term strategic objectives in the region. Did the USA want to keep Russia (and China) “in check” in Central Asia? Another major concern was and remains the effect of Afghan opiates on Russian society. Production of opiates in Afghanistan has grown multifold since the 2001-intervention—it was 19 times larger in 2012 than in 2001—and Russia is the largest end-market. With some six percent of the Russian population using illicit drugs, the majority of which stem from Afghanistan, Russia is suffering from serious and problematic drug consumption and a growing public health crisis. With more than 7,000 Russians dying annually from heroin overdoses, some in the Russian government see the issue as a deliberate outcome of US foreign policy towards Russia. Arguably, therefore, it was US-led Western intervention in Afghanistan that revived Russian interest in the country. Because of these concerns and detrimental factors, Russia has worked towards improving ties with Afghanistan step by step. It has gone through several stages and it has not always been a smooth path.
Initially, the administration of President Hamid Karzai was seen as too pro-US and Moscow was wary of it, which resulted in a temporary suspension of all military aid to Afghanistan in 2006. Only one year later in 2007, Russia cancelled about $10 billion in—alleged—bilateral debt (equivalent to about 90 percent of outstanding Afghan total debt at the time) that had accumulated in the Soviet period, including during the occupation. Increasing Afghan-US and Russian-US tensions made governments in Kabul and Moscow more interested in each other, especially as relations between former President Karzai and the Barack Obama administration progressively cooled. In 2014, Karzai even expressed public approval of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Around that time (preceding and during the 2014 transition), as terrorist attacks on urban centers in Afghanistan increased and the Afghan government’s structurally corrupt reputation cemented among the Afghan population, somewhat interestingly, even a number of urban Afghans longed for the era of Soviet-Afghan economic cooperation and the relative urban security that prevailed in the 1980s. Still, despite worries over the US military presence close to Russian borders, Russia largely played a facilitating role during the 2001-14 period and permitted the use of Russian territory for the Northern Distribution Network (NDN)—the international community’s northern supply route to Afghanistan—and the US even sourced Russian military material. Initial Russian (and Chinese) concern about the US military presence in Afghanistan rather remarkably turned into a strong endorsement for USA/NATO forces to extend its deployment beyond the 2014 withdrawal as the threshold drew closer. Thus, by 2014, Russia had become entwined in a somewhat complex web of relationships with different Afghan parties, relevant regional actors, and the West.
The post-2014 landscape: Afghanistan a shared liability?
The key question for Moscow has become how and through which bi- and multilateral means it should attempt to mitigate Afghanistan as a liability to Russian interests. While Russia has become a marginal player in Afghanistan since the 1990s and 2000s, the post-2014 Afghan landscape will force Russia to rethink its role as a security provider in the region. Much of this has to do with the converging triple transition—political, economic and military—that has unnecessarily and frantically overburdened one of the world’s least qualified governments. This triple transition left many regional powers, including China, India and Russia, uncertain as to Afghanistan’s future stability and whether new threats might spillover to Central and South Asia. This has also made these stakeholders (re)think their role in Afghanistan: could or rather should Afghanistan be a “zone of shared responsibility” to the international community? Afghanistan offers a good and rather unique opportunity for China, India, Russia and the US, among other stakeholders, to cooperate.
Russia’s relationship with Afghanistan affects its relationship with not only the US, but with Asia’s emerging powers, China and India, and regional powers Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and to some smaller extent with the Islamic world at large. At the same time, Russia wants to avoid Afghanistan being used against its interests in the heart of Asia, and to curb Afghan drug flows into Russia.
China’s ambitious connectivity vision for the Eurasian continent, the Belt and Road Initiative (hereafter “the BRI”) can be affected by an unstable Afghanistan and China is therefore, among other motives, increasingly attempting to play a more involved and constructive role in Afghanistan’s peace process and development. The BRI is a long-term vision: it is to be seen if the BRI and corresponding diplomatic efforts by Beijing can help stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan and ties between these two, if at all. Russia is relatively tolerant toward the projection of Chinese economic influence in former Soviet space, i.e., Central Asia. Therefore, there is currently no reason to presume that Russia will fundamentally disapprove of any stabilizing effects the BRI might bring to Afghanistan.
Russia does not stand alone in this. With the exception of Pakistan, Russia, China, India and Iran all prefer to see a stable and functional Afghanistan led by a functional and legitimate government. However, these stakeholders’ approaches and the mechanisms to support Afghanistan in this endeavor are not necessarily coordinated and supplementary. One particular Russian concern—and some measure of relief—is the protracted US (military) presence in Afghanistan. A number of Russian military protagonists and experts believe that the US will not leave Afghanistan, because of its strategic location in the heart of Asia and its strategic role in the geopolitics of Eurasia. This scenario would in turn entail an Afghanistan beset by ensuing conflict, but just enough so that it would not fully collapse. However, looking beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia, so far China’s reemergence has challenged Russia’s position in Central Asia on a larger scale and more enduringly than the US. Another Russian concern is an overly dominant Pashtun nucleus in the Afghan government, particularly if the ongoing peace process would lead to stronger Taliban/Pashtun representation, as this in turn might conflict with the interests of Russia’s Central Asian allies Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
While Russia has opted for a more constructive role in Afghanistan since 2007, it is still seeking ways to put this into practice and engage with the country. However, Russia is also cautious about getting too involved in the “quagmire” of Afghan ethno-politics. The “Afghan syndrome” still resonates in Moscow. Hence, Russia has been cautious not to engage closely in the ongoing, yet dormant, peace process with the Taliban and the US-China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) that supports it. Since the turn of 2016-17 however, particularly in the light of Islamic State (IS) presence in Afghanistan and its expansionist extra-regional aspirations, Russia has become more proactive in directly engaging with the Taliban. The Ashraf Ghani administration is seen as pro-US by Moscow, and there are concerns over the capacity, effectiveness and longevity of the National Unity Government (NUG) that President Ghani heads. NUG disintegration and subsequent anticipated instability could cause Russia even more of a headache. Still, the threat of Afghan instability to Russia in a number of scholarly analyses and Russian government statements is overblown, while the threat to Central Asian states is very unlikely to materialize. Instead, threats to Central Asian governments mainly emanate from domestically based militants and socio-economic drivers. This seems to depart from worries in Moscow around 2010 over a ‘domino effect’ that could bring disaster in Afghanistan to Russian borders. However, an unstable Afghanistan could add to the list of existing woes of civil society in Tajikistan, and to a smaller degree in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Continuing threats and risks associated with Afghanistan justify a Russian security presence in Central Asia and the continuing relevance of the CSTO.
Since the early days of the Great Game, Russia, and at some points during its USSR incarnation, has placed Afghanistan as a geopolitical focal point, albeit in different shades. The most notable periods of Russian interest in the country were as an opportunity for territorial expansion and (forced) modernization in the 19th century and again in the 1970-80s—and conversely, as a liability that threatens the stability of Central Asian allies, and as a source of opiates that menace Russian society. Instability in Afghanistan is also a pretext for a US/NATO military presence in this very strategic location in the heart of Asia. This presence is a “necessity” that would otherwise likely need to be addressed by Asian stakeholders, including Russia. Yet, there is also anxiety about US/NATO encroachment in former Soviet space.
In an attempt to mitigate the Afghan “liability,” therefore, Russia has generally become a more constructive actor in Afghanistan step-by-step, albeit somewhat incoherently, since the 2001 intervention. However, the political, economic and security transition flux in which Afghanistan found itself after 2002, and even more so since 2014, keeps all Asian stakeholders wondering how to engage with Afghanistan, what to prioritize and through which bilateral and/or multilateral means—and Russia is no exception to this. With continuing uncertainty in Afghanistan, Russian policies on a preferred level of engagement and support are hard to gauge. Russia wants influence in Afghanistan to bolster its security interests in Central Asia, but Russia does not want ownership. At the same time, Russia, like China, wants to prevent a long-term US security presence in the nexus of Central and South Asia, and hence sees a sustainable and effective Afghan government that can provide public goods as a necessity. This has created an incoherent Russian strategy toward Afghanistan. All Russia can do for now is tactfully engage with Afghanistan on a bilateral basis, and support select multilateral stabilization and development efforts until the outcome of the peace process and NUG longevity and effectiveness become clearer.
Editor’s note: Richard Ghiasy is a researcher and project manager at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) China and Global Security Programme.
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 BBC News, Russia Agrees Afghan Debt Relief, August 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6933643.stm.
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 International New York Times, Rosenberg, M., Breaking With the West, Afghan Leader Supports Russia’s Annexation of Crimea, March 2014,
 Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), Allen, N. Russia, the USSR and Afghanistan, Yesterday and Today, https://goo.gl/yW9zDm , also, as expressed by Afghan urban civil society in interaction with the author in Afghanistan in 2013-15.
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 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow Center, Trenin, D. and Malashenko, A., Afghanistan: A view from Moscow, 2010, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/trenin_afghan_final.pdf, p.21.
 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow Center, Trenin, D., Kulakov, O., Malashenko, A., Topychkanov, P, A Russian Strategy for Afghanistan After the Coalition Troop Withdrawal, May 2014,
 See report by authors D, Trenin and Malashenko, A. from 2010 (see note 7) vs. report from authors Trenin, D., Kulakov, O., Malashenko, A., Topychkanov, P. in 2014 (see note 20)