Russia’s Views on and Initial Responses to the 2021 Strategic Retake of Afghanistan by the Taliban

AuthorAlexey D. Muraviev
Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Russia’s Views on and
Initial Responses to the
2021 Strategic Retake
of Afghanistan by the
Alexey D. Muraviev
The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in mid-2021 has not taken the Russian
authorities by surprise. For over 20 years, Moscow was observing the strategic
rise of the fundamentalist militant movement with concern, which was largely
triggered by domestic security considerations as well as potential challenges to
security and stability across the former Soviet Central Asia. However, since the
re-establishment of the Taliban’s rule in Kabul, Moscow’s approach underwent a
gradual change, from being negative and alarmist to a more cautiously pragmatic
one. This article will review the evolution of Russia’s perceptions of the Taliban,
highlight Moscow’s principal concerns, identify the initial set of response measures
following the country’s takeover in 2021 and entertain several scenarios of the
Kremlin’s future approaches vis-a-vis the new rulers in Kabul.
Russia, Afghanistan, Taliban, former Soviet Central Asia (FSCA), Collective Security
Treaty Organisation (CSTO), regional security
The strategic retake of Afghanistan by the radical political–military–ideological
Taliban movement in August–September 2021 did not just imply the return of
the Talibs as the supreme governing force in the war-torn country. It created
preconditions for some major power shifts across entire Central Asia and beyond.
The rapid withdrawal of the United States (U.S.) and its allies occupying forces
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(3) 424–445, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221133145
1 Curtin University, Perth, WA, Australia
Corresponding author:
Alexey D. Muraviev, Curtin University, Perth, WA 6102, Australia.
Muraviev 425
from Afghanistan by 31 August 2021 undermined Washington’s strategic weight
in the region, which grew considerably by its coordinated counterterrorism (CT)
response following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A rapid power shift in Afghanistan created a degree of geopolitical uncertainty
in the region, which offers opportunities and poses challenges to regional players,
which are likely to be affected by the security fallout of the second transformation
of Afghanistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state under the rule of the Talibs
since their original rise to power back in 1996. Equally, this shift presents a mix
of concerns and opportunities to major powers with vested strategic interests in
the region, one of which is Russia.
The country’s involvement in Afghan affairs has a long and complex history,
which goes beyond the period of a 10-year-long political–military occupation
between 1979 and 1989. The withdrawal of Soviet military power from
Afghanistan did not mean Moscow’s loss of interest in the country’s affairs. This
article attempts to critically review the evolution of Russia’s perceptions of the
Taliban, which remains proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Russia’s judicial
system; views on the 2021 Afghan transformation; and its future strategies based
on a scenario-planning approach.
Over the past 20 years Russia’s main concerns vis-a-vis Afghanistan were largely
based on security implications of the ongoing internal power struggle in the country
between different warring factions; the effect of foreign military presence in
Afghanistan between late 2001 and mid-2021; and extremism and terrorism risks
posed by the radical groups, which used the country as their home base.
Several factors impacted Moscow’s views and perceptions. They included
several contributing factors. First, were domestic security concerns (radicalisation
of the Muslim-dominated regions of Russia and the rise of terrorism risks in the
1990s and early 2000s). Second, was the evolution of Russia–U.S. and Russia–
west relations, particularly in the context of CT approaches and regional affairs
(from being cooperative and partner-based in the early 2000s to becoming
competitive and confrontational following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in
2014, with its dramatic escalation in late February 2022). The third factor was
Russia’s strategic relations with former Soviet Central Asia (FSCA) plus China,
India, Pakistan, Iran and the Persian/Arabian Gulf states, also in the context of
their perceptions of Afghanistan as a regional destabiliser.
The Taliban featured prominently in Russia’s strategic assessments of the
evolving security dynamics that affected Afghanistan throughout the 1990s and
2000s. Yet, Russia’s views of and attitudes to the movement transitioned from
being hard-line and alarmist in the 1990s and early 2000s, to eventually becoming
more cautiously pragmatic after their second takeover of power in mid-2021.
Managing the Taliban and the Rise of ISIS in
Afghanistan, 1992–2020
The withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country in 1989 did not ease tensions
along the then-Soviet-Afghanistan border. Although the continued support of

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