On April 25, Moscow was – for a day – the world capital of Afghan peace negotiations as a trilateral meeting on the peace process for the shattered country brought diplomats from Russia, the US and China together for intense discussion.

The results were beyond expectation.

The three sides reached agreement on eight points – most importantly, supporting “an inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process” and calling “for an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.”

That statement strongly implies that the US and the ISAF coalition will leave Afghanistan as part of a peace deal, which would likely require a commitment from the Taliban to keep ISIS and al-Qaeda out of the country. That would be in keeping with US President Donald Trump’s preference for withdrawing US troops from combat zones where clear wins look unlikely.

Trump’s Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who headed the US delegation in Moscow, hailed the agreement as “a milestone.”

April’s developments follow the two-day inter-Afghan “Moscow Format” talks in February. That brought together Kabul figures including former President Hamid Karzai, prominent figures from the Northern Alliance, such as Atta Muhammad Nur, Yunus Qanooni and Ahmad Wali Massoud, as well as former National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, for talks with Taliban heavyweights.

The fact that this top-tier, intra-Afghan dialogue was held in Moscow, not in Doha, Qatar, as before, clearly indicates how important Afghanistan is for Kremlin strategists.

The Great Game

Russia has for centuries taken a close interest in the ever-divisive, landlocked country. Czarist agents competed with imperial arch-rival Britain across Central Asia for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries – “The Great Game.”

In 1919, after Britain’s third Afghan invasion, the nascent Soviet Union sided with Kabul, becoming the first country to establish diplomatic relations. In 1920, after a British attempt to assassinate Afghan premier Amanullah Khan in 1920, Kabul signed an Afghan-Soviet non-aggression pact. That was followed by heavy Soviet assistance – financial aid, aircraft and telegraph operators. A glance at a map shows why Afghanistan is critical for Moscow: It borders the then-Soviet states of Turkmenistan, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan.

Even closer relations were forged in the 1950s, when Moscow started a major economic assistance program in Afghanistan that saw more than $1 billion in Soviet aid, including military assistance, flood in. Bilateral relations were further boosted after the Communist Party took power in Afghanistan, and in 1978, a 20-year friendship treaty was signed. But next year, the pro-Soviet Nur Muhammad Taraki was assassinated.

Moscow reacted strongly. Soviet troops invaded, the presidential palace was stormed and Taraki’s successor was killed by Soviet commandos. An intense guerilla war began. At its peak, more than 100,000 Soviet soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan.

Moscow pumped in $800 million worth of aid and rebuilt Kabul’s military, but could not defeat the hardy, West-supported Afghan fighters.  In a move that recalled the US humiliation in Vietnam and presaged the breakup of the USSR, Soviet troops retreated in 1989. Afghanistan descended into chaos.

Now, after a three-decade hiatus, Russia is returning.

Wading back in

Russia’s current involvement in Afghanistan includes business and heavy investment, cultural programs, financial and military support for the central government. Military and humanitarian aid is also flowing in: Since 2016, Moscow has provided Kabul with tens of thousands of Kalashnikovs and millions of rounds of ammunition. The Kremlin also decided to cancel 90% of Afghanistan’s debt, worth US$10 billion.

Russian companies, including state-owned enterprises, have invested, winning multiple lucrative contracts. In 2017, a new Russian cultural center opened in Kabul on the same site that the Soviet-era House of Science and Culture was destroyed by war in the 1990s.

In a recent interview with Russia’s Sputnik news agency, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said: “Our two countries have very close ties now. Russia is a neighboring country, with which we have long historical ties and traditionally friendly relations.”

Pragmatism and U-turns

Karzai’s comments point to the criticality of Afghanistan to modern Russia.

As the Taliban rose to power in the early 1990s, they provided support to Chechen rebels and terrorist groups in Central Asia and Russia. In response – in a show of pragmatic realpolitik – Moscow extended military assistance to the Northern Alliance.

That was ironic. Mujahideen warlords that joined the Northern Alliance, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud after the Taliban takeover, were embraced by Moscow – despite the fact that the West-supported Rabbani and Massoud were deadly opponents of the Soviet Army in the 1980s. Moscow is even getting cozy with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leading anti-Soviet mujahideen commander of the 1980s.

Russia didn’t participate in the US-led invasion in 2001, but shared intelligence with Washington, became a major arms supplier to Kabul, and allowed the US-led coalition to use Russian territory for logistics.

At the same time, Moscow used its participation in America’s “War on Terror” as cover to hammer Islamist and separatist movements in Chechnya and elsewhere.

Where Moscow and Washington align

“Back in 2001, both countries wanted to defeat Al-Qaeda and its affiliated terror groups and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorists,” Vitaly Korneev, a Moscow-based Central Asia expert, told Asia Times. “Ever since Soviet troops’ pullout in 1989, Moscow had feared that a political vacuum would emerge, allowing extremism to flourish. So, although Moscow was wary of the long-term US military presence, it tolerated it for the common goal of fighting terrorism.”

“Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, and Islam is the second largest religion in Russia,” added Nikolai Syomin, a Kyrgyzstan-based observer who regularly visits neighboring Afghanistan. “Russians are wary of radical Islamic influence and extremism coming from across the Afghan border.”

Many militants from the North Caucasus and from Central Asian states that Moscow considers home turf have strong ties to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or other groups in Afghanistan. “Russia does not want to see a Taliban comeback in Kabul,” said Syomin.

But multiple media outlets have reported secret Moscow contacts with the Taliban. Last week’s meeting in Moscow with high-level Taliban representation proved the accuracy of those reports.

After years of open anti-Talibanism, the Kremlin appears to be turning toward legitimization and engagement with the group. This opens up major possibilities for influence.

Russia will be at the helm of almost every development in Afghanistan,” said Salman Rafi Sheikh, a Pakistani analyst, citing the long-delayed intra-Afghan dialogue that could, possibly, end 17 years of conflict. “It not only underscores Russia’s influence in the country, but also speaks volumes about how Russia is helping shape peace among the Afghan.”

Influence, not intervention

So if the “Resolute Support Mission” that replaced ISAF in 2015 exits Afghanistan, would Russia fill the vacuum?

Hardly. There are no Russian boots on the ground, and there’s little chance President Vladimir Putin would risk sending troops in, given the disastrous experiences of the 1980s. But Moscow’s position in the region would certainly be boosted by an anticipated NATO and Resolute Support Mission pullout. And unlike Washington, Moscow has scored high on its peace dialogue – unlike the failed, US-sponsored Qatar talks.

It seems unlikely that Moscow would topple a Kabul regime and put a proxy in power – it has none, bar some Uzbek warlords in the north. But it now appears that, even if the Taliban prevails, the Kremlin could probably work with the group, given the contacts they have obtained.

All this suggests that Russia is, once more, a key player in Afghanistan.