Brief n.27, March 2023

5th Security Dialogue on Afghanistan

On February 8th, President Vladimir Putin and Chairman of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev participated in the 5th Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, a multilateral meeting of secretaries of regional security councils. Security officials from Uzbekistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan were in attendance. Participants discussed the development of the regional security architecture and the challenges posed by today's Afghanistan. Vladimir Putin's presence at the summit was a sign of the Russian leader's increased personal attention to Afghanistan and the situation in that country, which the Kremlin sees as a threat and challenge to both Russia and its zone of interest and influence in Central Asia.(1)

Following the initial euphoria, Kremlin officials finally realized that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was intended to shift the responsibility for maintaining stability and security in the region onto Russia, China, and Iran. (We discussed this scenario back in 2021 in our brief N° 14 Afghanistan: Towards a New Great Game?) As a result, the Kremlin became increasingly concerned about Russia's central Asian flank. General Patrushev has recently been making critical comments on Afghanistan, distinguishing himself from Putin's Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov by placing blame on the Taliban for failing to address specific challenges, such as the potential threat of migration flows and the resurgence of the international terrorist threat.

During the February 8th meeting, Putin compared the situation in Afghanistan to the Ukrainian conflict, highlighting its importance to Moscow. The comparison suggests that Russia anticipates a major military-political crisis on its southern border. Putin and Patrushev both spoke openly about the rapidly deteriorating economic, sociopolitical, humanitarian, and security situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime and expressed disappointment with the Taliban's inefficiency and their inability or unwillingness to respond to Russia's concerns.

New Threat to Russia

Notably, when Putin spoke of the resurgence of the international terrorist threat in Afghanistan, he did not use ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province) as an example but rather al-Qaeda, with which the Taliban are cooperating. Putin did this to emphasize the new threat that al-Qaeda poses to Russia. According to informed sources in Afghanistan, the number of Chechen fighters, supporters of the separatist Ichkeria project, has been increasing there since last November. At present, the number of Chechen fighters in Afghanistan has exceeded 1,500. All of them, with the permission of the Taliban, are dispersed in fighting groups in the suburbs of Kandahar and in some northern provinces - Panjsher, Baghlan, Takhar, Parwan, etc. Chechen groups in Afghanistan position themselves as supporters of Al-Qaeda. In January 2023, according to Afghan intelligence reports, Chechen commanders in Afghanistan instructed their fighters to prepare for the imminent start of a military campaign in the Russian North Caucasus, specifically in Chechnya and Dagestan. The Russian government must be aware of these plans, just as it should be aware of the Chechen jihadists' plans to eliminate Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya. Given the Chechen fighters' formal affiliation with al-Qa’ida, this may explain Putin's reference to al-Qa'ida as an example of the resurgence of the terrorist threat in Afghanistan.

It is clear that Russian frustration with the government in Kabul is not only related to the Taliban's inability to respond effectively to the challenges and threats directed at the Kremlin. Moscow is aware that the «moderate» faction of the Taliban leadership (such as Acting First Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Acting Defense Minister Mullah Yaqub, and Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani) is increasing its interaction with the United States, which Russia does not approve of and considers an unfriendly gesture.

It is clear that the Putin administration wants to undermine contacts and cooperation between the « moderate » Taliban and Washington. This probably explains the Russian commitment to harsh criticism of US policy in Afghanistan. During their meeting on 8 February, Patrushev and Putin resorted to this rhetorical device, accusing the US of triggering the current Afghan crisis. One should not expect such Russian statements to have any real effect: there is already a close relationship between the US and the leaders of the «moderate» Taliban, based on commercial and political interests. Russia cannot offer the Taliban a worthy alternative and can only try to complicate the US-Taliban dialogue. But it shows Russian frustration with the overall situation in Afghanistan.

In addition to the threats and challenges to Russian interests posed by the US-Taliban accusations, the 8 February meeting in Moscow demonstrated the Kremlin's concern that Russia's position in Central Asia may be weakening. Putin’s articulation of the «equal importance» of the Ukrainian and Afghan challenges is also intended to show Russia's commitment to defending its position in Central Asia, despite the difficulties of conducting a «special military operation» in Ukraine.

Disappointment with the Taliban

Comments from Russian officials suggest that Moscow understands the failure of its earlier bet on the Taliban as a potential ally in Afghanistan. Over the past year and a half, Russia has failed to establish mechanisms of control and external management of any faction within the Taliban. At the same time, the « moderates » within the Taliban leadership are drifting towards the United States, Moscow’s geopolitical rival. It also appears that the Taliban leadership has a negative view of Russia and does not trust it. Moscow also does not trust the Taliban, which was recently accused of transferring some of its US-made trophy weapons to Pakistan for onward delivery to Ukraine. At the same time, the Kremlin cannot abandon its policy of flirting with the Taliban government in Kabul because it rightly fears that this will only exacerbate the challenges and threats to its interests posed by jihadist groups in Afghanistan and create more comfortable conditions for strengthening dialogue between the «moderate» Taliban and Washington.

As Moscow's rhetoric hardens, the center of Russia's Afghan policy is shifting from the Foreign Ministry and Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, to the Russian Security Council. General Patrushev is becoming a more attractive partner for Afghan political actors than Putin's less successful special envoy, Zamir Kabulov. Although Kabulov still holds the post of special envoy to Afghanistan, it is clear that he is now less relevant to the Kremlin in describing the Afghan situation. Zamir Kabulov, for his part, feels which way the wind is blowing. A week after the Moscow summit on 8 February, Kabulov made an unexpectedly harsh statement about the situation in Afghanistan: "Russia cannot hide its disappointment with the way the Taliban is handling the situation - they have not learned how to run a state." In February, Kabulov announced Moscow's intention to establish a new international consultative platform to discuss the problems of political settlement in Afghanistan. He called it the «Group of Five» and suggested that it should include Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, and China. According to Kabulov, the Group of Five, as a «basic format», can become an opportunity to reach a regional consensus, and the Taliban should pay attention.

The Russian Foreign Ministry is also beginning to adopt General Patrushev's tough stance on the Taliban. For example, Semyon Grigoriev, the new Russian ambassador to Tajikistan, Russia's main ally and proxy in the region accused the Taliban of failing to fulfill any of their promises, particularly to eliminate the terrorist threat in the country, by allowing terrorist organizations to operate freely in Afghanistan. Grigoriev also accused the Taliban of failing to form an inclusive government and closing its eyes to the increased drug production.


The new reality on the ground requires Moscow to revise its strategy and make substantial adjustments. Afghan politicians have once again begun to look to Russia for support. After a long hiatus linked to the start of the war in Ukraine and US attempts to create a regime of international isolation around the Kremlin, there has been a resurgence of interest in Russia among Afghan political groups inside and outside Afghanistan. Some Taliban factions, as well as opposition groups, are seeking contacts with Moscow. One such group, Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistan, is also trying to establish contacts with Moscow and is now active on Russian social media platforms like

  • The Kremlin has many options for pursuing a multi-vector policy in Afghanistan. Russia's existential enemies in Afghanistan are the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and associated smaller ethnic militant groups. Pakistan's status is unclear - although it is considered a «friendly state» by Russia, it sells arms and ammunition to Ukraine. According to Indian sources, Pakistan was supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine(2). The Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistan, and the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups are all potential Russian allies that Russia can use to achieve its policy objectives (provided it has sufficient expertise and resources). Russia needs to contain the terror threat to its interests in Central Asia and in Russia within the Afghan borders, and perhaps use the Afghan card in future Ukrainian peace negotiations. To do this, Russia will need all the resources it can muster. The real question is what these resources are and how effectively Russia can use them.


1. Interestingly enough, twelve days later, on February 20, 2023, Special Representatives and Envoys for Afghanistan of Australia, Canada, the EU, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States held their meeting in Paris.

2. The Economic Times, Pakistan set to dispatch 159 containers of ammunition to Ukraine, 9 January 2023

The Economic Times, Pakistan to supply arms to Ukraine via German port now