Tied Together: Why Russia and India Coordinate Closely on Afghanistan?
100 days into the Taliban governance of Afghanistan, the situation remains unstable. Despite the promises given to the United States and the international community at large, the interim cabinet is not inclusive while many bordering countries continue to feel insecure fearing that terrorism might spill over from the Afghan soil.
The diplomatic activity on the Afghan issue is at the highest level ever. Over the last three months, a number of multilateral forums like ‘Extended Troika’ and ‘Moscow Format’ as well as bilateral meetings were held to bring together approaches on how to deal with the new rulers in Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, following the Kabul takeover on August 15, there has been a rise in interaction on the issue between Russian and Indian officials. On the heels of the Taliban’s grab of power, deputy NSA Pankaj Saran paid a visit to Moscow to discuss the implications of these developments with the Secretary of Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev. Then, during phone talks, President Putin and Prime Minister Modi agreed to launch a permanent high-level mechanism for consultations on Afghanistan and just a couple of weeks later the representative delegations headed by national security advisers met in New Delhi.
Importantly, India decided to send the Ministry of External Affairs’ officials to the ‘Moscow Format’ with the Taliban participation and even seized the moment to hold talks with their representatives on the sidelines of this forum. In its turn, Russia joined the Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan organized by New Delhi in early November where it joined hands with India and other nations in pushing for ‘a truly inclusive’ government in Afghanistan. Notably, in a span of two months Patrushev visited India twice indicating a close coordination between the two.
Essentially, three most pressing issues force Russia and India to draw together and exchange views on Afghanistan regularly. For one, the unstable security situation poses grave risks for both countries as different terrorist groups continue to operate on Afghan soil. For Russia, any terrorist activity in Central Asia might cause the need to protect its allies and its own bordering regions.
From the Indian perspective, Afghanistan turning into a safe haven for terrorist fighters may seriously aggravate the situation in Kashmir. Secondly, the drug-trafficking from Afghanistan will likely continue to increase after the Taliban has come to power. According to UNODC, there was a rise in opium harvest by 8 per cent in 2021 in Afghanistan. The higher prices may motivate many farmers who sow opium poppy to cultivate more, thus increasing next year’s harvest.
Since drug trade is a major part of the Taliban income, nudging their leaders into making Afghanistan a ‘drug-free country’ seems next to impossible. But India and Russia being the destinations for illicit trafficking of narcotic substances from Afghanistan are equally interested in cooperating on this track both, at multilateral fora and bilaterally. Thirdly, the flow of refugees remains a serious challenge and a potential threat to stability for its neighbours. Russian officialdom believes there is a, “risk of the penetration of terrorist and extremist elements, as well as drug dealers disguised as refugees […] to Central Asia and then to Russia.”
It seems that in terms of larger geopolitical priorities, India and Russia still do not fully converge. For Moscow, it is imperative that the United States do not return to Afghanistan or set up a military base in the region. For this, Russia is seemingly ready to invest in the survivability of the Taliban regime and has backed some of Taliban’s demands like unfreezing Afghan central bank’s financial reserves. The sustainability of the current dispensation in Kabul could open ways for Russia’s participation in regional commercial and logistical projects, something Moscow has previously shown little zeal for. However, this would apparently require the stabilisation of the security environment first, which the Taliban could not ensure so far.
After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States has been seeking how to maintain a grip on regional affairs. For counter-terrorism purposes, Washington would want to retain, albeit limited, some military presence in the region to be able to conduct ‘over-the-horizon’ operations, if urgently needed. However, the US have yet to convince Pakistan or Central Asian Republics to allow them to establish base facilities.
Unlike Russia, India would be content with the continuing US presence in the region, having a general understanding that it does not run counter to Indian interests. The only caveat is that for keeping control over the developments in Afghanistan, the US will likely preserve their cooperation with Pakistan given its strategic location and close ties with the Taliban. It must be noted that India did not invite the US for the Regional Security Dialogue and held separate consultations with the US Special Representative on Afghanistan, Thomas West during his visit to New Delhi in mid-November.
Although some inherent divergences remain in place, Russia and India appear to maintain intensified contacts on regional affairs as both understand well that the fluid dynamics in Afghanistan may turn sour, so the two would be better off working closely together. As the former Indian Ambassador to Russia, D.B. Venkatesh Varma wisely noted, “India and Russia may have travelled along different roads [before the Taliban came to power], but our destination is common.”
The author is a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences