By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

More than two decades since a humiliating departure from Afghanistan after a misguided adventure that helped to wreck the Soviet Union, Russia has been gradually making a cautious return, particularly since the drawdown of western troops began in 2012. Since at least 2007, when Russia re-established its embassy, Moscow has been trying to regain its footing and has been partly successful.

“You see Russia’s interest in Afghanistan rising. It’s visible,” said Stepan Anikeev, a Russian embassy spokesman. “We want to enlarge our role in the region. It’s not only for Afghanistan, but for our own goals.”

For that reason, Afghans, especially the political elite, seem to be developing a positive view. The developing warmth can be judged by the fact that the government released a message from President Vladimir Putin marking the new Persian year. The importance of the timing lies in the fact that it was the only such message made public, and at a time when the US and its allies were working to impose sanctions on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

For, Russia, however, Afghanistan continues to be a hard country even after more than two decades have passed since the war ended with an ignominious retreat in 1992, leaving behind its puppet president Mohammad Najibullah, who was caught by the Taliban, castrated, dragged behind a truck and publicly hanged in 2006.

Given the constraints of that bitter past, Russia is seeking to adopt a policy whereby it can build a soft image before undertaking large scale investments. Hence the bulk of investment is in projects like giving Afghan students opportunities for higher education in Russia.

For example, according to Russian estimates, more than 15,000 Afghans have been educated in Russia, of which about 1,400 have graduated from Russian civilian and military universities. Many have later on became part of the political, business and security elites of Afghanistan.

Afghan students going to Russia have been steadily increasing. For example, in 2004 there were 50 scholarships per year; 75 in 2007, and from 2008, the number grew to 80. For 2010, 100 scholarships were prepared, and 115 for 2011. Since then the number of students studying in Russia and the number awarded has doubled.

To promote Russian-funded education in Afghanistan itself, Russia also recently allotted about US$2 million for reactivation of the Soviet-built Kabul University, with a further US$4 million to be spent by Russia as part of international aid for the development of education.

Russia is also investing in economic projects. At the outset, Moscow compiled a list of 140 Soviet-era projects that it would like to rehabilitate, according to the Russian embassy, at an estimated cost of millions. The proposal for launching this rehabilitation program was given by Russia as late as 2010 in London conference on Afghanistan, which was rejected by the Western powers. However, Russia has now decided to go ahead with it as a means of establishing its own position, although moderately, in Afghanistan.

In this behalf, The Kabul Housebuilding Factory, by far Afghanistan’s largest manufacturing outlet, was the first to receive assistance, to the tune of $25 million. Similarly, Russia is also renovating a Soviet-era built House of Science and Technology by spending almost $20 million to re-establish the building as a Russian Cultural Center for those with interest in Russia and its people. To further boost bilateral economic relations, a joint commission on “trade and economic cooperation” was also launched in 2012—the year when the US withdrawal began.

An important aspect of Russian policy is that, despite the expectation of the Taliban coming into power, Moscow did not provide full-scale military aid to the NATO forces, nor, scarred by its own experience, did it agree to send troops. And, although there is talk of providing Russian made weapons to the Afghan forces, the program is still far from final. The focus of Russian investment remains socio-economic and positive image building.

It is evident that Russia is prepared to make and is already making a lot if investment in Afghanistan; however, the question is what does Moscow stand to gain? The most probable and logical answer would be the fact that Afghanistan borders three of the former Soviet Union states, which continue to receive considerable funding and direction from Moscow. And, for that reason, it would not be a wrong assessment if the Afghan people perceive Russian resurgence as a renewal of the ‘Great Game.’

However, for Russia, increasing investment and making way for long-lasting engagement with Afghanistan is crucial for Russia’s own political and economic revival.

Similarly, increasing interest of Russian in Afghanistan becomes understandable in the prism of Russia’s historical relations with the Taliban. Russia would not like to see the Taliban gaining too much influence. They remain a potential source fanning out radical Islamic thought in the Central Asian States – precisely as they did in the 1990s. The fear of civil war breaking out, especially in the north where non-Pashtun and anti-Taliban people are a majority, is a scenario which Russian cannot hope to manage when complete disengagement happens.

If the Taliban come to power and the northern alliance militias resist, conflict would become almost inevitable – hence trouble for Russia and its Central Asian allies.

Russia’s foremost interest in re-setting its foot in Afghanistan is to counter US designs of using the country as a platform to grow its influence in the Central Asian region – or, as it is often called, the Russian Underbelly. Even though the US and NATO forces are going to withdraw, US policy has gradually become more and more oriented towards Asia. In this context, it is important for Russia to rebuild its own sphere of influence for better positioning itself vis-à-vis the US.

Although the 2014 pullout won’t completely disengage the US and the West, there will be a noticeable cutback of activities. The US will most likely aim at redefining its influence, probably by shifting toward soft power. Nonetheless, the US withdrawal is going to leave a crucial vacuum, necessarily to be filled by regional players – prominent among them Pakistan, India, China and Russia.

But the crucial question is: can they manage the post-2014 scenario, either individually or collectively? Russia has no intention of getting itself militarily engaged after the US and NATO forces withdraw. The question of the replacement of the western forces by Russian ones, the Chinese-backed Collective Security Organization, or even by the SCO itself, is out of the picture since it would turn the tables on Russia, creating a situation not much dissimilar to the late 1980s. Therefore, Russia has also been trying to establish its relations with the Taliban by improving its relations with Pakistan, considered the Taliban patron, by offering assistance in controlling Pakistan’s chronic energy crisis.

What appears to be a more feasible option would be for Russia to increase its military presence along the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan. Not only would it bolster Russian influence, since Central Asia is also apprehensive of the return of the Taliban, but it would also allow Russia to more closely watch its Underbelly against US influence, as well as check narcotics exports from Afghanistan.

In short, Russia has recently found enough reasons to reinvigorate its policy. In fact, it is the US withdrawal that has pushed Russia to rethink its otherwise stagnant policy that prevailed during 2003-2006, when it found in no position to compete against Western influence. However, the withdrawal has opened up immense possibilities and Moscow is prepared to draw maximum benefit in the long run. That dovetails with the challenge of preventing other actors to make use of the situation against Russian interests.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel