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Russia extends its sphere of influence around Afghanistan as the US withdraws

Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a meeting with permanent members of the Security Council on Afghanistan (Photo courtesy: @KremlinRussia_E/Twitter)

The Russian embassy in Kabul has remained open despite the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan even as most other countries were jumping over each other to evacuate their citizens.

By all accounts Moscow had read the writing on the wall and was preparing itself for Afghanistan.

Looking for a bigger role for itself in the region, Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a flurry of phone calls to Central Asian countries as well as Iran, France and Italy. He also spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan about the Afghan situation.

Attacking the US
At the same time, Putin has also made critical observations about how the US conducted itself while closing down its operations in Afghanistan. In one of his remarks, he said: "I think many politicians in the West are starting to come to grips… it is unacceptable to impose alien standards of political life and conduct on other countries and nations".

Russia is clear that by highlighting American failure in Afghanistan, it can show a weakened global power, one that is liable to making mistakes and a country not trustworthy even to its allies. The American image has certainly taken a beating, though not because of Russian efforts. Even European allies are unhappy with how their work has deflated in Afghanistan after 20 long years.

For Russia the American withdrawal is a sense of deja vu.

Dealing with the Taliban
It is working on how to cultivate Afghanistan's new rulers–the mercurial Taliban militants. Moscow has not recognised the Taliban even though it has been holding talks with the group for nearly seven years, and had courted them in Moscow this July.

Witnessing increased fighting as well as swift Taliban advances in the country, it also deployed its troops along Afghanistan's northern border touching Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Moscow also held joint military exercises with the two countries right on the border, displaying its military might and signalling the Taliban about not creating mischief in Central Asia–which it considers its backyard.

Russia is, however, playing safe with the Taliban.

Clear objectives in Afghanistan
Unlike China it is not looking at exploiting untapped Afghan resources. It is clear about its objectives–militants do not spill over into Central Asia and create problems within the republics which are largely secular. It also does not want any radicalisation of people in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well.

Another concern that Moscow harbors is drug trafficking from Afghanistan–an activity that has not just sustained the poor Afghan farmer but also funded terror groups.

Experts believe that Russia has been able to extract a promise from the Taliban on both these counts–that no fighters will cross over and drug production will be tackled.

Even with increased activity in putting together a plan for a safer Afghanistan, Putin knows that the Taliban itself is a many-headed organisation, with a variety of objectives leading its multiple leaders. Even though the Taliban may have taken over a conflict-ridden country, not all battles in Afghanistan are over yet.

Satisfied by an American humiliation, Russia is playing safe and engaging with regional players.

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