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Forging New Paths: Russia and Taliban's Growing Cooperation

At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Moscow and the Taliban signalled closer ties, while Russian involvement in a railroad project in Herat underscores strengthening relations.


19 Jun 2024

On 27 May 2024, Russian media outlet Gazeta reported that Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, the Ministry of Justice, and the Special Representative of the Russian Federation in Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Taliban could be delisted as a terrorist organisation in Russia. On 28 May 2024, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, stated in an interview with Russian state news agency TASS: “At the beginning of the 21st century we considered the Taliban terrorists and Americans our partners… Now it is the other way around.” 

Also on 28 May 2024, during a visit to Tashkent, in an interview with TASS, Putin said: “There are problems in Afghanistan, everyone knows about them, but one somehow needs to build relations with the current government because they control the country.” This Russian-language interview was also posted on pro-Taliban Telegram channel Afghanistan Iznutri the same day.

Figure: Putin speaking on Russia-Taliban relations (left). Feature story with Medvedev, with caption stating: “At the beginning of the 21st century we considered the Taliban terrorists and Americans our partners… Now it is the other way around.” (right).

On 29 May 2024, the Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) responded to the statements made by Russian authorities. On X, the MoFA noted that the Taliban “highly appreciated” Russia’s recent comments on “expanding political relations with the Islamic Emirate.” The Ministry added that it “has serious political will to develop relations with Russia, on the basis of mutual respect and ensuring common interests.” This response also circulated on Russian Telegram channel Афганистан изнутри (Afghanistan from inside).

Figure: statement from the Taliban MoFA

Anti-Western agenda at the St Petersburg International Forum 

A Taliban delegation, led by Abdul Umari, the Minister of Labour and Social Development, attended the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) between 5 and 8 June 2024. 

AW observed that the Forum’s agenda was explicitly anti-Western. The plenary session, attended by Putin and presidents of Zimbabwe and Bolivia, began with a video claiming Europeans colonised and robbed the world. An excerpt from this video claimed: “The time for justice and equality has come. Russian civilisation-state has withstood colonisation and inspired the multipolar world.” 

At a round table involving the Taliban delegation, titled “Greater Eurasian Partnership as a New Pole of Growth: Potential and Prospects,” the moderator and the first speaker, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Pankin, called for “greater integration of Eurasia as a counter balance to the world system built for Western domination.” Another speaker, Russian Minister for Integration and Macroeconomics of the Eurasian Economic Commission, Sergey Glaziev, expressed the need for a “new world order with [its] core in Asia.” Russian State Duma Deputy Konstantine Zaitulin also spoke of the “violation of the international laws, conflicts and tensions against our states with the countries of the West, their colonial practices and rules.”

Umari, the speaker of the Taliban’s delegation, claimed that Afghanistan was suffering under Western sanctions, and said that it was now time to end these sanctions. Umari also mentioned the Taliban’s intentions to construct new railroads and improve infrastructure in Afghanistan, but provided little in terms of statistics or detail. His contribution to the discussion did not prompt any response or questions from the audience.

Figure: Abdul Umari speaking at SPIEF

One of the following speakers, Karin Kneissl, the controversial head of the Geo-Political Observatory for Russia’s Key Issues, and former Austrian Foreign Minister, referenced Afghanistan, saying: “In 2021 in Afghanistan NATO suffered crushing defeat in Kabul. It was humiliating. They ran and abandoned everyone who worked with them. And I know very well that they have not learned from that. They just started another ‘adventure’ in Ukraine, and of course they will lose again. There is a saying: ‘Never fight against Afghanistan.’ In Berlin and Vienna they know that Russia cannot be defeated on the battlefield. That Russia can only be defeated from within. And that’s what they are trying to do. NATO needs to learn this.”

Given the increased presence of the Taliban in Russian-language media in advance of the forum, AW expected that Putin would use SPIEF to make a definitive statement regarding recognition of the administration. However, no such announcement was made at the Forum.

Critics responses to SPIEF

Although the Taliban delegation at the Forum reported their engagement at the Forum to be a success, with trading cooperation agreements allegedly signed between the Taliban and Dagestan, Chechnya, and Tatarstan, Andrei Serenko, a Russian expert on Afghanistan, argued that no real economic impact could result from the event. He claimed that the purpose of the Taliban’s attendance was to fill seats at what used to be a significant international Forum. 

Serenko has also strongly criticised the prospect of Russian recognition of the Taliban, claiming that Afghanistan’s de facto authorities have not fulfilled any of the conditions for recognition voiced by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a press conference in January 2024. According to Serenko, the Taliban has failed to form an inclusive government involving all ethnicities and political actors, it has failed to defeat Islamic State Khorasan Province, it has not extradited any Russian citizens involved in violent extremist organisations in Afghanistan, and it has failed to stop the production and trafficking of narcotics.

Other opposition figures voiced their criticisms via caricatures and posts, characterising the forum as no longer significant (two posts published on 5 June 2024, image below).

Figure: Illustration depicting Putin as a Taliban terrorist on Eshkin Kot Telegram channel, reposted on Nevzorov Telegram channel

On 11 June 2024, Viktor Shenderovich, a significant Russian opposition publicist, said SPIEF was: “Neither international nor economic, because there was no real international representation of global economic actors and institutions. The involvement of the Taliban in the Forum has signalled to the Russian opposition the low and insignificant level of the event for the rest of the world.”

Russian participation in the construction of Torghundi-Rabat Paryan Railroad

Another symbol of the deepening of economic ties between the Taliban and Russia was the news of a railroad development within Afghanistan’s Herat province, with Russian involvement. 

In late May 2024, there were several news and social media posts regarding a joint Afghan-German Bakhtar venture to design and build a railroad connecting Torghundi and Rabat Paryan in Herat province. As of the time of writing, details of specific companies involved in the venture remain unclear, however on 28 May 2024, Afghan media outlet Kabul Times reported that Russian specialists involved in surveying and designing the railroad would be arriving within the week. A Facebook reel, posted on 2 June 2024, featured an alleged Russian drone operator surveying the construction site, accompanied by armed Taliban members. AW investigators geolocated the footage to the town of Torghundi.

Figure: survey site for the future railroad near Torghundi [35.2482147196, 62.2732748614].

On 3 June 2024, Russian Telegram channel Афганистан изнутри (Afghanistan from Inside) announced the beginning of the new railroad: 

“The survey and design of the Herat-Torghundi railway line has begun. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Ministry of Public Works announced on Sunday that a German company has been commissioned to map and design the Herat-Torghuni railway. The Herat-Torghundi railway line passes through the districts of Qashq-e-Qene, Qashq-Rabat-Sanghi, Golran, Injil and Gozra. This 124 km long railway line will continue to Herat Airport. According to representatives of this ministry, the Herat-Torghundi railway line will eventually connect with the Herat-Khaf railway line in Iran, and will become the basis for connecting Afghanistan with Iran and Central Asian countries.”

The same channel linked the news about the railroad and other infrastructure and investment initiatives to the process of Russian recognition of the Taliban, including delisting the group as a terrorist organisation. The channel cited Russian expert Kirill Semionov, stating: “Russia, acting proactively, can expand into Afghanistan economically before others by officially recognising the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan government. When delisting is finished. our businessmen can even calmly open their own production facilities there, involving the country’s population in this process.”

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