A Soviet soldier on guard in Afghanistan in 1988. RIA Novosti News Agency, CC BY-SA

Sept. 14, 2021

Russia is positioning itself as a global partner after the U.S. Afghanistan debacle

Sustained commitment is worth a lot – and commitment is what Russia has shown to many of the allies it inherited from the Soviet Union, writes Alexander Hill, Faculty of Arts, in Conversation Canada

As many commentators have pointed out, the withdrawal of United States-led forces from Afghanistan has done lasting damage to the reputation of the U.S. and its allies as reliable partners on the international stage.

Not only did the U.S. pull out of Afghanistan, but the rushed withdrawal turned into both a humanitarian and public relations disaster. As a result, the Americans have handed Russia and China considerable opportunities to step in and present themselves as viable or even desirable alternative international partners.

It is difficult to imagine Russia filling the void in Afghanistan given the Soviet Union’s history in the region. Russia is faced not only by the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism to its own security, but to that of its Central Asian allies.

Vladimir Putin’s recent overtures to the Taliban are probably as much about rubbing salt in the wound the West inflicted on itself with the Afghan withdrawal than serious hopes of a sustained and positive relationship with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a virtual meeting with leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in Moscow in August 2021.

Evgeniy Paulin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Putin’s government is also probably simply testing the waters with the new regime. Whether Russia likes it or not, it’s the Taliban it has to work with in a part of the world in which the Russians have far more significant local interests than the United States.

Russia is unlikely to develop a close relationship with the Taliban, but in other parts of the world, Russia has shown itself to be a reliable partner.

Devotion to Syria

Russia has demonstrated a continued commitment to the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. Assad has been able to cling to power with Russian help despite an array of interests fighting against his government.

Syrian policemen stand guard in front of poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a checkpoint on the entrance of the central Syrian town of Rastan in 2018.

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

That Russia has stood by his regime can only have strengthened any Russian claims to be a desirable partner when the going gets tough.

Read more: Russia and Syria: bound together in a mission that is far from accomplished

Although China may be the most likely power to move into a Taliban-led Afghanistan, Putin will be on the lookout elsewhere to make political gains from the West’s abandonment of their Afghan allies.

Even before the Afghan debacle had reached its recent crescendo, Putin’s Russia was looking to expand its global reach. In some ways, Russia has been emulating its Soviet predecessor in rekindling old relationships and establishing new partnerships across the globe.

Nowhere has Russia’s desire to extent its influence been more obvious than in Africa. Russia’s recent summits with African leaders are more than just show. Following the Soviet example, Russian influence is spreading back into a continent traditionally dominated by western interests.

Strengthening ties

Even through hard times, Russia has maintained, rekindled or strengthened meaningful ties with key former Soviet allies in Africa, like Angola.

Putin shakes hands with Angola’s President Joao Manuel Goncalves Lourenco after talks in the Kremlin in April 2019.

In the Sudan, Russia has even sought to increase its influence where it had relatively little to start with. There is no reason to assume that Russia will not continue to push to strengthen its foothold on the northeast coast of Africa. The Soviet Union previously had military base agreements with Somalia and Ethiopia, and Sudan will certainly serve the same purpose.

For the West, there may be a silver lining to increased Russian involvement in African affairs. Putin’s Russia may not be much of a promoter of western democracy, but nor does it have any interest in spreading Islamic fundamentalism.

Regardless of where Putin’s government is looking for influence, he will be aiming to highlight Russia as a very different sort of partner to the West. As a partner, Russia probably won’t preach to Middle Eastern and African leaders about the inadequacies of their political systems, and is unlikely to abandon them at the first sign of trouble.

A demonstration of commitment

Sustained commitment is worth a lot – and commitment is what Russia has shown to many of the allies it inherited from the Soviet Union. That the Soviet Union itself abandoned Afghanistan does not damage Russia’s reputation in the same way as recent events there damage the reputation of the Americans. Russia can claim that it was a completely different Soviet regime that left Afghanistan back in the 1980s.

In Afghanistan, the Soviet Union faced an enemy supported by the powerful United States. The U.S. has subsequently tried to tame the jihadist monster that it allowed and even encouraged to develop. The Americans and their western allies can’t blame the Taliban’s success on the supporting efforts of a hostile superpower.

In many parts of the world, it will take the United States some time to regain its credibility as a partner. Meanwhile, Russia will be there to pick up the pieces. Financially, Russia can’t really afford its many new friends, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping it.

Dr. Alexander Hill, PhD, is professor of military history, University of Calgary.