The Taliban's Return: Afhgan Delegation Attends Russia's SPIEF

As the Taliban delegation reappears at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russia's re-establishment of diplomatic relations with a banned group raises questions about the political strategy and economic interests of both countries

by Sededin Dedovic
The Taliban's Return: Afhgan Delegation Attends Russia's SPIEF
© The Express Tribune

The first visit of a delegation from the Taliban government of Afghanistan to the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in 2022 garnered significant attention both within Russia and internationally. Two years later, representatives of the Taliban have once again traveled to the forum held from June 5th to 8th, as reported by the prestigious German newspaper Deutsche Welle.

This might not have caught anyone's eye had it not been for the Russian ministries of justice and foreign affairs suggesting to the president to remove the Taliban from the list of banned organizations before their arrival.

While Vladimir Putin did not directly address this, he stated the necessity to develop "relations" with the Taliban, as well as with the "current government" in Afghanistan. What does this mean? Hans-Jakob Schindler, an expert on the Middle East at the international organization "Counter Extremism Project" (CEP), says that although he is not familiar with the internal decision-making processes of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it can be assumed that Russia expects some form of quid pro quo for the offer to remove the Taliban from its terrorist list.

As he notes, this could lead to problems: "The Taliban are always ready to accept a favor, but when it comes to quid pro quos, things become very complicated." German Afghanistan expert Thomas Ruttig sees the Kremlin's initiative as a tactic of taking small steps toward official recognition of the Taliban—a move that, of course, is welcomed by them.

Gift for the Taliban

The next step after removal from the terrorist list could be the recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate state force in Afghanistan, experts believe. Contacts between Russia and the Taliban have been observed since 2015.

Additionally, there are suspicions that Russia has been supplying weapons to the Taliban. The two sides officially established diplomatic relations in March 2022. Six months earlier, in August 2021, Taliban fighters took over the government from the Afghan government without encountering significant resistance.

Soldiers and representatives of Western countries supporting the previous government hastily left the country.

Talibans celebrating victory after they took over Kabul© NBC News / Youtube channel

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Their return to power two decades later meant the reinstatement of Sharia law and the restriction of many basic rights, particularly those of women and girls. Since then, no state has recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government.

In Russia, the movement has been on the list of banned organizations since 2003. However, the international front against this regime has begun to weaken. Kazakhstan was the first country to announce on June 3rd that it was removing the Taliban from the list of terrorist organizations.

Could the Kremlin announce at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum that the Taliban will no longer be treated as a terrorist organization even in Russia? Experts consider this possible. But, Hans-Jakob Schindler says that the Kremlin is in a dilemma: on the one hand, it would be an "awkward chess move" to announce such a step without receiving a quid pro quo.

"On the other hand, of course, big economic contracts cannot be signed with an organization that is still officially on the national terrorist list."

Increased trade between Kabul and Moscow

Schindler sees Russia's approach to the Taliban as a political move that does not pose significant risks for Moscow.

"Whether the Taliban are removed from the Russian list of terrorist organizations or not is relatively unimportant, as long as the UN Security Council in New York still has the Taliban on its sanctions list," because that list is "legally binding" for Russia.

To avoid violating UN sanctions, according to DW's information (from publicly available sources), the Russian side invited to St. Petersburg only those Taliban representatives who are not under international sanctions as individuals.

From the experts' perspective, removal from the list will not change anything in practice. However, it helps strengthen future relations. According to Russian data, the volume of trade between the two countries tripled just last year and exceeded the billion-dollar mark, says Schindler.

He adds that this billion-dollar turnover is huge for the Afghan economy but relatively insignificant for the Russian one. Improving relations with the Taliban is an expression not only of Russia's but also of China's foreign policy strategy, says Thomas Ruttig: Moscow and Beijing are trying to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the Western coalition from Afghanistan and want to include the Taliban in the anti-Western community of states.

This also has economic reasons, explains Hans-Jakob Schindler. They are based on the assumption "that there are a whole series of strategic raw materials in Afghan soil that could be exploited in the long term during the establishment of peace and the construction of adequate infrastructure," reports DW.