Removing the Taliban from Russia’s blacklist would be counterproductive at this point in time since all practical contacts in the name of peace are already occurring in line with a relevant UNSC Resolution, there’s no reason right now to allow the group to freely operate within the country’s territory since it isn’t an official part of the Afghan government, and the optics of such a decision would negatively impact on the growing perception of Russia as a neutral balancing force in Eurasia.
“Russia Is Right To Regard The Taliban As Reasonable”, as I recently wrote in response to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remark last week, but Russia is also right to retain its ban on the Taliban too. The group was blacklisted in 2003, several years after it “recognized” the self-declared Chechen separatist “authorities” in early 2000. The Taliban presumably made that decision for ideological reasons and perhaps also as an asymmetrical response to Russia’s prior backing of its “Northern Alliance” foes. Russia’s domestic legal action fully aligned with relevant UNSC Resolutions condemning the Taliban for its support of terrorism.
As it presently stands, however, last year’s UNSC Resolution 2513 that was promulgated shortly after the US-Taliban peace deal of February 2020 specifically “Calls upon all States to provide their full support to promoting the successful negotiation of a comprehensive and sustainable peace agreement which ends the war for the benefit of all Afghans and that contributes to regional stability and global security.” That’s exactly what Russia had already been doing for the past few years anyhow as Moscow sought to become one of the most important players in the peace process by hosting the Taliban’s political representatives on several occasions.
The rapid improvement of Russian-Taliban ties raised hope among some who nowadays expect Moscow to lift its ban on the group. That probably won’t happen anytime soon though since such a decision would be counterproductive at this point in time. All practical contacts between the two sides are already occurring in line with the earlier mentioned UNSC Resolution. Moreover, there’s no reason for Russia to allow the group to freely operate within its territory. Moscow is very sensitive towards the Taliban’s hybrid political-religious message and sees no benefit to be gained by letting it set up offices and spread its ideology in the country.
The geopolitical situation in which Russia and the Taliban were hated foes has completely changed, but some suspicions still remain on Moscow’s side when it comes to the group’s intentions. The Chechnya of today is a totally different place than it was two decades ago after everything stabilized there and peace finally prevails. The “Northern Alliance” has also ceased to exist, and the Taliban’s lightning-fast nationwide offensive of the past month saw it successfully capture many strategic positions along the Afghan-Tajik border which are regarded as greatly preempting the possibility of this group’s foreign-backed revival.
If the Taliban were to be removed from Russia’s blacklist, then its materials could be freely circulated within the country’s society by its sympathizers at home and abroad. That represents a latent threat to Russian national security interests exactly as the Muslim Brotherhood’s message does, which is also banned by the authorities as well. It’s therefore unrealistic to expect Russia to allow this to happen anytime soon, if at all. In fact, even if the Taliban’s ban was reversed sometime in the future, Russia might in theory still retain certain restrictions on its civil society outreaches and against those who circulate its hybrid political-religious message within society.
On the international front, Russia wouldn’t gain anything by removing the Taliban’s ban at this time either. The Kremlin is presently practicing a very sensitive balancing act across Eurasia whereby it’s doing its utmost to present itself as a neutral actor capable of mediating between rival parties, be they foreign ones like Armenia & Azerbaijan or domestic ones like Kabul & the Taliban. The Afghan group isn’t even an official part of its country’s government, at least not yet, so removing the ban at this time could be interpreted as Russia taking a partisan position towards its civil war. That would in turn undermine the growing perception of Russia as a neutral actor.
More than likely, Russia is waiting to see how the situation there unfolds across the coming months before seriously reconsidering its decision to ban the Taliban. The Kremlin presumably hopes that it can hold out the carrot of political recognition of the group as an incentive for it to concentrate on a peaceful resolution of the Afghan Civil War instead of going all-out by pushing for what might ultimately become a regionally destabilizing military takeover of Kabul. In other words, Russia’s recognition of the Taliban as an official political actor in Afghanistan would be a reward for its responsible behavior, not a right that it’s automatically endowed.
After all, Russia would be left with egg on its face if it prematurely reversed its ban on the Taliban but then the group subsequently went on an alleged killing spree against civilians. It wouldn’t have just sacrificed its hard-earned reputation as a neutral actor for mediating Eurasia’s many civil and international conflicts, but would also be accused of tacitly endorsing what would rightly be regarded as acts of terrorism in that case. There’s no way that Russia, which is considered to be a conservative international actor, would recklessly take that risk. Rather, it’s hoping that the Taliban will become part of the Afghan government through a peaceful settlement.
That would be the ideal scenario in which Russia could remove some or all of its restrictions on the group since it would be presented as a reward for the Taliban responsibly resolving the Afghan Civil War. There would then be no perceived conflict of interest when it comes to the Kremlin’s balancing act, nor widespread criticism if Russia were to unilaterally make this decision before the rest of the international community does. It’s difficult to predict what Russia would do though if the Taliban forcefully returned to power after capturing Kabul. Depending on the circumstances, it might indefinitely withhold recognition while still retaining pragmatic ties.
To wrap it all up, Russia is right to retain its ban on the Taliban. Prematurely removing it would be extremely irresponsible from the perspective of the country’s domestic and international interests. It wouldn’t gain anything that it hasn’t already achieved through last year’s UNSC Resolution but would risk losing everything that it worked so hard to obtain in recent years with respect to its Eurasian-wide balancing act. If the Taliban wants to be taken off the Kremlin’s blacklist, not to mention that of practically every other country in the world too, then it mustn’t return to power militarily but through a political settlement like the one it earlier proposed.