These are the most realistic threat scenarios right now to Russia’s security interests.
Tiny Tajikistan has outsized leverage that it might eventually employ in Afghanistan to push back against the Taliban. It’s well known that it shares a large border with its neighbor, the latter of which counts Tajiks as its second-largest minority, and its government is the most skeptical of all regional stakeholders when it comes to the group’s recent lightning-fast rise to power there. Tajikistan’s interests rest in seeing its ethnic kin fairly represented in Afghanistan’s future government and in ensuring that terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and of course ISIS-K aren’t able to operate there. Its people are also sympathetic to the “Panjshir Resistance” that’s considered to be mainly comprised of their fellow Tajiks.
Russia somewhat surprisingly ruled out mediating between the Taliban and those rebels despite having a track record of balancing between Muslim-majority countries and also various forces within some of them as part of its “Ummah Pivot”. This might be due to its excellent ties with the Taliban that were pragmatically cultivated in pursuit of peace and security despite the Kremlin still designating the group as terrorists. Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov also earlier predicted that the “Panjshir Resistance” is “doomed” so Moscow might consider it counterproductive to treat it as an equal to what it predicts will soon be the victorious Taliban. This position might change though if the “Panjshir Resistance” continues to successfully hold out to the Taliban.
It’s against this uncertain backdrop that Tajikistan’s role becomes more important than ever. There’s no doubt that its people are concerned about the situation facing their fellow Tajiks in Afghanistan, whether those fighting with the “Panjshir Resistance” or just average citizens who fear living under Taliban rule for whatever their reason may be. This isn’t mere speculation either since Dushanbe just complained that it can’t accommodate the steady stream of refugees fleeing into the country without some sort of international support. Although pertinent responsibilities might presumably fall upon Russia as Tajikistan’s CSTO ally, Moscow might not be willing to entirely shoulder this unexpected financial burden, let alone for an indefinite duration.
The only sustainable solution to any refugee crisis is to address the root causes motivating people to flee. In Afghanistan’s case, that’s the fear among the Tajik minority about their future under Taliban rule. There are also of course the socio-economic consequences of four decades of warfare but it was only recently that refugees began to flee to Tajikistan which is why the Taliban factor is clearly the one driving this latest trend. The likelihood of Tajikistan unilaterally intervening in Afghanistan, whether directly against the Taliban or indirectly by supplying the “Panjshir Resistance” through Tajik-run smuggling networks, is minimal though because Russia would likely put immediate pressure upon its ally to halt any such destabilizing actions.
Much more difficult to prevent, however, is non-state actors volunteering to support their ethnic kin across the border. Public pressure is building for the Tajik government to do something not only about the recent refugee crisis, but in support of their co-ethnics in Afghanistan more broadly. Tajik-run smuggling networks already exist and could be leveraged by so-called “patriotic forces” to supply material and physical support for their fellow Tajiks. More worryingly, however, they could also be exploited by hostile non-state actors such as radicalized members of society to obtain battlefield training on “nationalist” pretexts before returning back home to carry out ideologically driven terrorist attacks.
Dushanbe is therefore between a rock and a hard place since standing by and patiently letting events play out risks further inflaming public opinion while any unilateral actions done in response to grassroots pressure risk provoking a political crisis with Moscow to say nothing of worsening the security one with the Taliban. It’s situations like these that are the most dangerous for the governments involved since they’re quite literally stuck in a “zugzwang” where all of the options available to it are objectively bad ones. During such times, something unexpected might happen, especially when it comes to non-state actors attempting to take action into their own hands.
If the government decisively tries to stop them, it might provoke even more grassroots pressure against it. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine weaponized narratives circulating accusing the authorities of not caring about the concerns of their co-ethnics across the border, which could eventually provoke unrest in the form of protests or even kinetic anti-state activity such as attacking police stations or government buildings (whether by riotous crowds and/or ideologically driven terrorists exploiting such “nationalist” pretexts). Russia is likely aware of these Hybrid War threats but also can’t be seen as playing too public of a role in influencing Tajikistan’s policies lest it counterproductively provoke the same “nationalist” reaction that it seeks to avoid.
The best-case scenario is of course for the Taliban to keep their promise to form an inclusive government representative of all ethnic groups as soon as possible, but even this might not be sufficient to reassure that powerful minority, especially if the “Panjshir Resistance” continues to live on. If the Taliban militarily defeats it, this could also give rise to accusations that it carried out massacres and other crimes against humanity that might only exacerbate the Tajiks’ fears of their new rulers, potentially triggering more emigration, armed resistance, and/or “volunteers” from Tajikistan. Talks between the Taliban and the “Panjshir Resistance” also haven’t resulted in anything thus far and clashes between the two sides are nowadays a common occurrence.
Even so, Moscow still doesn’t want to mediate, perhaps simply because its painful memories from the 1980s make it averse to any scenario that might even remotely lead to “mission creep” there. It appears as though that issue will therefore only be resolved by force, most likely in the Taliban’s favor, which means that Russia must brace itself for dealing with the potential consequences for Afghan Tajiks as well as Tajikistan. Its security services must also ensure that no average Tajiks start assembling “volunteer” groups to aid their co-ethnics in Afghanistan while simultaneously bolstering their ally’s border security and refugee supporting capabilities. These are the most realistic threat scenarios right now to Russia’s security interests.