Taliban Delegations in Russia: A Snapshot of Russo-Afghan Relations

A Taliban government delegation has arrived in St. Petersburg to attend an education summit, as Russian ministries are working to remove the Islamic movement from the list of banned terror organizations. A first delegation has already been at Russia’s biggest annual economic forum, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), for several days.

The Taliban Delegations

The newly arrived delegation includes Afghanistan’s Minister of Higher Education, Neda Mohammad Nadeem, and Minister of Education, Habibullah Agha Haqqani. The official visit comes following sanctions by the EU on March 7 to freeze assets of Nadeem and subject him to a travel ban to EU countries. The two Taliban officials will participate in the “Shaping the Future” forum in Kazan, organized by the Russian Ministry of Education and the Government of Tatarstan.

At the SPIEF, the Taliban delegation includes Minister of Labor and Social Relations, Abdul Manan Omari, and Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, Jamal Nasir Garwal.

Rustam Khabibullin, head of the “Russian Business Center,” emphasized the importance of developing Afghanistan’s industry and the need for skilled workers, stating:

“Industry in Afghanistan is developing at a rapid pace. The country needs engineers and skilled workers. Qualified personnel are needed in social institutions, as well as the organization of youth education. Russia is actively helping Afghanistan in this.”

Additionally, St. Petersburg Governor Beglov met with the Taliban at SPIEF to discuss the construction of a Cathedral Mosque in St Petersburg, Russia.

Russia’s Official Stance on Afghanistan

Despite the ongoing interactions, the Taliban remains a banned organization in Russia, and Moscow has not formally recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

In 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov clarified that international recognition of the Taliban was not being considered at that time. He emphasized that such recognition would depend on the Taliban meeting specific commitments, including forming an inclusive government that represents all ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan and respecting human rights, particularly those of women. Those requirement have yet to be fulfilled, with the local situation worsening, especially for women.

Nevertheless, Russia has continued to maintain its operational embassy in Kabul and has accredited Taliban-appointed representatives.

The Russian Business Center

The Taliban delegation’s visit was facilitated by the Russian Business Center in Afghanistan.

The “Russian Business Center” is an organization that aims at facilitating business and economic relations between Russia and Afghanistan. It serves as a liaison to promote trade, investment, and industrial development between the two countries. The center aims to support Russian businesses in entering the Afghan market and to help Afghan businesses access Russian markets and expertise.

Thus, the center plays a key role in fostering economic ties and ensuring smooth communication and collaboration between Russian and Afghan enterprises. This role is exemplified by the statement made by the head of the center, Rustam Khabibullin, who highlighted Russia’s significant role in providing assistance and expertise in these areas.

Intersecting Interests and Strategic Relations

The functioning of the Russian Business Center and the presence of two Taliban delegations on Russian territory highlight that, despite the supposed absence of formal recognition, bilateral ties between Russia and Afghanistan are very much alive.

The declaration of Rustam Khabibullin, the implications of Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan’s future, and the promises such as visits to the Islamic Forum and discussions about constructing a Cathedral Mosque further emphasize the robust ties between Russia and Afghanistan.

The interests of Russia and Afghanistan clearly intersect, sometimes in very tangible ways, especially on security matters. For instance, during the Crocus City Hall attacks in Moscow, Taliban officials immediately condemned the actions of their regional rival, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISKP), labeling the attacks as terrorism and a violation of human standards.

A regionally dominant ISKP in Central Asia is a threat to the Taliban regime and certainly a security concern for Russia, especially after the Crocus City Hall attack in Moscow in March. In the future, we could see the Taliban seeking assistance from Russia to deal with ISKP. This move, in addition to being strategic for Moscow, could give Russia some leverage to access Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources, including lithium, rare earth elements, and precious stones.

Hence, both Russia and the Taliban government almost certainly view their relationship as strategically important: Afghanistan needs international recognition and support to normalize its statehood, while Russia, isolated on the international scene following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, needs new partners.

This translates into the structure of the SPIEF itself. Once a major gathering spot for Western CEOs and investment bankers from London and New York, it now hosts investors from China, India, Africa, and the Middle East. The theme of the 2024 SPIEF, “The Foundations of a Multipolar World – The Formation of New Areas of Growth,” appears to be a relevant theme for this year’s attendees, including the Taliban, who are expected to be removed from the Russian list of banned terror organizations, according to officials.

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