Why Russia Passes the Buck to the SCO in the Afghan Problem?

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Although Afghanistan maintains its importance in international politics, both the Ukraine War and the Taiwan Crisis have caused the country’s place in the agenda of the international public to remain in the background. However, due to the security problems caused by the attacks of the terrorist organization Devlet al-Iraq and al-Sham (DEASH) and the fact that the Taliban is not recognized by any state, problems in investments and aid continue. For this reason, the economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is getting deeper day by day. Undoubtedly, Russia is one of the actors showing interest in the Afghan Question. However, it is seen that there have been some changes in Russia’s Afghanistan policy recently.

In 2021 August, in the days when the Taliban reigned over Afghanistan after a twenty-year hiatus, announcing that it would continue its diplomatic activities at the Kabul Embassy and making constructive contributions to the conference diplomacy carried out by the regional states to resolve the issue; Russia, which even gave some signals about recognizing the Taliban, tried from the very beginning to keep the initiative in the Afghan Problem in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

In August of 2021; that is, in the days when the Taliban reigned over Afghanistan after a twenty-year gap, announcing that it would continue its diplomatic activities at the Kabul Embassy and making constructive contributions to the conference diplomacy carried out by the regional states to resolve the issue; Russia, which even gave some signals about recognizing the Taliban, tried from the very beginning to keep the initiative in the Afghan Problem in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

In this context, the Moscow administration, which attaches importance to the handling of Afghanistan-based developments in the context of regional security in the CSTO meetings, strives to attract the Taliban to the ground of international cooperation; also benefited from the CSTO in terms of security policies. As a matter of fact, after the Taliban came to power, Russia increased the number of personnel in its military base in Tajikistan and organized various exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At the time of the exercises, the Kremlin again brought the participation of Tashkent to the CSTO on the agenda. In addition, during that period, the Moscow administration called for the CSTO countries to be prepared against possible infiltration attempts by terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.[1]

Although Russia is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the effort to bring the CSTO to the forefront in the face of Afghanistan-based developments is basically an aim of Russia of preventing China’s desire to gaining influence in this country. In other words, Moscow evaluated Afghanistan as an area of ​​struggle for influence where its interests are conflicting with Beijing. However, at this stage, it is observed that there is a paradigm shift in Russia’s Afghanistan policy. As a matter of fact, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, Tehran and Islamabad not only contribute to the stability of the region; he said that they can also contribute to the prevention of the spread of threats beyond regional borders and said, “It is very important to keep the Afghanistan Problem on the agenda of the SCO.”[2]

There is no doubt that; the statements of Russian Defense Minister Shoigu on the Afghan Question are very important. Because, on the occasion of these words, Shoigu made it clear that they want to turn the crisis in Afghanistan into an opportunity as a process that will serve regional cooperation. However, it should be noted that; Russia, China, India, Iran, and Pakistan, which Shoigu mentions in his statement, have vastly different, if not completely different, interests and threat perceptions. Therefore, considering the fact that the expectations of these states are extremely different, it does not seem rational to expect them to develop a common policy in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, despite this situation, if the mentioned states develop a common policy for the solution of the Afghan Problem, it will be easier to overcome the crisis in the country in question. More importantly, the SCO will gain great prestige for its role in resolving regional security issues. So, what is Moscow trying to do by throwing the ball to the SCO?

First of all, Shoigu’s statements clearly reveal the reality that Russia has suffered a serious loss of energy due to the Ukraine War and cannot focus on Afghanistan sufficiently. This leads Moscow to agree to a role-sharing with Beijing in Afghanistan. In particular, due to the sanctions pressure of the West, Russia is not only in Afghanistan; parallel to its claim to a multipolar world, it also feels the need to work closely with China in global politics. However, Russia’s opening up space for China in Afghanistan also carries some risks for Moscow. As a matter of fact, Russia may have to accept the increasing influence of China in a geography that it sees as its “backyard” within the framework of the doctrine of the close environment. So, the issue may not be just about Afghanistan. However, despite the cyclical cooperation processes in regional equations, the interests of Russia and China in Afghanistan and Central Asia conflict. This poses significant risks for Moscow.

It is precisely for this reason that Shoigu also mentioned the name of India during his statement. In other words, Russia is of the opinion that it can use the conflicts between China and India for its own interests. In other words, while the Kremlin was throwing the ball to the SCO in the Afghan Question; it desires to balance China through India. So, the question to be asked is: does the account at home fit the market?

It should be emphasized that; this balance may not be achieved as easily as thought in the Kremlin. Because Pakistan and Iran factors are also at a size that cannot be ignored. First of all, Pakistan is a country that has traditionally had hostile relations with India. In particular, the existence of the Kashmir Issue makes it difficult to establish a permanent peace environment between the parties. More importantly, Pakistan is China’s most reliable ally within the SCO. It also hosts the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is intended to be implemented within the framework of the Belt-Road Project. Therefore, the Islamabad administration is at the forefront of the actors that are likely to take sides with Beijing in the power struggle within the SCO.

Although Iran has deep-rooted ties with Russia, it attaches special importance to its relations with China, since it is located on the southern route of the Belt-Road Project. Moreover, in the cooperation agreement, which is expected to be signed between Russia and Iran and which is expected to cover a period of 20 years, a concrete agreement has not been reached on the final text yet. The failure to reach a final agreement on the agreement, which has been on the agenda for nearly a year, indicates that there are some problems on the Moscow-Tehran line. In response, a “25-Year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement” was signed between Iran and China. Therefore, although the Tehran administration cares about its relations with Moscow in foreign policy, it has turned the steering wheel to Beijing. This can be interpreted as if Iran has to make a choice within the SCO, it will position itself in a line close to China.

Although other SCO member states are close to Russia in terms of military-security, they develop very strong economic relations with China. Of course, the Belt-Road Project has an undeniable effect on this situation. Therefore, the states in question will be careful about not being close to one side and not staying away from other side and also they will not want to make a choice between actors.

To summarize briefly, an equation in which the China-Pakistan-Iran trio can be formed against the Russia-India duo among the states that Shoigu mentioned. Other SCO members may choose to stay out of this polarization and object to being forced to make a choice. In other words, from the Kremlin’s point of view, the account at home may not fit the market. Despite everything, Russia’s pointing out to the SCO instead of the CSTO as the solution address of the Afghan Problem clearly shows that things are not going as planned in Ukraine from Moscow’s point of view and that the Kremlin does not want to divert its focus to other geographies. As a result, even if Russia sees the risks posed by the SCO move for its own interests, it lacks the power to focus its attention on Afghanistan.

[1]“Şoygu: KGAÖ Ülkeleri Afganistan’daki Militanların Topraklarına Sızma İhtimaline Karşı Hazır Olmalı”, Sputnik Türkçe,, (Date of Accession: 18.08.2022).

[2] “Russia Says India can Make a Significant Contribution to Stabilise Afghanistan”, India Narrative,, (Date of Accession:18.08.2022).

Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN
Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN, 2014 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Yüksek lisans derecesini, 2017 yılında Giresun Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda sunduğu ‘’Uluslararası Güç İlişkileri Bağlamında İkinci Dünya Savaşı Sonrası Hegemonik Mücadelelerin İncelenmesi’’ başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Doktora derecesini ise 2021 yılında Trakya Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı‘nda hazırladığı “İmparatorluk Düşüncesinin İran Dış Politikasına Yansımaları ve Milliyetçilik” başlıklı teziyle alan Başaran’ın başlıca çalışma alanları Uluslararası ilişkiler kuramları, Amerikan dış politikası, İran araştırmaları ve Afganistan çalışmalarıdır. Başaran iyi derecede İngilizce ve temel düzeyde Farsça bilmektedir.