Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is attending the fourth ministerial conference of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries on April 13 in the Uzbek city of Samarkand to try to find a solution to the Afghan problem.
Russia and the Central Asian states are seeking to uncork the southern trade route out of Central Asia that is currently blocked by instability in Afghanistan.
Since extreme sanctions were imposed on Russia it has entered into a process of re-orientating its trade to the South and East. In theory it could redirect some of its oil and gas exports to the huge markets of South Asia, starting with Pakistan and India, by running pipelines and improving rail and road links, but the infrastructure has to run via Afghanistan, which has been in chaos since the Taliban took back control of the country last year.
The Central Asian states are very interested in the same idea, but have made little progress. Uzbekistan has taken a lead on the Afghan question with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev calling on the UN to set up a special group to deal with the problem during his inaugural UN speech in September 2020. The Uzbek president had identified an unstable Afghanistan as Central Asia’s most pressing security issue long before the Taliban retook control in August 2021 and the war in Ukraine changed the geopolitical landscape in Eurasia from February 2022.
Uzbekistan has been trying to help its neighbour improve its economy. For instance, it signed an electricity transition deal to provide the country with power. There are other even more ambitious projects for a transmission line that would transit Afghanistan and provide power to northern Pakistan, where there is an electricity deficit. There are also plans for a trans-Afghan railway line from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, near the border with Uzbekistan, to Pakistan. The railway line could even be extended to ports on the Indian Ocean.
However, more recently relations between Kabul and Tashkent have soured. One sore point with the Afghans is that Uzbekistan shut down power exports to Afghanistan when it was hit by severe winter cold and a shortage of generation capacity early this year.
China is also interested in opening up transit via Afghanistan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build transport links between Asia and Europe and other continents. Beijing recently signed off on the first large mineral extraction project in Afghanistan to tap that country’s significant mineral resources. A US report a few years ago identified over $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits in the country, including large amounts of lithium, essential for making electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
Russia was also quick to cosy up to the new Taliban leadership and signed off on deals to provide the embattled country with oil, gas and wheat in September last year to help stabilise the crisis-pressured government.
Work to bring Afghanistan into the fold is ongoing as Russia starts to reform the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Previously the idea of the EAEU was to provide a partner to the EU in creating President Vladimir Putin’s long-standing foreign policy goal of forming a single market that would stretch “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Since the war in Ukraine has led to a breaking of relations and trade with Europe, the EAEU has been retasked with building up trade ties with the Global South, making transit via Central Asia key.
Likewise, China is already moving on to its second phase of developing its foreign relations by building up the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Eurasia, which overlaps with the EAEU, by improving trade, economic and cultural ties. That makes the EAEU, SCO, Russia, China and the states surrounding Afghanistan natural partners.
Lavrov’s meetings in Samarkand on April 13 will include representatives from Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The agenda will focus on discussing steps to facilitate the political settlement process in Afghanistan, and stabilise the humanitarian, social and economic situation in the country.
Russia has suggested creating a five-party “G5” platform to resolve Afghan’s problems, bringing together Russia, China, India, Iran and Pakistan. President Putin has expressed concern that the situation in Afghanistan has not improved since the withdrawal of US troops in the summer of 2021, and “international terrorist organisations are increasing their activities in the country.”
Russia and the Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, have suffered from terrorist attacks originating in Afghanistan. The heroin trade flowing from the Afghan poppy fields is also a problem for all the countries along the path of its export to Europe, largely via Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Putin also said that Russia is worried about “non-regional countries” building and expanding infrastructure facilities under the guise of fighting international terrorism, in a reference to US meddling in the region, “without doing anything required for a genuine fight against global terrorism.”
The ministerial conference will also focus on regional economic integration and the implementation of transport and energy projects with Kabul, based on previous agreements. Last year, the Taliban’s interim government, which Russia still officially designates as a “terrorist organisation banned in Russia,” said it would provide security and push hard to get the trans-Afghan railway project completed.
The parties may also discuss gas supplies, with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak stating last December that Russia might send its natural gas to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After the US announced its plans for a troop pullout from Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban rapidly took control of the country, easily defeating the US-backed Afghan national army, which scattered to the wind. In August 2021, Taliban fighters captured Kabul without any resistance, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stepped down and fled the country. The US completed its troop withdrawal in September 2021, ending its almost 20-year presence in the country.