On September 27, the Taliban government in Afghanistan disclosed a deal it signed with Russia to import petroleum products and wheat at a discounted rate (Al Jazeera, September 28). The deal came days before Russia agreed to provide petrol to Pakistan on deferred payments and extend its gas pipeline infrastructure in Central Asia to the Islamic republic (see EDM, October 5).
In truth, Russia has been seeking expanded ties in Southwest Asia in recent months. Moscow’s deepening involvement with Pakistan and Afghanistan is all about preparing for Russia’s entry into the $62 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Russia’s growing interest in the CPEC comes against the backdrop of budding Russian-Pakistani relations over the past few years. Moscow was willing to join the CPEC in 2016 when it requested Islamabad to allow Russia to use Gwadar Port for its exports. This strategically located port along the Arabian Sea in Pakistan’s Balochistan province is an essential part of the CPEC. Islamabad accorded approval to Moscow’s request, and then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, during his visit to Turkmenistan in November 2016, welcomed the Kremlin’s decision to join the project (Hindustan Times, November 26, 2016). In 2019, the two countries, during a meeting of the Pakistan-Russia Consultative Group on Strategic Stability in Islamabad, agreed to the proposed seven-point road map for boosting bilateral relations. The visiting Russian delegation was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Russian participation in the CPEC was among the seven points, which also included the signing of a free-trade agreement between Moscow and Islamabad as well as a deepening of strategic defense relations (Times of Islamabad, March 28, 2019).
What does joining the CPEC mean for Moscow in a strategic sense? In fact, Russia’s vision for its Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) passes through the CPEC, as part of China’s BRI. Through its participation in the CPEC, the Kremlin will seek to merge the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with the BRI. In April 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced at the Second BRI Forum for International Cooperation that five EAEU member states had unanimously supported the idea of pairing the EAEU’s development with the BRI. Overall, an EAEU-BRI merger would be a real step forward in Moscow’s quest to realize the goals of the GEP, which, beyond connecting with the BRI, also include improving connectivity with Iran, India and Southeast Asia (Russiancouncil.ru, June 3, 2020). With its geostrategic location, which marks the confluence of South, Central and Southwest Asia, Pakistan has the strong potential to play a promising role in making the GEP a reality. Thus, Putin recently characterized Pakistan as one of Russia’s “priority partners” in Asia (see EDM, October 5).
Why does China want Russia to join the CPEC? Whereas Russia’s participation in the CPEC will strengthen and boost Sino-Russian cooperation and brighten prospects for economic integration in the region, it might also appease India, which is fiercely opposed to the CPEC traversing Pakistani regions claimed by New Delhi. China wants Russia to play its role in brokering a peace agreement between the two arch rivals—India and Pakistan—to save the CPEC (Pakistan Today, January 10, 2017).
Moreover, Beijing seeks Moscow’s inclusion in the CPEC because it needs the Kremlin’s cooperation to meet the security challenges that have emerged after the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2021. For both China and Russia, maintaining stability in Afghanistan is the key to implementing their wider strategic plans. While both countries have yet to officially recognize Kabul’s current government, they have strengthened their relations with Afghanistan since the Taliban reclaimed power through a number of agreements.
In July 2022, China publicly announced its plans to increase trade, investment and business relations with the Taliban (Dawn, July 5). As such, today, Chinese businessmen are expanding their activities in Afghanistan after the Taliban government in April approved the first Sino-Afghan joint project to develop a $216 million industrial estate on the outskirts of Kabul (South China Morning Post, August 28).
In Russia’s case, the cultivation of closer ties between the Kremlin and the Taliban began even before the full US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In March 2021, Russian officials held a conference on Afghanistan in Moscow, to which, outside of other regional players and Afghan leaders, the Taliban leadership was specially invited. The conference represented an effort by Russia to project itself as a key player in the Afghan peace process (Thenews.com.pk, March 12, 2021). Similarly, during a visit to Pakistan in April of last year by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Afghanistan was top of the agenda in his talks with the authorities in Islamabad. The visit was important as it took place at a time when the US was still in the process of completing its withdrawal from Afghanistan (Dawn, April 7, 2021).
Most recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif completed a visit to China on November 1 and 2, during which, he agreed to officially extend the CPEC to Afghanistan with Chinese President Xi Jingping—something that Moscow has actively supported (Express Tribune, November 2).
Indeed, Russia has chosen a road to Kabul that passes through Islamabad. This reveals Moscow’s strategy to strengthen the Russian-Afghan-Pakistani nexus following the withdrawal of US forces from the region. Such a nexus will most markedly be strengthened through the extension of the CPEC to Kabul and Russia’s direct participation in the project. However, only a peaceful and stable Afghanistan will bring China’s CPEC extension plan as well as Russia’s GEP project to fruition. To this end, Beijing’s plan to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan is likely to coincide with Moscow formally joining the BRI.