On September 9, 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin called his American counterpart George W. Bush with an urgent message: Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban and Moscow-supported Northern Alliance, had been assassinated in Afghanistan by two suicide bombers posing as journalists. Putin warned Bush of “a foreboding that something was about to happen, something long in preparation.” Two days later al-Qaida struck the United States.
The period immediately after 9/11 was in retrospect the high point in U.S.-Russian relations in the three decades since the Soviet collapse. U.S.-Russian cooperation in the initial stages of the Afghan war appeared to be transformative, and Moscow likened the anti-terror cooperation to the anti-Hitler coalition in World War II. The common enemy was Islamic fundamentalism and together the two great powers would defeat it. Today, as Afghanistan is once again ruled by the Taliban and U.S.-Russian relations stand at their lowest ebb in decades, it is instructive to ask why the anti-terror partnership collapsed and what the Taliban’s victory might mean for future relations.
The aftermath of 9/11
Afghanistan was a complex issue for Washington and Moscow because the U.S. had been instrumental in helping defeat the Soviets in their Afghan war by supporting the mujahideen — thereby helping to create what in 1994 became the Taliban. But 9/11 happened one year into Putin’s first term in office, when he was interested in improving ties with the West. Putin believed that the road to restoring Russia as a prosperous great power lay though enhanced economic cooperation with the U.S. and Europe. The terrorist attacks provided an opportunity to partner with America and elevate Russia’s international standing.
Moscow was in a unique position to offer advice and assistance given its detailed knowledge of Afghanistan and experience working with the Northern Alliance. Still, Putin initially balked at the idea of the U.S. establishing bases in Russia’s “backyard” to assist its military campaign. Indeed, he unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Central Asian leaders from accepting the bases, then changed course after realizing that he could not prevent their establishment, and the U.S. opened two bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
During fall 2001, Russia shared intelligence with the U.S., including data that helped American forces find their way around Kabul and logistical information about Afghanistan’s topography and caves. U.S. officials agreed that this information had contributed to the initial success of Operation Enduring Freedom and the rout of the Taliban. But 20 years ago, it was already clear that the Kremlin’s definition of who was a terrorist and how to understand the “global war on terror” differed from that of the U.S. government. As the Russian ambassador to Israel later said in affirming why Russia does not regard Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, Russia defines a terrorist as someone who “intentionally conducts acts of terror in Russian territory, or against Russian interests abroad.” In 2001, the Kremlin was preoccupied with the terrorist threat from Russia’s restive North Caucasus. In as much as there were Chechens fighting with al-Qaida in Afghanistan and there were al-Qaida operatives in the North Caucasus, Moscow was willing to acknowledge the global nature of the terrorist threat. But it was unwilling to participate in counterterrorism cooperation where terrorists did not directly threaten Russian interests.
Nevertheless, during fall 2001 it appeared that the U.S.-Russian relationship had entered a new era of cooperation. This was Vladimir Putin’s reset, his attempt to use the terrorist attacks on the U.S. by partnering with America as the cornerstone of his bid to restore Russia to its rightful place as a major global player. Putin secured an Oval Office meeting with Bush and visited the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. During his speech at the Russian Embassy in Washington in November 2001 he said, “I am sure that today, when our ‘destiny again meets history’ we will be not only partners, but we may well be friends.”
Misplaced expectations and changing narratives
The problem with the post-9/11 honeymoon was that U.S. and Russian expectations from the new partnership were seriously mismatched. An alliance based on one limited goal — to defeat the Taliban — began to fray shortly after they were routed. The Bush administration’s expectations of the partnership were limited. In return for Moscow’s assistance in the war on terror, Washington believed that it had enhanced Russian security by “cleaning up its backyard” and reducing the terrorist threat to the country. The administration was prepared to stay silent about the ongoing war in Chechnya and to work with Russia on the modernization of its economy and energy sector and promote its admission to the World Trade Organization.
Putin’s expectations were considerably more extensive. He essentially sought what Dmitri Trenin called an “equal partnership of unequals,” hoping that Russia’s support for the U.S. would return it to the global board of directors after a humiliating post-Soviet decade of domestic and international weakness. The anti-terrorist coalition was the vehicle, but the longer-term goal was to seek U.S. recognition of Russia as a great power with the right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Putin also sought a U.S. commitment to eschew any further eastern enlargement of NATO. From Putin’s point of view, the U.S. failed to fulfill its part of the post-9/11 bargain.
The Kremlin’s narrative about the root causes of the deterioration in relations since 9/11 is extensive: Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” and U.S. support for “color revolutions” in Eurasia, and the enlargement of NATO to the Baltic states. In other words, the U.S. failed to appreciate what Russia saw as its legitimate security interests. Yet throughout the two decades since 9/11, counterterrorism has remained an area where the countries have sometimes cooperated. The U.S. provided Russia with information which helped thwart domestic terrorist attacks in 2017 and 2019; Moscow warned Washington about the Tsarnaev brothers who detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, although that information was not acted on. Joint counterterrorism work remains challenging because both countries’ intelligence services are wary of sharing too much information. Yet history shows its value, and it could provide a possible avenue for cooperation vis-à-vis a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
U.S-Russian relations in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal
The Kremlin has adopted a dualistic approach toward the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. On the one hand the Schadenfreude at the U.S. defeat is palpable. The Kremlin and its media outlets have crowed over the chaotic scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport, declared the U.S. an unreliable partner, and argued that Taliban victory shows a Western system cannot be imposed on a country with such a different culture. On the other hand, the Russians would have preferred that the U.S. stay in Afghanistan with a small military force to fend off terrorists and maintain stability. Russia’s neighborhood will become more dangerous now. Moscow has been negotiating with the Taliban for some years in anticipation of the U.S. leaving and hosted a delegation in March, but still designates the group as a terrorist organization. The Kremlin is so far non-committal about whether it would recognize a Taliban-led government, although the Russian ambassador in Kabul has said that Russia can work with the Taliban.
When Putin met U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva in June, he made clear that Russia would object to any new American military presence in Central Asia. Moscow believes the U.S. overstayed its welcome in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and actively contributed to the U.S. losing its bases there. It would like to use the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan to increase its influence in Central Asian countries, promising protection against extremist groups to bind them more closely to Russia. Yet Russia itself fears the impact of terrorist groups increasing their presence in Afghanistan. Fighters from the North Caucasus and Central Asian migrants based in Russia have joined the Islamic State Khorasan and other groups and could once again target Russia and its neighbors. An unstable Taliban-led Afghanistan could pose a direct threat to Russian security.
U.S. withdrawal means that Afghanistan will become a regional rather than international issue going forward. It signals the end of the U.S. as a major presence in Central Asia and the reality that Russia and China, along with Pakistan and Iran, are the key outside players. But it is too early to conclude that Russia is a winner from the U.S. withdrawal. That will depend on what kind of government the Taliban is able to establish and how involved Russia is willing to become in Afghan affairs.
The demise of the post 9/11 U.S.-Russian partnership shows that Moscow and Washington have worked together best when they have a clear, limited goal involving similar interests, be it the defeat of Nazi Germany or the defeat of the Taliban 20 years ago. Once those goals were achieved with the defeat of the common enemy, and in the absence of broader common interests and values, further partnership has foundered on fundamentally different worldviews and mutual suspicions.