Moscow, Taliban Discuss Purchase of Russian Oil: Report

Russia and China ‘are now conducting the most active interaction with Afghanistan, probing potential routes for cooperation,’ the report says.

AP/Zabi Karimi
In an August 15, 2021, file photo, Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace at Kabul. AP/Zabi Karimi

In a possible reversal of history, Kabul is courting Moscow — but for the moment the dance is less about politics than money. According to a new report in the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti, the Taliban this week dispatched a delegation of industry and trade officials to Moscow to meet with their Russian counterparts to discuss Afghanistan’s plans to purchase one million barrels of Russian oil.

During the meeting, which was held at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, Afghanistan’s acting minister of commerce and industry, Nooruddin Azizi, also asked Russia for a commodity barter option to pay for energy supplies “if there is a need for any Afghan products,” RIA Novosti reported.

Russia and China “are now conducting the most active interaction with Afghanistan, probing potential routes for cooperation,” the report goes on to say, adding that “its representatives intend to start reforms in order to pull the country out of the actual Middle Ages, where it is now.” 

The Russians have apparently taken note that while the populations of Afghanistan and Ukraine are roughly proximate, the former is “a completely untapped market, which makes it a unique target in the age of globalization.” That assessment is in keeping with remarks about “a multipolar world” that President Putin made at a security forum at Moscow this week, and in which he peddled a familiar delusional line about Russia’s conducting “a special military operation in Ukraine in full compliance with the UN Charter.”

According to a senior fellow at the Asser Institute of international law and former senior member of the Afghan peace negotiation team, Nader Nadery, the coming winter may be forcing the Taliban’s hand with respect to outreach to Moscow. “Winter is around the corner and [they] fear that people will face a much more dire situation,” Mr. Nadery told the Sun. “In addition, fuel — oil and gas — has been a good business and there is an increasing interest on the part of the Taliban to get concessions in oil contracts with significant price cuts from international markets.”

Prior to the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, some things were looking up for Afghanistan, at least commercially. There were high-level international efforts afoot to engage with Afghanistan in the process of broader economic integration in the central Asian region. Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan to the south, was actively trying to do so. 

In remarks given to the UN General Assembly in 2020, the Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, said that “we have started the implementation of major infrastructure projects [with Afghanistan] such as the Surkhan-Puli Khumri power line and construction of a railway from Mazar-i-Sharif to the sea ports of the Indian Ocean.” 

Started, but not finished. Another such project is the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline for the supply of natural gas. Also known as the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, construction on it stopped in 2019. The status of these projects is murky. It is also not clear whether it was the Taliban or the Kremlin that took the initiative in arranging Monday’s stealth meeting at Moscow. 

What is clear, however, is that Moscow is zeroing in on a sizable prospective customer for its energy exports, which are now heavily sanctioned in the West. The RIA report claims that in 2019, the most recent year for which any kind of reliable statistics were available, Afghanistan processed only a quarter of a million barrels of oil per year — meaning that, in seeking more from Moscow and ostensibly at below-market prices or even barter, the powers-that-be in Kabul have their eyes on economic growth. 

It is too soon to tell whether the Taliban sees a deal with Russia as the start of a way out of impending economic collapse, but according to the report some officials at the meeting also “expressed hope that Moscow would help build houses, schools, hospitals and other necessary things, because it had already done this before.”

It is questionable to what extent Moscow has “done that” before. It is also highly doubtful that Afghanistan in its current shattered state has the storage tanks or other facilities to process Russian oil on any meaningful scale. Also, it may be too soon to identify with precision just what Russia has in store for Afghanistan, as even the most basic economic projects remain inchoate. 

“When I participated in the Troika in Moscow where the Russian foreign minister opened the meeting, I noticed that there is no clarity in policy, they hated our government, and tried to get closer to the Taliban,” Mr. Nadery said. But the Russians “at least so far remain careful not to officially recognize the Taliban,” he said, adding, “I do not see at this stage a grand plan of Russia for Afghanistan.”

It may be too soon to identify with precision just what Russia has in mind for the beleaguered, terrorist-run country, as even the most basic economic projects remain inchoate. Yet Afghanistan has never really been off of Moscow’s radar. The mere fact that these two countries have a past, and are almost neighbors, points to a future — the contours of which could eventually spell trouble for geopolitical stability and balance of power in the very heart of Asia.

The New York Sun

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