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Geopolitics

Taliban Eyes Russian Oil Purchases in Moscow Talks

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A delegation of the ruling Taliban movement in Afghanistan arrived in Moscow on Aug. 14 for a three day-visit to discuss bilateral trade, including purchases of Russian oil and food products.

The volume of Russian oil sought by Kabul could amount to only 1 million barrels, according to the acting Afghan minister of industry and trade, Nuriddin Azizi, who headed the delegation to Russia.

However, any such deal could become a springboard for business ties between the two countries. Kabul needs investment while Moscow is seeking security guarantees not only to protect its Central Asian flanks but also to prevent any transit of militants and weapons from Afghanistan to Ukraine.

Russia has worked against the Taliban after it first came to power in the mid-1990s, and still it is officially recognized by Moscow as a terrorist organization. But Russia is now taking a more open view of the Islamist movement and has been in touch with its leadership since the Taliban seized power nearly a year ago.

Moscow's line is that it is necessary to cooperate with the Taliban where it meets Russia's interests. The US exit from Afghanistan has also opened the way for Russia to play a much more active role in the country, and to expand its influence in the surrounding region.

Barter Deal

According to Azizi, Afghanistan is considering barter deals with Russia, offering the country's products in exchange for Russian oil and other products.

Afghanistan is facing a dire economic situation and a humanitarian crisis, while more than $7 billion of Afghan foreign currency reserves held at the US central bank have been frozen by Washington.

Russian analysts say that Kabul would want oil products rather than crude as the country doesn't have refining capacity. Kabul has little to offer in return, except for fruit, almonds, wool and other agricultural products, which are not enough to pay for large volumes of oil.

Experts say that Kabul could offer Russian companies rights to participate in the development of rare earth metals, including lithium, and in various construction projects, although the security risks remain too big.

Talks about possible cooperation started earlier this year when the Taliban delegation participated in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June.

Seeking Guarantees

"Russia and Afghanistan share a hatred of the West," said one Central Asian expert. The expert said the Taliban would "probably be looking for money" and that in return Moscow’s main concern would be to extract security guarantees from Afghanistan, which is viewed as inherently unstable, with "so many ungoverned actions" as well as links to Al-Qaeda and the heroin trade. "The Russians have a keen interest in making sure that what happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan," the expert said.

Moscow sees a risk of Afghan fighters, including members of Islamic State, moving to Ukraine. The Russian president's special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, was quoted as saying that the Taliban had guaranteed to Moscow they would prevent such movements "within the limits of their capabilities."

According to Kabulov, about 110,000 Afghans fled the country to Central Asian neighbors, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, when the Taliban came to power last year, and many are waiting for permission to go to the US. Some of them have already moved to Ukraine to fight on the side of Kyiv against Russia.

He also said it is important for Moscow that about 100 aircraft and helicopters that were used by the Afghan fighters to fly to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan do not turn up in Ukraine.

At the same time, Tajikistan is not only providing a home for the opponents of the Taliban, to the annoyance of Kabul, but it is also currently hosting US military exercise Regional Cooperation — 22, raising eyebrows not only in Afghanistan but also in Russia and China. The Taliban has already sent signals it could move into Tajikistan but the only deterrent is Moscow.

Peace Plans

Much of Afghanistan’s economic activity to the north is with neighboring Turkmenistan, which recently bolstered regional cooperation by agreeing to host a grain terminal on its Afghan border to supply wheat and flour from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan.

The Turkmens are also building a rail link to Herat in Afghanistan and are exporting electricity to Mazhar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan via a transmission line from a 1.5 GW power plant built in Mary province by Turkish group Chalyk Holding. Chalyk’s goal is to extend the high-voltage, direct-current line to Pakistan. About 70% of Afghanistan's 38 million population still has no access to electricity, which makes it a potentially huge energy consuming market.

The Taliban ideally wants the country to become a possible transit route for gas from Turkmenistan — via the long-mooted Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) pipeline that would run over 1,600 kilometers to the Pakistani-Indian border. Turkmenistan's giant Galkynysh field is just 200 km from the Afghan border. Tapi has struggled to win Western backing, and now Kabul also counts on Moscow in lobbying for the project to finally move forward.

For more coverage of the Ukraine crisis, visit Ukraine Crisis: Energy Impact

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