For years now, Russia has been warning of the threat posed to Central Asian stability by Islamic State (IS) guerillas operating out of northern Afghanistan. Russia is a traditional security guarantor in the region and is working with Afghanistan’s neighbors to bolster border defenses and improve counter-terrorism capabilities while also pursuing diplomatic relations with the Taliban. Such measures serve both to mitigate the regional IS threat to Russian interests, as well as to reinforce Moscow’s political influence in Central Asia. Russia’s historical experience with jihadism in Afghanistan informs Moscow’s vigilance regarding associated militant threats to Central Asian states and even to the Russian homeland.
Afghanistan looms distinctly in Russian strategic consciousness through haunting memories of the Soviet superpower’s decisive defeat in the late 1980s at the hands of Islamist insurgents. Compounding this is the recollection of jihadi-fueled conflict and militant incursions into Central Asia in the 1990s. With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan as of August 2021, and the American-led coalition gone, there is risk of jihadis in the region turning their attention to Afghanistan’s neighbors or perhaps even towards Russia itself. Russia views Central Asia as a critical sphere of influence and seeks to take measures to prevent spillover and contain emanating threats.
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