Almost 30 years after withdrawing from Afghanistan, Moscow hosted an international peace conference earlier this month, and 12 nations attended — including a delegation from the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani’s government did not represent Afghanistan, though Kabul did send an official from the High Peace Council, the body that facilitates negotiations with jihadist rebels. Russia has been taking on a greater role in peace processes and mediation efforts in the wider Middle East, from Libya to Afghanistan, seeking to protect its own interests and knowing well that the global powers’ “great game” has opened several doors for Moscow.
Russia has been expending diplomatic energy to increase cooperation with the political office of the Taliban based in Doha, Qatar, to position itself as the great power capable of effectively mediating between the insurgent movement and Kabul. Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a top Taliban political official, said, “We do not recognize the incumbent government as legitimate and we demand the withdrawal of foreign troops.” The Taliban’s goal of seeking broad international recognition as a legitimate Afghan national movement is what the Russians are trying to leverage to their advantage.
Meanwhile, the United States conceding significant political space is not the only cause of Russia’s ascent as a definitive geopolitical player in key regions of the core of the Muslim world, i.e., North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, the northern rim from Turkey to Iran, and beyond to South Asia. Russia’s increasing prominence has also come about because of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to geopolitically rehabilitate Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union, especially and the Kremlin’s concern its own Muslim population of 22 million. But what exactly is driving Putin’s aggressive policies toward Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries?
Three dominant factors shape Putin’s involvement with Muslim-majority countries: the Muslim communities in Russia (particularly ongoing unrest within the North Caucasus region), the predominant Muslim communities in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and the desire to keep the pressures of Muslim geopolitics from the Middle East and South Asia out of Russia’s territory.
Fear of a Muslim Periphery
Putin understands the historical allegiances the Russian Muslim Tatars had, and the Crimean connections with the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Although Russia forcefully crushed the Chechen uprisings from 1994-2000, Putin continues to worry about a jihadist resurgence, especially in the age of Daesh. Just this year there was a bombing of a church and several suicide bombings in Chechnya. Neighboring Dagestan is also a potential area of radicalism, where jihadists have proclaimed the Caucasus Caliphate. Almost 2,500 young Muslims across Russia have heeded Daesh’s call to fight in Syria.
Moscow is also concerned that Daesh-affiliated groups have gained allegiances in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. For example, earlier this month, Daesh militants claimed responsibility for a prison riot in Tajikistan’s northern region, where 27 people were killed. The 2011 Arab Spring movements represented a nightmare for Putin. Russia feared the Arab Spring would inspire Islamist-led mass Muslim mobilizations in its own regions and believed that encroaching extremist Islamism and Salafist-jihadism would threaten “moderate” Russian Islam. Putin feared that Salafist-jihadist movements would overthrow Russian ally Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, creating a nexus of cooperation with Islamist militants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and ultimately threatening Putin’s control over Russian provinces in the North Caucasus.
Putin’s concerns about Syria became a reality. By late 2012, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, as well as other Salafist-jihadist groups, dominated the Syrian opposition. Combined with the emergence of Daesh in 2013, these groups posed a serious threat to the Assad regime’s security forces. Putin’s military involvement in Syria was inspired by the need to deal with Russia’s own internal threats.
The Necessity of Involvement
In this tumultuous context, Russia knew it could not continue ignoring Muslim religious actors and communities. For example, since 2016, Russia has been sponsoring international conferences to define mainstream Islam and traditional practices and beliefs of Islam by hosting renowned Muslim clerics. More than 200 Sunni scholars from around the Islamic world, except Wahhabi scholars from Saudi Arabia, received invitations to the Grozny 2016 conference titled “What is Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah?”
Though the conference’s official aim was to define traditional Sunni Islam, the meeting was designed to highlight Salafist interpretations as misguided and erroneous. The Grozny conference consisted of a strong contingency from Egypt, such as the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayyib; the current Grand Mufti, Shaykh Shawqi Alam; the Egyptian Religious Affairs representative, Shaykh Ousama al-Azhari; and former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Goma. The Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, and renowned intellectuals like Adnan Ibrahim also attended the conference.
Inaugurating Moscow’s impeccable new mosque, Putin stated, “Traditional Islam is an integral part of Russia’s spiritual life. Islam’s humanist values, like the values of our other traditional religions, teach people compassion, justice, and care for our loved ones.” Moreover, in order to achieve better religious coordination, Putin established the Council of Muftis of Russia and a Muslim Spiritual Authority Office in the city of Ufa, a center to coordinate activities in the North Caucasus.
Russia’s growing interest in situating itself as the platform to define “mainstream” traditional Islam has allowed it to use religion for its self-interests — such as inserting itself in the Afghan peace talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated at the Taliban peace process meeting, “Russia, as the organizer of this session, sees its role in working together with Afghanistan’s regional partners and friends who have gathered at this table today to extend all possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue.”
Russia’s engagement with Muslim global religious leaders indicates one certainty: Putin understands the power of religious diplomacy and the use of soft power to influence domestic and international audiences. Russia’s religious diplomacy with the Muslim-majority nations might have stemmed from security and geopolitical factors, but the Russians have definitely learned that diplomacy can achieve a number of policy goals — and in the 21st century, diplomacy requires working with religion.
Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is Vice President of Development and Strategy at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He tweets at @qbhuda. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.