KABUL (Reuters) - Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan denied on Monday that Moscow was giving its backing to the Taliban in its fight against Islamic State militants who have established a growing presence in the east of the country.
Russia, which in February gave the Western-backed government in Kabul 10,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, was discussing two potential helicopter deals and had proposed increasing intelligence cooperation, ambassador Alexander Mantytskiy said.
“We do not provide any assistance to the Taliban,” he told reporters in Kabul, through an interpreter.
Russia’s position has been the subject of much speculation since President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan said last year that its interests “objectively coincide” with those of the Taliban over their common enemy, Islamic State, widely known in Afghanistan as Daesh.
Moscow has been critical of the United States over its handling of the war in Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union fought a bloody and disastrous war of its own in the 1980s and cooperation with NATO ended in 2014 over tensions in Ukraine.
However, Mantytskiy said Russia’s approach had not changed and it would continue its support to strengthen Afghanistan’s defense capacity, through training and other means.
Afghanistan’s acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai is expected to attend a security conference in Moscow this week, with the two potential helicopter deals on the table.
One option could see a maintenance contract signed for two helicopters already in service with Afghan forces while a second option would involve the sale of three new Mi-35 helicopters but Afghanistan had not yet indicated which deal it preferred, Mantytskiy said.
Russia supplied 63 Mi-17 military helicopters to Afghanistan and provided maintenance and training under a former agreement with NATO but shipments ended in October 2014 after the agreement ended over the standoff in Ukraine.
It also cleared the way for India to supply three of its own Russian-made Mi-25 helicopters to Afghanistan by giving the necessary approval for the transfer.
Mantytskiy rejected Afghan media reports that Moscow was actively cooperating with the Taliban, which carried out one of its biggest attacks in Kabul last week, killing at least 64 people and wounding hundreds of others.
He said that Russia, like several other countries, did have contacts with the Islamist movement.
“Our interest with the Taliban regarding the fight with Daesh do coincide but no type of information exchange between Russia and the Taliban takes place,” he said.
“Our contacts with the Taliban are aimed at inviting the Taliban to the negotiating table,” he said. “Russia has no hidden agenda in Afghanistan.”
He said Moscow was concerned about the increase in fighting in northern provinces of Afghanistan that border former Soviet Republics including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well as by the spread of Islamic State militants in the region.
“We are extremely concerned that instability could spread in central Asia because disturbances in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan could push refugees into Russia,” he said.
Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alison Williams