A new agreement signed by commerce officials from Afghanistan and Russia calls for expanding trade relations between the countries at a time when both face severe economic sanctions from the U.S. and Europe.

Officials from Afghanistan’s Chambers of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) and Russia’s Business Council for Cooperation with Afghanistan (BCCA) signed the deal this week in St. Petersburg.

“We want to strengthen bilateral [business ties] and even regional imports and exports,” said Mohammad Yunus Mohmand, deputy director of ACCI who signed the agreement with BCCA’s director, Dmitry Antonov.

“The sanctions are indeed torturing us, but we can’t sit still and watch,” Mohmand told VOA. He added that Russia is inclined to boost regional trade and signed a long-term agreement with Iran at the sidelines of St. Petersburg Economic Forum last week.

Iran is also under longstanding U.S. sanctions owing to its controversial nuclear program and Tehran’s alleged support for terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Mohmand characterized the trade agreement as apolitical, but said its implementation will require support from the Russian and Taliban governments. A Taliban government delegation will soon visit Moscow to explore practical ways for the implementation of the trade agreement, he added.

The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not answer questions about the trade agreement.

Moscow does not officially recognize the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate but has accredited Taliban diplomats and has kept the Russian Embassy in Kabul open.

Symbolic or defiance?

Landlocked and under tight financial sanctions, Afghanistan has plunged deeper into economic recession since the Taliban seized power last year. About 90% of Afghans cannot afford enough food daily, aid agencies have reported.

Under the deal, Afghanistan expects to import wheat and oil from Russia at subsidized pricing.

“We need 150,000 tons of fuel every month,” Mohmand said, adding that Afghanistan also needs to import some 2 million tons of wheat from Russia.

U.S. officials say Russia’s war in Ukraine is primarily responsible for the global rise in food and oil prices — something Russian officials dispute.

“Russia has been using its grain and other commodities as a way to maintain relations amid the Ukraine crisis,” Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA.

The agreement with Afghanistan is “almost entirely symbolic — it is an attempt to show that Russia still has partners that want to trade with it,” Hess added.

Moscow’s intent to do business with Afghanistan and Iran could also be to defy Western sanctions.

“By offering to expand trade and commerce engagement with the Taliban, Russia may flaunt restrictions on Afghanistan’s financial system — either put in place by U.S., U.N. Security Council or even self-imposed restrictions by banks and private investors,” Andrew Watkins, a researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told VOA.

Afghanistan has traditionally maintained limited trade with Russia mostly due to logistical constraints and weak transport infrastructure. In 2020, Russia’s exports to Afghanistan reached $151 million and imports were less than $3 million, according to the global trade data website The Observatory of Economic Complexity.

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