The Kremlin’s wars in Afghanistan and in Ukraine: ten parallels



Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Rostyslav Khotyn

The war against Ukraine threatens to have serious consequences for Russia, as was the case for the USSR, whose the occupation of Afghan territory accelerated its collapse.

Afghanistan and Ukraine — two countries distant from one another — have much in common. Specifically, both countries were victims of the aggressive policies of the Kremlin. Afghanistan was occupied by Soviet armies during 1979-1989. For more than a year now Russian armies and the pro-Russian separatists supported by Moscow have been engaged in aggression against Ukraine after first forcibly seizing Crimea. What are the common features of the wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine and will both end the same way — with defeat for the Kremlin?

1. Revolution or coup?

In 1978 the Kremlin insisted that a national socialist revolution had taken place in Afghanistan, even though in fact a group of pro-Soviet officers from the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan had seized power in Kabul, who soon quarreled among themselves. Two presidents were assassinated during a period of several months. In fact, what had taken place in Afghanistan was a typical military coup, while for most Afghans communism remained an alien concept. Nevertheless, in December 1979, the Kremlin  sent armies to Afghanistan to support the “social revolution.” In 2014, the Kremlin viewed the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine as a coup and not as the expression of the will of the people. This view of the Maidan prompted the Kremlin to occupy and annex Crimea and to send troops to eastern Ukraine.

2. American rockets in Afghanistan and NATO bases in Ukraine

The USSR’s Afghan campaign took place during the period of the Cold War, and today many speak of a new Cold War of Vladimir Putin’s Russia with the West. At the end of the 1970s, the Kremlin of Leonid Brezhnev believed that Washington wanted to place mid-range rockets in Afghanistan that would threaten Soviet Central Asia. In reality the U.S. had no such plans.

The Kremlin of Putin believed that Ukraine was on the verge of joining NATO and that American (NATO) bases would appear on Ukrainian territory. There are no plans to deploy NATO troops in Ukraine either on the part of Kyiv or the West, but the desire to keep Ukraine from NATO and NATO from Ukraine has served as one of the main reasons for Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

3. Month and half-month

The Soviet military strategists thought that the operation in Afghanistan would not last long. Marshal Sergey Sokolov, who was appointed to direct the operation in December 1979, believed he would accomplish his mission in a month. Similarly, the Soviet top diplomat Andrei Gromyko said that one month would be enough to “solve everything and leave” Afghanistan. However, the Soviet military  campaign in Afghanistan ended up lasting more than 9 years.

Putin’s Russia also believed it would quickly cope with Ukraine, and several Russian politicians and official media sources commented that two weeks would be enough to take control of all of “Novorossiya” or even reach Kyiv and then Lviv. However, fighting in eastern Ukraine has lasted more than a year now and Russian troops and separatist forces have not been able to advance significantly into Ukraine. Now there is talk about the possibility of transforming the conflict in the Donbas into a long frozen conflict.

4. Troop numbers

Roughly the same numbers of troops have been involved in Moscow’s operation in Afghanistan and the current operation against Ukraine. At different times the USSR had from 80,000 to 105,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Currently about 100,000 Russian troops are involved in military action against Ukraine — in Crimea, in the Donbas and along the Ukrainian-Russian border. In addition, there are up to 30,000 Russian-armed separatist DNR and LNR groups, who are considered terrorists in Ukraine.

5. Secret wars

The war in Afghanistan claimed the lives of more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers, and all information on the victims or the battles was classified. Most Soviet citizens were unaware that active fighting was taking place. However, people knew of the “black tulip” flights (unofficial name for the AN-12 military transport planes that transported the bodies of soldiers — Ed.) and the burials of soldiers in zinc coffins that it was forbidden to open. High casualty numbers were among the reasons for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Today in Russia the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine is kept secret. Officially, Russian soldiers are supposedly “on leave” or “on assignment.” Complete secrecy surrounds any information on the “cargo-200” transports (Russia’s military code word for soldiers killed in action — Ed.). Similarly, the burials of at least hundreds of Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine have taken place secretly and the places of their deaths have not been specified.

6. Ukrainian mujahedeen

The forces of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation consisted of the mujahedeen. They were poorly armed and did not exhibit great discipline, but with time they gained combat experience. The mujahedeen conducted partisan type warfare and were noted for their fighting spirit.

In Ukraine the fighters in the Donbas volunteer battalions are poorly armed as well and also sometimes have problems with military coordination or discipline. However, they have high enthusiasm and high morale. Similarly to the Afghans, the “Ukrainian mujahedeen” are protecting their land from invaders and consider their struggle a holy cause. Both groups are fighting voluntarily.

The Afghan mujahedeen enjoyed the support of the local people. In Ukraine the volunteer movement has become widespread.

7. Weapons

The West and several Muslim countries supplied weapons for the Afghan mujahedeen, but generally they were not enough. The Mujahedeen were fighting with Soviet-style weapons that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia bought from Arab countries (Egypt) and Israel ( many seized during wars with Arabs). Zbigniew Brzezinski recalled that there were secret purchases of Soviet weapons for the Mujahedeen from communist Czechoslovakia and also that the Soviet military themselves sometimes sold weapons in Afghanistan.

However, the turning point came in 1985 when the U.S. decided to supply portable Stinger missiles that the Mujahedeen could use to bring down the Soviet Mi-24 helicopters and the Su-25 aircraft.   The US, according to Western data, supplied at least 250 Stingers with at least 500 missiles and, according to several sources, may have supplied as many as 2000 missiles. These deliveries reversed the course of the fighting. Foreign Policy called the second half of the 1980s the “Stinger effect.”

Stingers and Javelins

The West today is in no hurry to give Ukraine lethal weapons to counter Russian aggression. Non-lethal weapons are being supplied — mostly communication systems, drones (UAVs), night vision devices and also dry rations, military boots, uniforms, etc. However, many experts say that the course of fighting in the Donbas could be reversed by deliveries of American Javelin surface-to-air rocket complexes,  which have a homing head and can penetrate modern armor. This would help Ukrainian forces destroy tanks, armored vehicles and other armored vehicles used by Russian and separatist forces and could radically change the situation in the war.

8.  “Orthodox Taliban”

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had a clear ideological character –the spread of communism and assistance for the socialist “revolution,” even though Afghan experts said that Afghans have always placed primacy on their tribal and religious identity.

The war against Ukraine also has an ideological coloring — the building of the “Russian World” and the creation of “Novorossiya.” However, as happened inAfghanistan, Putin’s Kremlin has overestimated the strength of the pro-Russian sentiment among the residents of eastern Ukraine. In ideological terms, the Donbas separatists are sometimes called fundamentalists and the “Orthodox Taliban.” One of the leaders of the LNR, for example, has ordered women not to attend clubs and restaurants but to stay at hope and do “cross stitching.” The separatists are also distinguished by their very intolerant attitude to the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Greek Catholics and other religious faiths.

9.  Isolation and sanctions

As a result of the invasion of Afghanistan, Soviet Moscow became isolated internationally. Most of the countries of the West boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The campaign in Afghanistan wore down the Soviet economy and cost it three billion dollars annually.

As paradoxical at it may seem, there was greater cooperation in decision-making during Soviet times, and a trio of influential Politburo members supported the invasion of Afghanistan: (Yuri) Andropov, (Dmitriy) Ustinov and (Andrei) Gromyko. Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, first hesitated and later agreed. What is specific about the current aggression against Ukraine is that decisions are now made unilaterally in the Kremlin. Historians believe Brezhnev’s initiative of ” détente” ended because of the war in Afghanistan,  but it appears Vladimir Putin is not at all concerned by Russia’s international isolation, the sanctions against Moscow or the new tensions in the relations between Russia and the West because of the war in Ukraine. The only thing he waited for was the end of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi before occupying Crimea and launching the war in the Donbas.

It is also interesting that the negotiations on the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan took place according to the “Geneva format” between the USSR, the USA, Pakistan and the Afghan government at the time. The international negotiations on the Ukrainian crisis first began in the “Geneva format” between the USA, EU, Russia and Ukraine. Although the focus is now  on the “Norman format,” many in Ukraine believe that the “Geneva format,” which includes the USA, would be more effective.

10. Narcotics from Afghanistan and the Donbas

According to many experts, the war in Afghanistan was responsible for massive drug addiction in Russia and other republics. Regular deliveries of marijuana were made from Afghanistan to a pharmaceutical factory in Dushanbe (Tajikistan). A James Bond film shot at the end of the 1980s deals with these trafficking relations between the pro-Soviet Afghan forces and certain Soviet leaders. There were reports about mysterious disappearances of some of the “pharmaceutical goods” in the USSR. Today many have reported on drug use in the Donbas and the involvement of certain individuals in the DNR and LNR groups with drug trafficking, which is believed to be a key source of income for these groups. According to Ukrainian media, a gram of heroin that costs $1 USD in Afghanistan goes for $100 USD when it is transported to the occupied Donbas.

Ukrainians had voted massively for independence in the 1991 referendum, partly out of reluctance to be dispatched by an imperial center once again to pursue its objectives in distant and obscure campaigns carrying heavy human losses. The Soviet Kremlin’s adventure in Afghanistan hastened the collapse of the USSR, from which independent Ukraine emerged. Today, in battles in eastern Ukraine, a truly independent Ukraine is emerging.  The war in Ukraine will have serious consequences for Russia itself, as did the war in Afghanistan.

Note: Journalist Rostyslav Khotyn is editor of the BBC Ukrainian service, a correspondent for the Reuters international news agency,  and the Brussels correspondent for the UNIAN news agency and the 1+1 channel. He reported on Russia’s first war in Chechnya and the Balkan wars I the 1990s.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
Source: Radio Svoboda

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  • Yuriy

    ” deliveries of American Javelin surface-to-air rocket complexes”

    Just to point out, there are:
    American FGM-148 Javelin – this is anti-tank missile
    British Javelin, which is surface-to-air missile

    I am pretty sure the one that could reverse the course of fighting is the anti-tank one.

    • Brent

      Ukraine doesn’t need surface to air missiles. They never have because the DPR terrorists have no Russian supplied air power. Other than drones.

      • Yuriy

        Right, it looked strange to me to. Looks like an error on the part of an author.

  • The truth

    15000 dead sovjetsoldiers in A ! How many in Ukraine ?. That is another way to keep unemployement figures low in russland/urss .
    But at the same time it gives lot of work to them in the death business. So putin´s wars is a stimulance package for the russland economy . Well needed I suppose !

    • Dagwood Bumstead

      According to official Soviet figures, there were about 14,500 KIA and MIA, and about 50,000 wounded. But how accurate and reliable are these figures???
      As for the current war, the Russian Ministry of Defence says the figures are a state secret, though it has admitted to about 900 “volunteers” having been killed until the end of 2014. But estimates by Russian NGOs such as Cargo200 and the Committee of Russian Soldiers’ Mothers suggest that the real figure could be well in excess of 7,000 killed for the Russian Army alone. Independent bloggers tend to confirm this figure through their own . To the Russian Army figures the losses of the Russian mercenaries and independent volunteers must be added, as well as those of local Donbass terrorists. These figures are unknown as they are not centrally registered. As these irregulars tend to be used as first wave assault forces (i.e. expendables to minimise Russian Army casualties) it is not unreasonable to assume that their losses are at least as heavy of the Russian Army losses and probably much higher. So we may well be looking at total losses on the LNR/DNR side of 14-15,000 killed, or as many in one year of fighting as in 10 years of Afghanistan.
      As for LNR/DNR wounded, there are reports of military hospitals all over the RF being full of Donbass wounded, with the hospitals being out of bounds to all visitors. Also to be noted is that troops from all over the RF are being sent to the Russo-Ukrainian frontier, especially to Rostov Oblast, which would tend to confirm heavy Russian Army casualties.

      • Brent

        Shows how little Putin values the lives of the adoring Russian sheep he is leading to slaughter…

        • Dagwood Bumstead

          Official Ukrainian govt figures indicate about 2,500-3,000 KIA and MIA on Kyiv’s side so if this and the unofficial figures of the losses on Kolorad side are correct the loss ratio is around 1:5 in Kyiv’s favour. Given relative population sizes of about 1:3.25 Kyiv is ahead i.e. the Kolorad losses are well in excess of population size ratio. Clearly the Kolorads cannot afford such a negative loss ratio indefinitely. It would also explain why the dwarf is rushing units from all over the RF to Rostov Oblast: the Kolorads are indeed being savagely mauled and require regular unit rotation.
          I must emphasize that the true figures on both sides are unknown so this is conjecture, but published interviews with wounded Kolorads would tend to confirm that their losses have been very heavy, something Moscow is only too eager to conceal from the world at large and especially from the Russian people. All this would also tend to indicate that despite inferior equipment, resources and training the Ukrainian forces are surprisingly effective and have learnt very quickly. With US, UK, Polish and Canadian training this can only improve with time.

  • Vlad Pufagtinenko

    Glory to Ukraine!

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    11th parallel: in both wars the aggressor (SU/Russia) left/will be forced to leave with its tail beween its legs.

    • Michaelinlondon1234

      Famine in Afghanistan is now the USA’s responsibility. You invaded, you installed the “vetted government”……..31 million people. You welcome to the economic migrants and refugees.

  • Michaelinlondon1234

    Propaganda and leaves out the American/British role in all this.
    Nuke Washington today.

  • Michaelinlondon1234

    Similar went on In the British empire. I lost track of the number of times Britain slaughtered its way in to Afghanistan and ME.

  • Brent

    Hey Kris, I’m concerned you may be ‘sampling too much of the product’…the “Washington-Moscow story of the Holodomor”?!?!?!? Seriously dude, time to detox…