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

The Kremlin’s wars in Afghanistan and in Ukraine: ten parallels
Article by: Rostyslav Khotyn
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

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 US 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 US 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 US 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
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