Yaacov Ro’i is professor emeritus of Russian history at the Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies at Tel Aviv University. His new book, “The Bleeding Wound: the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the Collapse of the Soviet System” will be published by Stanford University Press in March 2022.
In December 1979, four elderly men in the Kremlin decided to send a force of some 80,000 Soviet troops into neighboring Afghanistan. Their aim? To sustain the Marxist-Leninist regime that had taken power nearly two years prior, and whose land and other social and economic reforms had aroused the ire of the tribes and the Muslim establishment in Afghanistan, embroiling the country in a civil war.
Eventually entangled in a military intervention that lasted over nine years, Afghanistan became what Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, called “a bleeding wound” for the country.
Much has changed since then. But as Russian troops continue to amass on Ukraine’s borders today and the stalemate of international diplomacy marches into yet another week of talks, some things remain the same, as Ukraine threatens to become yet another bleeding wound.
As early as March 1979, the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan’s regime had been urging Moscow to provide military support against the rebels. While not prepared “to lose Afghanistan,” the Politburo — the ruling body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — resisted requests to send in Soviet troops, though providing significant military aid and a considerable contingent of advisors and technicians. Due, however, to internecine wrangling within the Marxist regime, and its inherent incompetence and corruption, the situation in Afghanistan only deteriorated, until eventually the Soviet leadership resolved to intervene militarily.
Pitted against an adversary who knew the country and its topography, was accustomed to its harsh climate and, above all, was defending its homeland against a foreign invader, the Soviet force stood little chance. True, it was far more advanced in terms of military technology, yet it was hamstrung by the rigidity of its discipline and hierarchical structure, the misinformation its commanders sent home to conceal the true state of affairs, the harsh conditions of everyday existence that reduced the already low morale of Soviet forces to a nadir and the total unpreparedness for counter-insurgency guerrilla warfare.
The ripple of effects of the Soviet Union’s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan had substantial impact at home. The eventual failure to win the war — even if they did not officially lose it — undercut the prestige of the Soviet military, one of the few sacred cows remaining in a country dominated by a party whose raison d’être was an ideology in which nobody seemed to believe any longer.
Moreover, it cost the Soviet economy meaningful sums — sums that even today nobody has been able to assess with any accuracy – and at a time when the economy was already in shambles, and citizens spent a high proportion of their spare time waiting in line for basic commodities that, in the end, they were often unable to obtain.
Soviet citizens were no longer the meek and subdued subjects of a seemingly omnipotent dictatorship, and a home front soon emerged. The Kremlin had deluded itself into believing its force could do garrison duty and guarantee the security of strategic points and installations, thus freeing the Afghan regime’s army to deal with the insurgents and so avoid incurring casualties. But once an army becomes embroiled in hostilities, losses are inevitable, and political leadership cannot supervise the way its own civilian population will react to losses.
Certainly, the casualties in the Afghan war bred a reaction at home that took the Kremlin by surprise. It unleashed anger and antagonism toward the system that had enabled involvement in a war in a foreign land with which Soviet citizens could not identify, and that concealed from its citizenry what was happening to their husbands, lovers and brothers.
Much has changed since the 1980s, but were Russia to invade Ukraine, some of these same resultant risk factors still loom large today: The standard of living of most Russian citizens remains low; the adversary is being armed with updated Western war material; the media are still largely state controlled.
The pretext for Russia’s buildup on the Ukrainian border is, just as it was then, that the West is threatening Russian security. In 1979, the Kremlin spoke of the danger to its southern border, of the threat of Pershing missiles being introduced into Afghanistan. But neither then, nor now, was the pretext convincing.
Wars are never sterile, nor do they evolve according to plan. And however tight their control, politicians who send troops into war for political reasons cannot foresee all contingencies in the field. There are simply too many variables.
Today, the paramount consideration remains the need for Moscow to show the world that it is a great power in possession of an agreed sphere of influence — one which it cannot allow a rival power to infiltrate. And while Ukraine is not a foreign country in the sense that Afghanistan was, it is far from certain that the population of today’s Russia, while still limited in its freedom of expression, will tolerate considerable loss of life in Moscow’s attempt to dominate the Ukrainian political scene.