29 Aug 2014

Ukraine: lessons Putin must learn from Russian invasion of Afghanistan

President Putin said today that he hopes, despite western condemnation of his policy in Ukraine, Russia can still hold the World Cup in 2018.

Football might seem to be a low priority while people are cowering in basements as fighting rages across eastern Ukraine, but maybe he was thinking of 1980 when, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

History rarely repeats itself, but it can be instructive. As the Soviet Union led by Leonid Brezhnev was preparing to invade Afghanistan, then US president Jimmy Carter was hoping for the best, much as President Obama seems to be hoping now.

When Soviet troops went marching across the border in December 1979, the American response was to impose sanctions, recall their ambassador and put nuclear negotiations on hold – measures that “hawks” in the US found weak just as they find Obama’s policy weak today.

Those were the days of mutually assured destruction, when the threat of nuclear war hung over the world as a deterrent to action. Interesting that today, as he pushed Russian armour and men across the border into Ukraine, President Putin thought it helpful to remind the world that Russia is “one of the world’s most powerful nuclear states”.

The Americans embarked on a covert military policy in Afghanistan. The CIA funnelled arms to mujahadeen fighters based in Pakistan – including brigades financed by the young Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden – who harried the Soviet forces. Month by month, Soviet soldiers, with old-fashioned WWII style equipment and poor morale, operating in the forbidding territory of Afghanistan, lost territory and heart.

The Americans are already arming the Ukrainian government, and this time it’s the Russians and their local eastern Ukrainian irregulars who are the rebels. If Putin’s aim is simply to destabilise Ukraine, rather than to occupy any part other than the Crimea, which he annexed earlier in the year, he can do that maybe indefinitely.

But I’m sure he has not forgotten how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ended.

The war alienated many Soviet women whose sons were killed in “a far off land of which we know little”. The mothers became a powerful source of opposition who could not be dismissed as stooges of the evil capitalist west.

This week, after captured Russian soldiers were paraded by Ukrainian government forces, their mothers and wives started to demonstrate against the war.

“Sons, boys, we are with you,” said Olga Garina, the mother of one of the captured soldiers. “If the commanders don’t get you out of this mess, we, your mothers, will.”

After a decade, President Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops. The expense of the war had crippled the economy, a major reason for the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. In the end, the invasion of Afghanistan was a disaster for the Soviets.

For the moment, President Putin seems confident as he says one thing and does another – denying that Russian soldiers have crossed the border despite overwhelming evidence is classic Soviet doublespeak. But the lesson of Afghanistan is that war has its own unintended consequences.

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