Why Putin should have learned from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, saying his mission was to “denazify” the country while sending a message to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Admittedly, Nazism is the drum that any politician can beat to justify his idea or his action, no matter how crazy. But for Putin, there is a historical problem. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. His community was the target of the Nazis.
Now, Putin’s only justification for forcing a war on Ukraine is NATO’s alleged aggressive intent in expanding into Russia’s neighborhood which is dotted with independent sovereign nations. In a tightly integrated world, Putin faces multiple challenges in selling his theory both at home and abroad.
Read: Ukraine wants direct talks between Zelensky and Putin, says Foreign Minister
There are reports of unease in Russia over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in an effort to denazify Ukraine. With one claim pending, there are doubts over Putin’s “NATO is the enemy” speech as the US-backed group refused to participate in the Russian-Ukrainian war despite provocations. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly rejected the suggestion that NATO would go to war with Russia if a member country was not directly attacked. Ukraine is not a member of NATO.
While some of the protests seen in some Russian cities are said to be “organized” by Putin’s inner circle to bolster his Democratic credentials, observers say there are significant numbers of citizens in Russian cities with anti-war sentiments. This is not good news for Putin. A similar wave of sentiment was noticed after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union.
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Soviet Russia invaded Afghanistan to protect the country’s communist regime driven by the sentiment of “workers of the world, unite” – and to bring order to the country. A parallel could be drawn with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Here he is motivated by the proclaimed community of the Rus nation and to restore order in Ukraine.
In Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion sparked strong anti-Russian sentiments among locals, leading to the rise of fundamentalism. The United States has allied itself with Saudi Arabia to fuel fundamentalism linking Muslim loyalty to Islam.
The American and Saudi regimes have won Pakistan to their side. Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has created and sponsored a network of terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Ultimately, Soviet Russia was forced to retreat in 1989-90.
Soon the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 countries. Ukraine is one of them. Putin has been trying for years to bring Ukraine under Russian influence. As Ukraine tries to join the NATO side, Russia has threatened consequences for Europe if that happens.
Putin, at the same time, is challenging Ukraine’s sovereignty. He describes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as one nation. Belarus is under heavy Russian influence and provided ground to launch Putin’s military attack on Ukraine, offering the shortest route to the capital Kiev.
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Earlier, in 2014, Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine. He achieved a smooth success and a tactical win, but Putin damaged Russia’s reputation. The attack on Ukraine in the name of Russian nationalism aroused strong anti-Russian sentiments. Putin cannot expect support from the police, bureaucracy or average Ukrainians, even if his army succeeds in capturing Ukraine by force.
This is not a phenomenon specific to Russia. After World War II, attempts to capture and hold a country by force ended in embarrassing failures. The pattern was set during the Vietnam War in America. Then, the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet Russia achieved the same goal. It was followed by the US attempt to control through a puppet regime secured by democratic elections. Afghanistan now has the Taliban who have risen again and easily swept the country with almost no resistance from the people.
Only possible but limited success was seen in Iraq after the American invasion in the early 1990s. But the success was attributed mainly to the persecuted Shia minority population and a bureaucracy that felt relatively comfortable in rule-based law enforcement after the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
As the Russian-Ukrainian war drags on, Putin’s position is likely to weaken due to rising economic costs, the hostility of the Ukrainian population and the growing unease of Russian citizens, who end up paying for their president’s Ukrainian obsession.
Read: Kiev accuses Moscow of using ‘medieval siege tactics’
Ukraine is widely recognized as a more emotional and personal campaign for Putin rather than cautious about geostrategic parameters. What Soviet Russia failed to achieve in its south in Afghanistan, Putin’s Russia is experiencing a similar fate in its west in Ukraine.
Putin spoke of his painful memories of Soviet Russia’s failures in Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of Russia’s great communist empire. It was a lesson that Putin might have done well to learn.