The Specter of the Soviet Union's Afghan War Haunts Russia in Ukraine
The war in Afghanistan, launched by the Soviet Union in December 1979, was conducted for the sake of "fulfillment of the international duty to help the brotherly Afghan people."
It lasted for nine years and ended with the forced and not victorious withdrawal of Soviet troops from the territory of the neighboring state.
In this war, conducted with the purpose of establishing socialist order in Afghanistan, 18,833 Soviet people were killed, died of wounds, and diseases, while 49,985 people were wounded, 669 became disabled, 417 were captured (and only about one third of them returned home).
During the nine years of the war, 620,000 soldiers and officers passed through Afghanistan. Many of them fell ill with "Afghan syndrome" (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other mental illnesses.
Socialism was not established in Afghanistan. This war, not very understandable to Soviet citizens, demonstrated to the world the regime's imperialist character and was the catalyst for the collapse of the USSR.
This last war fought by the Soviet Union turned out to be one of those last suicidal landmines on which this huge state exploded. It ceased to exist two years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1991. The Soviet-backed Afghan government fell in 1992.
The purpose of the Afghan war was not quite clear to the population of the USSR, especially its dominant Russian segment, but still it had a clear enemy, the mujahideen, who were people of a different religion, speaking a different language, far removed in Russian customs and traditions, who looked alien and hostile.
Today the war in Ukraine has been going on for a year and a half, which means it is currently six times shorter in duration than the Afghan War.
Many times more Russian soldiers have already been killed, wounded and maimed in this war than Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. The war in Ukraine is even less understandable to the population of the Russian Federation than the war in Afghanistan was to Soviet Russian citizens. The enemy professes the same Orthodox Christian religion, belongs to the same group of Slavic peoples, speaks a similar language, and lived with Russians in the same Soviet nation for decades.
But Soviet Russians were used to their country's army invading other countries to join the socialist camp or to strengthen socialist regimes in them.
Apparently, this allowed Soviet citizens to somehow understand the Afghan War.
It was much more difficult to formulate the purpose of Russia's war in Ukraine. For Russian citizens, it was necessary to invent a special "Ukrainian enemy," who, for the sake of plausibility, possessed the features of the old undisputed and recognizable enemy -- the Nazis.
In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in response to a question about the Afghan War: "Actually, there was no military defeat of the Soviet Union. It achieved all the goals it set for itself. In military terms."
In February 2015, Putin said that although "there were a lot of mistakes," the reason for the deployment of troops to Afghanistan was "real threats."
His response was similar on the matter of Ukraine.
After the annexation of Crimea, the leadership of the Russian Federation understood that it was necessary to justify the aggressive policy as was done by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, for the country is the heir of the USSR. That included inheriting its imperialist policy in order to use it against Ukraine.
Empires are characterized, in the terms of the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse, by "one-dimensional consciousness," i.e., in this case, it is a lack of self-control, sober assessment of the situation and fascination with their own power and rightness.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan not only cost Soviet taxpayers a lot of money, it not only killed, wounded, and crippled physically and mentally hundreds of thousands of Soviet people, it brought the end of their country closer. The Soviet Union collapsed and ceased to exist.
The Russian Federation's war in Ukraine is many times more dangerous for the preservation of this country than the Afghan War was for the USSR. Ukraine became independent because of the collapse of the USSR. It can preserve its independence thanks to the possible collapse of the Russian Federation.
The war in Ukraine was conceived according to the scenario of the USSR war in Afghanistan: a short war, a quick victory, the establishment of pro-Soviet rule in Afghanistan, a show of Soviet military might to the "collective West."
But the calculation in Ukraine turned out to be as flawed as it was in Afghanistan.
The current war is unfolding according to the Afghan scenario: a long, destructive, bloody war, weakening of the Russian Federation, which may lead to its collapse. The USSR was a more powerful country than the Russian Federation, but lost the war in Afghanistan. Like the U.S. in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the USSR retreated from Afghanistan. It realized it was defeated and withdrew from Afghanistan to prevent the defeat from becoming even greater.
The Russian Federation has turned the war in Ukraine into an existential war, for it cannot retreat in its fight against the "Nazis" and against the "collective West. It has made the war a Hamletian question: "to be or not to be?"
That is, to be an empire, a suzerain to which its former vassal Ukraine must submit and whose imperial greatness must be recognized by the "collective West," or to lose, that is, to fall apart like the Soviet Union?
By declaring itself heir to the Soviet Union, Russia has arrogated to itself the right to seize the territories that belonged to it and has found it legitimate to copy its status as an expanding empire seeking to turn as many countries as possible into "socialist" ones. But by arrogating to itself the rights of the Soviet Union to "gather lands" under the aegis of Soviet power, Russia may have arrogated to itself also its fate to suffer a fatal defeat through a self-righteous, mistaken overestimation of its own strength and to disintegrate because of the adventure of launching a war presented to it as a war for its own existence.
The Russian empire disintegrated thanks to its defeat in World War I. The Soviet Union collapsed in a failed attempt to follow the traditions of the Russian Empire. As its true heir, the Russian Federation is apparently following the path of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
Image: Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files, via U.S. National Archives, via Picryl // no known copyright restrictions