Common roots of USSR’s war against Afghanistan and of Russia’s war against Ukraine. IPN debate

The war in Afghanistan is the largest war ever led by the Soviet Union. This lasted for nine years and seven weeks. In this fight, the Soviet Union mobilized in Afghanistan a total of 620,000 troops. According to official reports, about 15,000 people died in this war. However, according to Western literature and the opposition, the figure stands at 150,000 people. Unofficial reports say the figure can be compared with the number of lives the Russo-Ukrainian war has claimed in only 11 months. Experts invited to a public debate staged by IPN discussed the common roots of the USSR’s war against Afghanistan and of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the lessons taught by the past to realize the reasons and identify solutions for bringing the war to an end as swiftly as possible and in the most just way possible.

Igor Boțan, the permanent expert of IPN’s project, said the Soviet Union claimed to be the first state that recognized the independence of Afghanistan after the so-called third Afghan-British war and this way considered it could influence Afghanistan. Consequently, the king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah was removed from power in 1973, while this was paying a visit abroad. The power was seized by a close relative of this, Muhammad Doud. But a new coup was staged in 1978 and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan came to power as a result, proclaiming the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

“Together with the second coup, a civil war started in Afghanistan and this involved the USSR somehow. The recent Russian historiography insists that the new power in Afghanistan requested the Soviet Union to detach specialists, including party development experts, service members, economists, KGB agents, to train the new government in Afghanistan.  Back in 1978, they also discussed a military intervention by the Soviet Union, but the Politic Bureau and Brezhnev himself were against, considering that it was inopportune and the consequences for the Soviet Union would be not beneficial. But things evolved and the members of the ruling party in Afghanistan in September 1979 got into a fight between them,” explained Igor Boțan.

According to the expert, together with the so-called revolution of April, the civil war started in Afghanistan and this involved the neighboring countries Pakistan and China, but the United States also pursued particular goals. These aspects led to the Soviet Union’s intervention of December 1979, with the Kabul Airport being captured and communications being blocked. The Palace of President Amin was besieged and the Afghan leader was killed.

Igor Boțan considers there are resemblances with the war in Ukraine, but there are also essential differences. The preparations for the invasion of Ukraine took place at a number of levels, including the ideological one, and these were intensified after the annexation of Crimea and the inciting of the conflict in Donbas in 2014. “In 2021, Ukraine was surrounded by Russian military forces that were allegedly involved in military training. There were a lot of warnings about an direct invasion, but Russia denied these. The reports ultimately turned out to be true,” stated the expert.

University lecturer Ion Valer Xenofontov, doctor of history, author of two books about the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989), said that Afghanistan came under the influence of the Bolshevik state before 1922 because it was isolated at international level. As the Bolsheviks, Afghanistan wasn’t recognized by the Europeans and this united them in the context of the big game played by the British Empire in the West. “This isolation led to connections and consular offices were opened in Afghanistan. Lenin was the one who intermediated. In fact, in an interesting way Lenin said that Afghanistan can never be conquered, but the Soviet leaders didn’t listen to the parent of the Soviet state for unknowing reasons,” stated Ion Valer Xenofontov.

According to him, particular ties between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were established in the 1920s, including at propaganda level – identical newspapers were published, doctoral theses in the military and political spheres were defended and radio stations with the same broadcast schedule were opened in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. “In 1929, an attempt was made to incorporate Afghanistan into the Soviet Union by military ways. But the Soviet Union suffered a defeat. The power was underestimated as the endemic forces united and failure was witnessed. But this military experience was used in over 50 years. In 1950, the Soviets came closer to Afghanistan at military level as a series of “councilors” were assigned, but these were actually service members under cover who studied the natural resources of Afghanistan,” stated the lecturer.  

The doctor of history noted that the king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah was removed from power in 1973. A rupture, social, national and ethnic fragmentation occurred later in the Afghan mentality. As monarchy is the symbol of authority, the Afghans had a monarch who united them. This dynasty had managed Afghanistan since 1774. “We see a fight between tradition and modernization in Afghanistan. A civilization battle was conducted - where was Afghanistan: in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union or in the Western sphere?” noted Ion Valer Xenofontov. According to him, realizing the situation, the Soviet Union broke its own Constitution and resorted to violence and intervened so as to prevent the change of the foreign policy course.

Vitalie Marinuța, ex-minister of defense, said the war in Ukraine should not be regarded as a war that started on February 24, 2022 as it began together with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, while the preconditions were set practically in the previous history of the Russian Federation or even in the Soviet Union. “The Russian Empire didn’t disappear. I consider it turned into that Soviet Union with Russia at its basis, which controlled the other Soviet republics by a Communist-Socialist form of government. Together with the fall of the Soviet Union, we have seen those imperial intentions of Russia continuing. Even the most liberal president of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin in 1991, when he was asked about Russia’s borders, he trenchantly said that these were the borders of the Soviet Union. The leaders of the Russian Federation since then have considered how to restore those territories. For his part, Putin recently said that it was a mistake for the Soviet Union to give the right to self-determination to the former Soviet republics,” stated the ex-minister.

According to him, the active phase of the war began on February 24, 2022, when the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine from three directions. “Practically the same tactics were used – to parachute a rather large air assault unit or the special forces and to then advance with the troops. We see that those tactics, those strategies of the Russian Federation failed in the Russo-Ukrainian war and this is due to a number of factors, as in the war in Afghanistan, including the strengthening of the international community’s support for the attacked state,” said Vitalie Marinuța.

“This is one of the bloodiest wars of contemporaneity, especially of this century. Over 7-8 million Ukrainians already left their homes. About 2 million Ukrainians are internationally displaced and, as statistical data that cannot be yet confirmed show, over 100,000 people from both sides involved in the war died. Some of the official data put the figure much higher, but the data presented by nongovernmental organizations and other sources are probably the most correct ones.”

The debate entitled “Common roots of USSR’s war against Afghanistan and of Russia’s war against Ukraine” was the second installment of the series “Impact of the Past on Confidence and Peace Building Processes” that is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany. The first installment of the project was held last week under the theme “Common roots of World War II and of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine”. The video recording can be seen here.

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