Like Afghanistan, Ukraine is a graveyard for Russian empire

By underestimating Ukrainian resistance, Putin repeats the mistakes of his Soviet predecessors in Afghanistan
6 min read

Mujtaba Haris

23 March, 2022
Four decades ago, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it miscalculated the will of the Afghans to defend their country and paid a hefty price. Today, Putin appears to have made the same mistake in Ukraine, writes Mujtaba Haris.
A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin is used as target practice in Ukraine, where resistance has proved a challenge for Moscow. [Getty]

77 years after the guns fell silent at the end of the Second World War, and after nearly eight decades of peace in Europe, the continent has reverted back to a battlefield, as diplomacy faces its toughest test yet. 

On February 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on both air and land. Russian air forces began striking from the skies while troops on the ground attacked the border to the south and the north. With the Ukraine war, President Putin has started a blitzkrieg with priceless consequences for the two countries and the West.

So far, Russia has resorted to a variety of military tactics as well as more insidious strategies in its war against Ukraine, including cyberattacks, propaganda, misinformation screeds, and possible sabotage and subversion efforts. 

But the size and scope of the Ukrainian invasion resemble Russia’s menacing power during the Cold War era when the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979.

On December 27, 1979, nearly 85,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and killed revolutionary leader turned prime minister Hafizullah Amin over scepticism that Amin might turn away from the Soviet Union towards the United States. Of course, the Soviet Union’s invasion was also tinged with larger geopolitical considerations of the Cold War era: expanding its empire, taking a step closer to seizing a warm-water port (in Pakistan or Iran) and controlling Afghanistan's oil and natural resources.

Fighting destroyed approximately half of all of the schools in Afghanistan and more than half of clinics and hospitals, government buildings, and residential areas. About 75 percent of all communication lines were damaged and the destruction of several power plants led to intermittent blackouts throughout the country.

The economic impact of this level of destruction was disastrous. In the wake of the war, the production of opium proliferated. In 1980, Afghanistan produced 200 tonnes of opium; by 1989, this number was estimated to have grown to over 800 tonnes.

More than 2.8 million Afghans sought asylum in Pakistan, and another 1.5 million had fled to Iran. Pakistan built 350 refugee tented villages (RTVs) to house refugees, and 75 percent of males, including children, were trained and equipped inside these RTVS to fight against the Soviet invasion. 

Afghan resistance groups started sprouting up along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. For nine years, the Afghan resistance fighters were formidable warriors- highly motivated, brave, determined, skilled in guerrilla warfare and driven by religious passion and desire for revenge. Some fought for money.

The United States and Saudi Arabia began providing these fighters, the Mujahideen, with military assistance in the form of anti-tank mines, manpack mortars, radios, heavy machine guns, surface-to-air missiles, and anti aircraft guns. A billion dollars in financial assistance a year in the mid-1980s helped the resistance fight against the Soviet’s 40th Army.

The vast flow of money and military equipment to the Mujahideen kept the Soviet Army bogged down in Afghanistan. Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan to expand its empire and inch one step closer to warm water ended without achieving its initial objectives.

The Soviet dead and missing in Afghanistan over the ten years of fighting numbered between 15,000 and 26,000 soldiers and millions wounded. The Soviets lost 147 tanks, 1,314 armoured personnel carriers, 433 artillery pieces, 1,138 radio sets and command and communications vehicles, 510 engineering vehicles, and 11,369 trucks. The Afghan misadventure cost the Soviets 8 billion Roubles annually, about 10 percent of the 1989 Soviet defence budget.


The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan also became intensely disliked domestically. It strained the economy greatly, and the defeat contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin has called the greatest calamity of the 20th century.

"I have made the decision to carry out a special military operation," Putin stated in a speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine. 

So far, the West’s massive and targeted sanctions, significant diplomatic pressure, increased military, humanitarian, and intelligence support to Ukraine, have meant more suffering for Russia than it anticipated.

Cutting off Russia from SWIFT and sanctions on central bank international reserves is one of the most significant geo-economic moves in post-world war history. The Russian economy is under severe pressure; the ruble has tanked and inflation is skyrocketing as Russians queue in front of ATM machines running out of cash, opening the path for a significant economic crisis similar to the one that collapsed the Soviet Union’s financial system in the early 1990s.

The catastrophe of the intervention has created unexpected chaos. There have been thousands of casualties, while 3 million Ukrainians have already fled to neighbouring countries.

As Russia’s offensive slows, perhaps in Ukraine today Putin is facing the same dilemma Brezhnev did in 1979. 

The Ukrainian military has already indicated it will fight despite Russia's numerical and technological advantages. Like the situation with Afghanistan decades ago, a tenacious insurgent Ukrainian resistance movement has threatened Russian troops and pushed back against the unwelcome occupiers. 

Indeed, the strength of the Ukrainian resistance with the international support of the West appears to have surprised Moscow, who has recently shifted tactics towards greater use of artillery and missile strikes against major cities, such as Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kherson.

Four decades ago, the Soviets miscalculated the will of the Afghans to defend their country; similarly, Putin appears to have underestimated the will of Ukrainians to defend their homeland.


The question is, how long will the unity and resolve from the West last for Ukraine?

After the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan, the West forgot about Afghanistan, opening the way for a massive civil war and safe haven for international terrorism.

In the aftermath of this proxy war, the United States equipped and trained several insurgent groups that allowed international terrorists, including Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Omar Abdel Rahman, to establish operating bases.

The arrival of the United States and NATO to fight against terrorism and expel the Taliban marked the fourth time in 160 years that a foreign power put troops on the ground in Afghanistan. After two decades of conflict that has killed millions of Afghans, it is the people who bear the brunt of war, drought, and an economic collapse.

Whether a similar fate awaits Ukraine remains to be seen.

Mujtaba Haris is an Afghan researcher, journalist, and youth advocate. He spent 15 years working in major cities — Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif — and rural areas — Logar province. He is an MBA graduate from Cumbria University, UK. He is a Global Peace award winner. 

Follow him on Twitter: @mujtaba_haris 

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