This article belongs to Pax Russica series

 

“It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.” 

Henry Kissinger

 

 

In December 1979, the Soviet Union launched a military intervention in Afghanistan, having responded to the calls from Taraki government. The Soviet leaders, whose main goal was to protect the loyal regime, claimed they were fighting radical Islamists. It did not turn out to be, as initially planned, a lightning victory for the “limited Soviet contingent” – the  troops got stuck in Afghanistan for the next 10 years without reaching any results. The ultimate outcome of this unlucky endeavour for the Soviet Union were the lives of over 10,000 Soviet soldiers, plus more than 50,000 injured, additional military spendings that devastated the planned economy, and perhaps most importantly, growing popular distrust in authorities and in tomorrow. Afghanistan itself underwent a civil war and has not been able to recover up to now.

 

The 1980s provided a way bigger hit to the USSR, when the prices for oil, major Soviet export (which had actually secured a careless period for the country’s economy during the 1970s), declined from the peak of US$35 per barrel (1980) to below US$10 (1986). Towards the end of the decade the vast territory of the multinational USSR fell pray to various political, mostly ethnic, conflicts, which destroyed the very foundation of the Union–the so-called friendship of peoples. The ensuing breakup of the Soviet Union caused global transformations akin in scope to those its birth had brought upon the world`s history decades earlier. 

 

The recent years have witnessed similar developments in the world. The Ukrainian crisis that ignited in the late 2013, once again drew Russia`s direct participation, which in its turn nurtured disaffection with Russia’s actions in many countries. The Kremlin`s policy also  led to the Western sanctions against Russia, contributed to the collapse of the Russian ruble and to the wholesale economic crisis that has been deepening since 2014. This period has been accompanied by the drastic fall in oil prices: from more than $100 a barrel (June 2014) to almost $30 (as of January 2016). This spectacular decline quite unsurprisingly has put an end to almost 10 careless years, deemed as the era of prosperity during which “Rossiya podnimaetsya s kolen”, for the energy-dependent Russian economy.

 

And now Russia got engaged in overseas warfare when its authorities dispatched troops to Syria, once again referring to an agreement with the Assad government. The pretext was the same: to combat radical Islamism, but the major aim was again to provide support to the loyal regime and strengthen Russia`s position as a superpower.

 

It became Russia’s first military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. It is no coincidence therefore that many experts strove to find parallels between the  two invasions, also comparing political conjunctures and outcomes around both campaigns. Russia seems not to have learnt the disastrous experience of the past and repeats its own mistakes: Putin`s decision to go to Syria demonstrated that Russia got into the same trap its predecessor had earlier undergone. The role of Pakistan in the Afghan war passed to Turkey in Syrian conflict. Even the incident with the Russian SU-24 shot down by a Turkish F-16 on 24 November, 2015, has historical analogues: several SU-25 bombers, most lethal weapons used by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, were downed by Pakistani F-16s inside Pakistan.

 

Drawing more paralells, one can judge that the chaos in Syria will not end with Russian involvement but will last longer. Although Moscow tries to demonstrate its might with the help of the Syrian campaign, it cannot win a place among the major actors in the Middle East and will not achieve stability near its own borders. The Russian presence increases the chance of the current stalemate to last, but the enmity aroused with Turkey in Saudi Arabia will trigger these powers to resist any attempt to change the balance of forces in favour of the Assad’s regime, as they call it. Another similarity deals with the state of international isolation Russia has found herself into. Russia had already been ostracized from the elite club following the annexation of Crimea and support of the Donbass separatists, and which is worse, the country finds itself with no true allies – even the ODKB member-states do not fully support Russia or do provide their support mainly in oral form. Russia cannot rely on any external aid in Syria – even Iran, another ardent advocate of Assad somehow distances itself from Russia. Despite desperate attempts of Russian diplomats to set up an international coalition, the Western countries avoided having any deal with Russia. Persuading Francois Hollande, who was seeking vengeance in the aftermath of Paris terror attacks, did not give any results either

 

When Russia intervened in Afghanistan, it became Target No. 1 for the entire Islamic world: Muslims from different countries poured into Afghanistan to fight invaders. Oil-rich Gulf countries, in their turn, invested billions of dollars in anti-Russian forces. Russia`s engagement in Syria already draws fury of Muslims countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who will do all their best to drive Russians out of Syria.

 

Moreover, the war in Afghanistan installed many Muslims living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan against the Soviet system back in the 1980s. The Syrian campaign, in which Russia openly supports Bashar Assad, an Alawite leader, may certainly backfire with growing  radicalization and anti-Russian mood in North Caucasus, a Russian region inhabited mainly by Sunni Muslims. One could simply recall the precedent related to Chechen wars of the 1990s, when Muslim mujaheeds and money flooded to North Caucasus to further inflame the ethnic conflict in Russia`s vulnerable areas.

 

In other respects, Russia’s motives and actions in Afghanistan echo those of its Syrian intervention more closely, although many Russian experts try to deny such similarities underlining several differences. The most widely cited one among them is the abstention from deploying any land forces in Syria. However, the risk of involvement of land forces remains high. The downing of a Russian jet as well as the forecasted expansion of the military presence of Sunni powers, might provoke Russia into engaging more actively in Syria. The aims might be to trap Russia in Syria and make it suffer from more human and financial losses.

 

But what comes next in the currently unfolding chain of events if it happens to repeat the older one? The probablity of internal dissent to arise in Russia, is now widely discussed. Different scenarios are considered, from crippling dissolution to coup d’etats or “hot” conflicts; some emphasize complicated ethnoreligious patterns of the Russian Federation while others indicate to centrifugal trends in the regions that may develop if Russian isolation inflicts more political and economic pains upon Moscow. Up to date, the Russian government could extinguish ethnic fires in different parts by military means or providing those regions with more funds. The Soviet Union, which was incomparably mightier and more solid than today`s Russia could not resist external and internal pressures following the Afghan campaign and found itself unable to sponsor enormous military expenditures, cover up interregional disparities that evoked profound discontent in many places, and adapt to a pluralistic, conflictual environment. Unfortunately, democratic Russia could not overcome most of its inborne flows; its renewed desire of pursuing superpower policies well above its means are likely to question the fragile stability that was achieved with so many pains.

 

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