Russia’s unwinnable war
It is early days yet for Moscow’s military campaign in Syria but the parallels with its most recent overseas operation in Afghanistan are inescapable.
As with Afghanistan 26 years ago, Moscow is banking on — and planning for — just a short burst of activity in Syria. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has stressed that the operation to bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad was not a plan for “a long-term war”. She added, using words that might prove to be dreadfully prescient: “We are [only] providing a counterterrorism operation there.”
Compare this with the 2002 Russian General Staff report The Soviet- Afghan war: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, which draws on recollections of senior officers who served in Afghanistan. The report says the Soviet Army’s mission when it went into Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979 was to stabilise the Moscow-backed Afghan government, strengthen the Afghan Army and withdraw the bulk of Soviet forces within three years.
It was not to be. The Afghan campaign lasted 9 years, 1 month and 18 days. Its deleterious effects became obvious after the Soviet Army withdrew. The military had crucially lost its image of invincibility.
This gutted its heart, according to William Odom, an American general who headed Ronald Reagan’s National Security Agency. Odom specialised in matters relating to the Soviet Union and wrote the most authoritative account of the Soviet military’s collapse. The grinding failure of that long, debilitating engagement would eventually become a microcosm for the problems afflicting Soviet society in general.
Memories of that long, bloody war are resurfacing now that the Syrian operation has begun. In Moscow recently, songwriter Vladimir Mazur sang to fellow soldiers at an Afghan war veterans’ centre: “We lost so many young men in Afghanistan but there’s no point grieving. We just have to make sure it never happens again.”
The second parallel is timing. As with Afghanistan in 1979, Russia has gone into Syria believing that the accretion of American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted the historical correlation of forces in its favour.
This may be a mistake.
In his 1994 book Diplomacy, former US secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed that Moscow drew its own conclusions from America’s failure in Vietnam in 1975 and was emboldened enough to expand its theatre of interest into Yemen, Angola, Somalia and Ethiopia over the next three years. Then, it went into Afghanistan, a massive overextension that ultimately led to the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
But that’s where the parallels stop, for 2015 is not 1979 and Russia is not the Soviet Union. It no longer has any ideological currency worth anything. Anti-Westernism is a good mantra and Vladimir Putin’s Russia uses it as advantageously and strategically as possible, although there are limits.
Moscow’s Syrian campaign is also different from the Afghan operation in the way it is being conducted, almost like a video game. From early on, Russia mounted Kalibr cruise missile strikes on targets in Syria from warships 1,500 kilometres away. This accomplished two things.
First, it demonstrated an important new military capability in line with the United States’ distant forcefulness with its Tomahawk cruise missile strikes in the two Gulf wars and against targets in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Second, the Kalibr strikes provide distance from the theatre of war, which is important to Putin’s people. The independent Russian pollster Levada-Center in October found that 78% of Russians said they feared the Syrian campaign would turn into a “second Afghanistan”. The use of cruise missiles suggests this may not be immediate or, more to the point, inevitable.
That said, even at this early stage of Russia’s Syrian campaign, it is difficult to see it as anything other than an unwinnable war, waged on behalf of an unpopular leader, for hubristic reasons. If that sounds dreadfully familiar, it’s because it is.