Déjà Vu: Why Is Russia Back in Afghanistan?

Russia is revisiting one of the key Cold War proxy battlegrounds, Afghanistan, where 15,000 of its Red Army soldiers died fighting the American-backed mujahedeen

Soviet troops with a Mi-24 attack helicopter in Afghanistan in the 1980s

MOSCOW – Looking at conflicts and hostilities across the globe today, one could be forgiven for neglecting the fact the Cold War ended decades ago. And it is Afghanistan, a key proxy battleground of that war, that Russia's president Vladimir Putin is targeting with its latest push.

Amid recent accusations by the U.S. military that Russia is supplying weapons and possibly funding to the Taliban – claims the Kremlin denies – Russia has been courting influential Afghans, expressing veiled criticism of the NATO-led mission there and holding talks aimed at ushering in peace.

What is Moscow doing in Afghanistan, a country where it fought its own disastrous, decade-long war? Here is a closer look at Moscow’s latest intervention in the country.

The past

Moscow’s decision to weigh in on matters in the landlocked Central Asian country is producing somewhat of a double take here. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan in a humiliating 1989 defeat after a war that killed at least 15,000 Red Army soldiers fighting in the name of Communism against mujahedeen insurgents backed by the United States. The war devastated Afghanistan, killing at least one million citizens, ravaging its agriculture and creating a crippling refugee crisis that is still taking its toll on the country today. The Soviet invasion is largely seen as the beginning of the violence and chaos the Afghan still live in, the start of what they are now calling their “forty years of war.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting in Moscow, April 27, 2017.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

While monuments and eternal flames commemorating the Soviets’ victory in World War II abound in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the same cannot be said of the war in Afghanistan. Instead of a hero’s welcome upon their return, veterans complain that their reception at home was chilly and they were treated as an embarrassment. On the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow, where Putin delivers a speech on the country’s military might, World War II veterans and their families and their have traditionally marched through Red Square. Even though veterans of the Afghan war, called "Afgantsy" in Russian, are now middle-aged, they are not invited for the main event.

Throughout the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, Russia maintained a cautious but watchful presence in Kabul. Its large embassy – located on the same spot as its Soviet predecessor – was staffed by Russians who had learned Dari and Pashto, the country's most widely-spoken languages, and felt more at home than those stationed at the other foreign missions there. With less security than its U.S. and British counterparts, the Russian embassy’s personnel were often accompanied by their families, a big no-no for others. Before NATO's combat role in Afghanistan officially ended in December 2014, Russia allowed it to move non-lethal military gear through its territory (and similarly gave them permission to withdraw the same way), but drew the line at that. It refused to train, give guidance or assist in the mission in any other way.

The present

Russia has long maintained that instability in Afghanistan poses a threat at home. To its north, Afghanistan borders the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, now Muslim-majority countries where Moscow continues to wield significant influence. Russia’s fear of the Islamic State, coupled with an HIV epidemic spurred by rampant heroin use, has given Moscow cause for alarm when it comes to Afghanistan. (The country produces around 90 per cent of the world’s opium, from which heroin is made.)

The visit last week by former Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to the Russian capital turned some heads among the diplomatic community here, who viewed his meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as out of place. Despite widespread rumors that Karzai is seeking to return to the presidency, which he held between 2004 and 2014, he occupies no official role in the Afghan government and has said that he will not run again. However, he still lives in the diplomatic heart of Kabul, near the presidential palace that was his home for so many years, and there if often a flurry of activity by his gates. Some have accused him of undermining the current government led by Ashraf Ghani, who is increasingly seen as too weak to rule effectively: Large swathes of Afghanistan are now under Taliban control. A NATO force of 13,000 remains in the country, but they are meant to train and assist Afghan partners, not fight.

Russian relations with Washington and the European Union are at an all-time low, and Moscow’s reappearance in Afghan affairs “is designed to irritate the Americans,” said Ghulam Jalal, who heads the Center for Afghan Diasporas in Moscow.

A man stands in front of a monument to servicemen killed during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, February 15, 2017.
GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

“It’s a continuation of the old chess game. The Americans have started messing in Syria, so Russia will try influence events in Afghanistan,” Jalal told Haaretz. His nongovernmental organization presides over a 10,000-strong community of Afghans, many of whom were given refuge in Moscow in the early 1990s when Afghanistan was engulfed in civil war. Russia’s entrance into the Syrian war less than two years ago significantly improved President Bashar Assad’s control over the country, though the United States is gradually increasing its presence there. The U.S. recently expanded its air base in northern Syria, where hundreds of American troops are stationed. In response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces, President Donald Trump’s surprise move last month to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base dashed any remaining hopes of a détente in Russian-U.S. ties.

For its part, Russia has held three rounds of talks aimed at fostering peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but the invite list has been very selective. China and Pakistan – but not Afghanistan – were invited to the first round, Kabul was included in the second and the U.S. was finally invited but declined to attend the third round, held shortly after the U.S. dropped its largest non-nuclear weapon, the MOAB, on ISIS insurgents in eastern Afghanistan in mid-April.

The future

Securing an Afghan peace deal – something Washington tried to do repeatedly, but failed – would be a major victory for Russia, serving many purposes. First, any peace negotiation is payback to the Americans for their role in Moscow’s crushing defeat in Afghanistan (which in itself was revenge for the catastrophic Vietnam War).

Second, Moscow could add any deal to its growing list of foreign policy achievements, which perfectly suits Putin, who is looking to maintain his grip on power despite nationwide protests spurred by corruption among high-ranking officials. In a poll released last month by the independent Levada Center, the majority of Russians surveyed felt Putin’s greatest achievement was the military and foreign policy; a decade ago, his management of the economy was viewed as his greatest strength.

U.S. Marines return to Helmand province in Afghanistan and raise the flag at Leatherneck Camp in Lashkar Gah, April 29, 2017.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

Third, a Moscow-brokered peace may actually do what it promises and restore a semblance – or at least hope – of respite to a situation that is increasingly spinning out of control. Last week U.S. Marines reentered Helmand province, the site of some of the war’s fiercest fighting against the Taliban. With the recent assertion by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that the alliance is considering increasing the number of forces in Afghanistan, another déjà vu is brewing. Afghans often remember the Soviet war through rose-tinted glasses, pointing to the lasting infrastructure the Soviets managed to build compared to NATO. Will one déjà vu replace the other?