In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
A Soviet soldier on watch in Afghanistan, 1988.

Do Trump’s Afghanistan Claims Mirror Moscow’s Rhetoric?

January 11, 2019
RM Staff

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump offered his take on Soviet Russia’s experiences in Afghanistan as he argued in favor of a huge U.S. troop withdrawal and a larger contribution by Moscow to stabilize the war-racked country. The U.S. president put forward two basic propositions: that the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet Union and led to its collapse and that the reason Moscow (rightly, according to Trump) invaded Afghanistan “was because terrorists were going into Russia.” Both claims rightly drew a barrage of criticism in the U.S., Europe and Afghanistan. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers, normally measured in their criticism of Trump’s conduct and policies, said of his contention about terrorists that they “cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”

Among the rebukes leveled at Trump was, in the words of one Republican commentator, that he was repeating “Soviet-Putinist propaganda.” But was he? While Russian diplomats had cautiously welcomed earlier reports of a planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Kremlin supported Trump’s two propositions. The state-owned RT media conglomerate, known to toe the Kremlin line, also chose to withhold support in its coverage of Trump’s Jan. 3 remarks, including a story on its Russian-language website titled “‘An Argument for Ignoramuses’: Why Trump Blamed Afghanistan for the Soviet Collapse.” Instead, the report quoted at length from critical responses in U.S. newspapers, including political scientist Barnett Rubin’s comment to The Washington Post that, “The most shameless Soviet propagandist never claimed that Afghan terrorists were attacking Russia.”

Russian officials’ and propagandists’ decision to refrain from endorsing Trump’s claims—especially that Moscow was right to send troops into Afghanistan because otherwise terrorists would have invaded the Soviet Union—is all the more notable given that Moscow has been casting its Soviet-era Afghan war in a more favorable light than before. Indeed, Russia’s State Duma plans to adopt an official document next month, stressing the long-ago military campaign’s legitimacy in terms of international law and overturning a 1989 Soviet parliamentary resolution condemning the invasion.

However, looking beyond the immediate Russian reaction to Trump’s remarks, one finds that both his propositions echo some earlier assessments of the Soviet-era Afghan war (see below). For example, while the official Russian statements, documents and textbooks reviewed for this blog post do not support Trump’s claim that the Soviet Union “went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” and ceased to exist as a result, at least one of them does acknowledge that the campaign put a significant drain on Soviet finances. More importantly, while none of the sources claimed, as Trump did, that “terrorists were going into Russia” at the time of the Soviet invasion, some prominent ones—most notably President Vladimir Putin—have said or implied that concerns about a spillover of the Islamist insurgency from Afghanistan into the Soviet Union across their shared border did contribute to Moscow’s decision to send troops.

Proposition I as formulated by Trump:

“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. … The problem is it was a tough fight. And literally, they went bankrupt. … A lot [of] these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan.”

Russians’ take on Proposition I in chronological order:

  • Analytical memo from Moscow-based Institute of the Economy of the Global Socialist System to Central Committee of CPSU: “With the sending of troops to Afghanistan our policy … has crossed the permissible boundaries of confrontation in the ‘third world.’ The benefits of this action turned out to be insignificant in comparison with the damage that was inflicted on our interests.” (1980)

  • Economist and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, in his book explaining the collapse of the Soviet Union, cited the war in Afghanistan as an example of disproportionate geopolitical ambition, but did not identify it among the major drivers of collapse. Gaidar identified about a dozen structural, longer-term factors and several more immediate triggers whose confluence led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The predominant factor was the inefficiency of the Soviet economy, which could not cope with a sharp drop in revenues from oil exports. (2007)

  • 11th-grade textbook "History, Late 19th - Early 21st Century" (N.V. Zagladin and Yu.A. Petrov): “Economic losses were estimated to have totaled tens of billions of rubles.1 … [S]pending allocated through the Defense Ministry alone exceeded 12 billion rubles and 8 billion hard-currency-equivalent rubles on various aid… These expenditures had a significant impact on the state of the Soviet economy.” (2004)

  • As of the late 1970s, Soviet aid accounted for half of all foreign aid to the pro-Moscow government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, according to Vladimir Toporkov, a KGB officer who advised Afghanistan’s security establishment in the 1980s and went on to become a general in post-Soviet Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. By his calculations that he published in the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military-Historic Journal , the overall costs, including both aid and funding for Soviet military operations in Afghanistan, totaled the equivalent of $50 billion in 1979-1989. That sum by itself was “neither catastrophic nor painful” for the Soviet economy, according to Toporkov. In fact, the Soviet defense budget totaled some $128 billion in 1989 alone, while both military aid and maintaining the so-called limited military contingent, or LMC, in Afghanistan cost less than $2 billion a year at the time. (Adjusted for inflation, that would equal some $4 billion in 2019—compare with the $2.25 billion a year Russia is spending on federal aid to Crimea.) (2014)

  • Boris Gromov, army commander who led withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989: “The collapse of the Soviet Union had been approaching even before the campaign in Afghanistan began. These were complex processes, and they had begun long before that. They were underway, gaining momentum. It would be more correct to say that the war in Afghanistan gave one of the impulses for the collapse of the USSR.” (2016)

  • The online version of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential library notes that the Soviet decision to send troops had “an extremely negative impact on the international standing of the USSR. The country, in fact, found itself in partial international isolation.” (Undated)

Proposition II as formulated by Trump:

“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. … They [the Soviets] were right to be there.”

Russians’ take on Proposition II in chronological order:

  • Official reason for sending troops as formulated by the Soviet Politburo on Dec. 12, 1979: "In order to provide international assistance to the friendly Afghan people, as well as to create favorable conditions for preventing anti-Afghan actions by neighboring states." A secret appendix to the Politburo’s resolution on how to spin the deployment of troops said it should be portrayed as “rendering help and assistance to the people and government of Afghanistan in fighting against external aggression,” which, as Leonid Brezhnev described in his Dec. 12, 1979, draft letter to Jimmy Carter, “had been occurring for a long period of time and now has acquired yet a wider scale.” (A classified Nov. 29, 1979, document co-authored by three Politburo members and the secretary of the Central Committee makes it clear that the Soviet leadership’s primary geopolitical concern was the possibility of a friendlier stance toward Washington by Afghan President Hafizullah Amin.)

  • “History of Soviet Russia” textbook (I.S. Ratkovsky and M.V. Khodyakov): “The coup in the leadership of the PDPA [People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan] (October 1979), the death of head of state [Nur Muhammad] Taraki, the rise to power of Amin, who carried out repressions in the party, and the strengthening of the Islamic opposition all forced the Soviet Union to resort to the use of force.” (2001)

  • President Vladimir Putin:  “Of course, one of the motives was the wish of the Soviet Government to secure our southern borders. Afghanistan was an extremely volatile and unpredictable neighbor. And we see what is happening there today. I must say that the Soviet military commanders … were against the operation, citing the difficulty of conducting military operations on that particular terrain. This is attested to by the documents and the testimony of the veterans who were engaged in these processes. But the superpowers and their allies had been engaged in a global confrontation for decades, and they proceeded in accordance with the logic of confrontation and their own vision of their geopolitical interests of the time.” (2004)

  • Russian historian and retired general Alexander Lyakhovsky wrote in his 2009 book “The Tragedy and Valor of Afghanistan” that the key trigger behind the Kremlin’s decision to send Soviet troops was the failure of the local Communist leadership’s armed forces to repel the onslaught of the mujahedeen.

  • 11th-grade textbook "History, Late 19th - Early 21st Century" (Zagladin and Petrov): The Soviet leadership’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan was dictated by the desire to attain “full political control over the territory of Afghanistan, protection of own borders, [and] countering attempts by the other superpower to gain a foothold in the region.” (2014)

  • Vladimir Putin: “Of course, there were a lot of mistakes, but there were also real threats that at that time the Soviet leadership tried to stop by sending troops into Afghanistan. … At that time our country encountered what is today called political Islam in Afghanistan. The extremist organizations were only getting born at the time, and they were being artificially fed from the outside.” (2015)

  • Senator Franz Klintsevich, leader of the Russian Union of Afghan Veterans, said (when he was a State Duma deputy from the Kremlin’s United Russia party) that, “The presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan ‘froze’ the threat of terrorism, which has now become problem No. 1 for all mankind. The Soviet Union was the first to take on the brunt of ‘jihad,’ whose theoreticians and implementers were ideologically and financially fostered by the secret services of Western countries, first and foremost the U.S.” (2015)

  • Russian Defense Ministry encyclopedia: “The DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] leadership viewed third countries’ support of the armed opposition [in Afghanistan] as these countries’ participation in a war against Afghanistan and repeatedly appealed to the USSR for direct military assistance. By the end of 1979, the situation in the country had deteriorated dramatically, [and] a threat that the left regime would fall had emerged in what the Soviet leadership believed could lead to an increase in the influence of Western countries on the southern borders of the USSR, as well as to a transfer of the armed struggle to the territory of the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics.” (Undated)

  • The online version of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential library notes that the March 1979 mutiny of some DRA forces in Herat province, where the rebellious soldiers allied with the mujahedeen, was one of the more notable precipitants of the Soviet decision to send troops because that province bordered the Soviet Union’s Turkmen Republic. (Undated)

1Contrast that sum with the Soviet defense budget, which, according to SIPRI, totaled 138 billion rubles in the last full year of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan alone (1988). Official Soviet rate was 1 Soviet ruble = $1.51 as of January 1979.

Photo: A Soviet soldier on watch in Afghanistan, 1988. RIA Novosti archive image by A. Solomonov shared under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.