Party Like It’s 1979: Comparing Ukraine and the Last Soviet Invasion

By Brad Settelmeyer and Alison O’Neil

Afghan children play on a Russian tank destroyed during the Soviet invasion.
Image Credit: Sayed Salahuddin/REUTERS

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked the world, its effects reverberating across global supply chains and generating condemnation from states and multinational firms alike. In many ways, the crisis in Ukraine invites comparisons with the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. 

The latter garnered similar international opprobrium, prompting the 1980 Olympics boycott and sparking panic amongst American officials. Many viewed the invasion as a threat to what would later be named the Carter Doctrine, a stagflation-era American grand strategy centered on the defense of Persian Gulf oil. 

The Central Intelligence Agency, assisted by regional allies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China, backed Afghanistan’s resistance of holy warriors (the mujahideen). The CIA would also later aid Afghanistan in gaining independence from Soviet rule in 1989. 

The Javelin anti-tank missile and the Stinger surface-to-air missile–American weapons of choice–certainly conjure up images of US-backed Afghan mujahideen. However, there was still plenty of secrecy and obfuscation surrounding the delivery of these weapons systems. The conditions of the Cold War necessitated that the United States maintain deniability for its covert involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War lest it prompt Soviet retaliation.

In contrast, the United States has publicized its support for Ukraine from the start. However, Washington has avoided officially referencing shipments of lethal aid for the most part. Earlier shipments of Stingers traveled from the Baltic states into Ukraine and, most recently, from Germany to Ukraine. 

The Pentagon and the White House will not confirm an earlier statement that America sent Ukraine a lethal aid package including 200 Stingers. As Politico puts it, the current administration may seek to be “seen on the side of defending Ukraine, but not visibly on the side of killing Russians.”

While the Americans remain loath to publicly acknowledge a growing role in Ukraine’s resistance movement, arms shipments have continued to pour in from around the world. 

On top of 350 million dollars of military aid from the United States, the European Union has coordinated various shipments of lethal and non-lethal aid to Ukraine. The amount of aid to Ukraine now totals a combined 1 billion dollars. 

At this rate, Ukraine is more likely to run out of men than it is weapons. A recent Ukrainian Armed Forces tweet called for all citizens to take up arms, requiring only that would-be volunteers present a government I.D. Even foreign volunteers have been invited to join the fight against Russian aggression.

While many parallels clearly connect the Soviet-Afghan War and current Russian aggression in Ukraine, it is important to recognize the ways in which the two conflicts differ. 

Notably, it remains to be seen whether the two conflicts diverge in their potential for blowback. The Afghan resistance resulted in victory against the Soviets, but the Afghan Civil War – fought between opposing factions that the United States had armed – would soon devastate the country. 

The resulting chaos laid the groundwork for the instability that ultimately ushered the Taliban into power. Will arming Ukraine’s insurgency result in similar unintended consequences?

Answering that question requires accounting for Afghanistan and Ukraine’s unique politics, geography, and history in the context of Cold War-era covert operations. 

At least for the moment, Ukraine is presenting a united front against the Russians. President Volodymr Zelenskyy, who makes up the public face of the growing resistance movement, has called for unity against Russia. The Ukrainian public has so far continued to heed his call. 

There is also no telling whether the resistance movement will remain so united, especially in the face of Russian disinformation attacks that may seek to sow division.

Zelenskyy, Russia’s self-proclaimed “target No. 1”, continues to refuse evacuation. This decision has strengthened Ukraine’s resistance for the time being but has also opened a further point of vulnerability. Without Zelenskyy as a rallying point, would Ukraine’s resistance remain united or would it fracture into factions reminiscent of 1990s Afghanistan?

The Ukrainian military’s enlistment requirements for both foreign and domestic volunteers can certainly be interpreted as less than stringent. Thus, the number of civilian soldiers enlisting in the Ukrainian army can come as no shock. 

Ukraine’s call for foreign fighters has raised concerns among some analysts, who fear that far-right movements may take advantage of the crisis. Specifically, members of far-right European organizations have traveled to Ukraine to fight in order to gain combat experience.

Given the far right’s inclinations towards violence, it is safe to say that some organizations could return from the war in Ukraine as a more credible and deadly force. This would be a force which Europe would have to deal with for the long term.

The West faced a similar dilemma after the end of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. Many mujahideen were themselves foreign fighters (including, but not limited to, Osama bin Laden himself).  

Accounts vary of how many foreign fighters took part in the conflict, but it is generally believed that around 20,000 fighters took up arms against the Soviet Union. These fighters would later become the backbone of one of the most infamous terror organization of the 21st century: Al-Qaeda. 

It would thus be prudent for the United States and its allies to make sure that the hand which feeds is not bitten in the future. In other words, Uncle Sam must be cautious that the weapons sent to Ukraine do not fall into the hands of extremists.

As the conventional war between Ukraine and Russia has not officially concluded, it is hard to draw any significant comparisons between the current conflict and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. But what can be done is to predict how things might play out, drawing lines of trajectory given what is known. 

It would seem as though Ukraine’s current conflict is heading the same way as the Afghan war: away from the hallmarks of a “conventional” conflict and towards a protracted insurgency promising high costs for both Russia and Ukraine. 

Russia and Ukraine may face a protracted conflict given the international support Kyiv has received.

In the end, the conflict may bring Moscow a pyrrhic victory: the capture of territory and perhaps even the installment of a puppet government, but a “win” almost certainly not worth the losses Russia will endure.

Brad Settelmeyer is a Deputy Editor and regular contributor for the Realist Review. A recent master’s student at Northeastern University, his interests include conflict resolution and humanitarian crises.

Alison O’Neil is a regular contributor for the Realist Review and a freelance writer on international affairs. She is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter: @Alison_Does_IR

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