20 years under Putin: a timeline

The U.S. departure from Afghanistan marks the culmination of the long turbulent period that began with the 1979 Soviet invasion. During this time, Afghan Islamists emerged as the adversary of both the U.S. and the USSR/Russia, and the discord between the latter helped them survive and persevere. While some Russian observers might see the U.S. withdrawal as a defeat and weakness, this development might bring about more problems for Moscow than benefits.

 

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 in response to 9/11 attacks organized by Al-Qaeda. Photo: internationalaffairs.org.au.

 

U.S.-Russia competition and the emergence of the Islamic threat

The consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan should be understood in the context of the Moscow-Kabul relationship history. Afghanistan has been an unstable place for a long time. In 1973, as a result of a coup d’etat organized by pro-communist rebels, the monarchy, led by Mohammad Zahir Shah, the only legitimate force accepted by most Afghans of various ethnic backgrounds, was overthrown, triggering a civil war. As internal fighting ravaged the country, Moscow initially watched from a distance, but then, in 1979, decided to intervene—in what became the USSR’s first foreign invasion outside its sphere of influence. The ensuing guerrilla war lasted for years, with Afghanistan turning into a “bleeding wound” for the Soviet Union, in the words of Mikhail Gorbachev

It is usually assumed that the Soviet invasion was doomed, as the British had been before it, and the American after. Thatwas not the case. Unlike the U.S. and even the British Empire, the USSR was prepared for an open-end, generations-long conflict. It is worth remembering that it took the Russian Empire almost a hundred years to conquer the Caucasus, while the Soviet war with Basmachi, the Islamic rebels in Central Asia, lasted for over a decade—until the early 1930s. But Gorbachev’s unexpected ascent to power weakened the Soviet state, and by 1989 Soviet troops had left Afghanistan.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War rivalry, the U.S. was naturally pleased with the Soviet predicament and actively supported the Afghan resistance, framing its members as heroic freedom fighters. But with Soviet troops gone and the Afghan government left to its own devices, the Taliban, an Islamist movement and military organization, took over control of the country. In 1996, Talibs entered Kabul, murdered Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah, and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Since Najibullah had been installed by the Soviets, Washington was unperturbed by his demise, and the Taliban did not subsequently emerge as a problem for the U.S. political establishment—for a variety of reasons. These optics, however, were mainly defined by the U.S. relationship with post-Soviet Russia. No doubt, some U.S. policymakers and observers thought that Russia would transform into a democratic capitalist state, marking what Francis Fukuyama termed as the “end of history.” But, paraphrasing George Orwell, “all ‘ends of history’ are equal, but some are more equal than others.” In that sense, Russia’s “end of history” in the form of the Soviet collapse differed greatly from that of the U.S. Yet, some factions in Washington’s political circles believed that Russia should be weakened even more and, for example, showed support for the Chechen resistance, even as some of its members were Islamists, in the Chechen wars for independence on the premise that they were Russia’s enemies. At the same time, the Russian elite continuously tried to extend an olive branch to Washington, even as the geopolitical honeymoon seemed to be over, especially after the 1999 U.S./NATO attackon the former Yugoslavia.

 

The West and Russia’s “Scythian” grievances 

Vladimir Putin’s succession to the Russian presidency in 2000 did not result in an immediate change in Russianattitudes: the new elite was not yet ready for direct confrontation with adversaries and underestimated the danger of global Islamism. When he came to power, Putin sent ambivalent signals to the U.S. On the one hand, he implied that Russia would be more assertive, visiting North Korea and scrapping an agreement of the Chernomyrdin-Gore Commission that had severed Russian arms sales to Iran. On the other, he was the first foreign leader to express full support for Washington post-9/11. He also made no objection to U.S. bases in Central Asia, likely expecting geopolitical rewards. When none followed, Putin’s position hardened.

In his 2007 Munich speech, the Russian president accused the U.S. of striving for unchecked global dominance, referring to its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By that time, Russian-American cooperation had declined, and Moscow was pushing Kyrgyzstan to close U.S. bases in Manas. Still, Putin did not want to break off ties completely. In 2012, for example, he agreed that the U.S. could use the air base near the Russian city of Ulyanovsk as a “multi-modal” transit facility to “carry goods and personnel to and from Afghanistan.”

Perhaps one of the best insights into Russia’s position on Afghanistan comes from a 2010 op-ed for The New York Times co-authored by General Boris Gromov, former Soviet commander in Afghanistan, and Dmitry Rogozin, then Russian ambassador to NATO. The article suggested that the United States and Russia should work together, for the two countries had a lot in common—at least in respect of jihadists. The authors noted that Soviet troops in Afghanistan had been defending “Western civilization,” which was, in a way, a reference to an idea first voiced in 1918 by Russia’s seminal poet Alexander Blok in his poem “The Scythians.”

In the poem Blok metaphorically explains that “Scythians,” or Russians, while having the “slanted eyes” of Asians, were actually closer to Europeans, their “white brothers,” than to Asians. The “Scythians” had protected their “white brothers” for centuries against the “Mongols,” the barbaric Asiatic hordes, and expected gratitude. But instead, the “white brothers” fought endless wars against the “Scythians” (Russians). As such, the “Scythians” made a last appeal to their “white brothers,” calling on them to make peace and form a union together, otherwise they would simply let the countless hordes of “Mongols” and “Huns” pass through to Europe and attack their “white brothers,” who, despite their technological advances, would not be able to withstand these multitudes. Should this happen, the “Scythians” (Russians) “shall not stir”when the “frenzied Huns … roast their white-skinned fellow men alive.”

In a way, these ideas were reflected in the thinking of a considerable part of the Russian elite, not just General Gromov and Rogozin, who implied in the op-ed that America should reconsider its views on Russia, and should the former follow its advice, Moscow would help it deal with Afghanistan. The Kremlin was clearly ready to compromise with the U.S. for the sake of visible geopolitical cohesion, but nothing was achieved. Moreover, with the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated almost to Cold War-era levels, and any hope for cooperation between the two countries was essentially extinguished—even direct conflict could not be ruled out. Marking a new low, last year it was reported that members of a Russian military intelligence (GRU) unit had offered to pay bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan.

 

U.S. “defeat” and Russian fears 

Still, after President Joe Biden announced in April 2021 that U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan to end a war that had lasted about two decades—a decision that sparked fervent discussions about America’s crushing “defeat,” the Kremlin has changed its tune. Moscow likely realizes that it was the “white brothers” who had shielded Russia from the Asiatic hordes and the Islamic extremists—not the other way around. With the U.S. withdrawal and the emerging power vacuum, these hordes could potentially spill over to Central Asia and head further north, to Russia’s borders, reactivating radical Islamism in the North Caucasus and Volga regions. 

This is an old Russian fear, one that was envisaged back in the 1990s by the late General Alexander Lebed, who at onepoint was considered Boris Yeltsin’s successor. While the Taliban assures everybody, including Russia, that it has no appetite for foreign expansion—and the Taliban elite might actually mean it—the movement cannot control all its factions: some of them surely dream about a worldwide Islamist revolution. To add to Russian anxieties, there are groups of radicalized ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks currently operating in Afghanistan who could attempt to bring back extremist ideas to their home countries, close to Russian borders. Finally, the very optics of the Taliban defeating the powerful “infidel”—America—could incentivize Islamists everywhere, including in Russia’s backyards. If history is any indication, the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War spurred revolutionary movement around the globe. All of these factors alarmed not only the Russian leadership, but also the Central Asian. In May, Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon arrived in Moscow for consultation and assurance, becoming the only foreign leader to participate in Russia’s annual Victory Day parade in 2021. 

The decline of the Roman Empire opened the gates for hordes of barbarians to flood into the unprotected territories and destroy Rome’s traditional enemies in the process. Following (and even before) the January 6 Capitol insurrection in Washington, some observers drew parallels between the United States and the declining Roman Empire. There is indeed an analogy to be made: a decline in resources and social cohesiveness resulted in Rome’s (and now Washington’s) withdrawal from the outskirts of the empire. In both cases, many tribes and nations initially cheered this liberation. But let us not forget that the end of Roman rule led not to universal peace, but to the long Dark Ages, fraught with chaos and further decline.

The Kremlin surely realizes that this scenario is likely to happen. And if chaos does ensue following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the American footprint in this country and in the Middle East might well be remembered with nostalgia—as once was Roman rule in a benighted Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.   

  

* Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor at Indiana University South Bend. 

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