Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979–89

Michael Cox commends a readable account of Russia’s nightmare in Afghanistan, the consequences of which are still being felt today

Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979–89
Author: Rodric Braithwaite
Publisher: Profile
Reviewed by: Michael Cox
Price (RRP): £25

Rodric Braithwaite joined the Foreign Office in 1955, was later posted to Moscow in 1963 before being appointed ambassador to the USSR between 1988 and 1992 – five critical years during which Soviet power collapsed for ever.

His first book on these turbulent times, Across the Moscow River (2002), provided a fine eye-witness account of the last days of the Soviet Union. In the study under review here he focuses more specifically on Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.

The book should be read as both good history and as a salutary warning. NATO is hardly the USSR; and the west’s motives for getting involved in Afghanistan were never those of Russia’s. But as Sherard Cowper-Coles recently noted in a very positive review of this book in The Observer, having violently thrashed around looking for solutions in Afghanistan, Moscow was compelled to do what all foreign forces have been compelled to do before and might have to do once again: look for an exit strategy.

Braithwaite’s eminently readable book does three things well. First, it provides one of the best discussions about how reluctant the Russians were of ever getting involved in Afghanistan in the first place. As he nicely puts it, the USSR “slithered” towards intervention; moreover, they did so not because of any great expansionary desire to reach the Indian ocean, but rather because “they could not think of a better alternative”.

Desperation, insecurity and hesitation characterised the Soviet decision to go into Afghanistan, not any bipolar logic associated with the Cold War.

Secondly, Braithwaite is excellent when it comes to explaining Russian expectations. As he convincingly reveals, Moscow’s original working assumption was clear: it would compel its local communist allies to pursue more moderate policies – after having got rid of those like Hafizullah Amin (the Afghan president in 1979) who had not – and after a swift police action lasting no more than a few weeks, would quickly pull out its troops.

As we now know, things did not quite turn out like that!

Thirdly, the book is very good on the wider international setting. Here Braithwaite implies that if Soviet relations with the United States had been better than they had become by late 1979, then the cost of invading Afghanistan might have been deemed too high.

However, by then, detente with the other superpower was dead in the water. Basically, “the Russians calculated that they had little more to lose” in terms of their already bad relations with the west.

Having reckoned that they had little to lose internationally – another dubious assumption – the Soviets soon found out how much in fact this whole sorry episode was to cost them. Within a couple of years they were bleeding badly; and by 1986 (and with a new leader in the Kremlin) it had become obvious that they would have to get out for ever, leaving a country in ruins, millions in exile, hundreds of thousands dead and a well-armed jihadist movement in place – some of whose increasingly confident militants now began to look around for new enemies to fight.

Having seen off one major power,  they reasoned, it was now time to take on the great Satan himself. The seeds of 9/11 had already been sown.

Professor Michael Cox, department of international relations, LSE

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