What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has progressed, it is clear that almost nothing has gone according to plan. Far from being greeted as liberators, Russian forces have been treated as hated enemies; instead of quickly capitulating, the Ukrainians have shown they are determined to stop the Russian advance and fight at all costs. Even at this point, a month into what will undoubtedly become a much longer engagement than Putin estimated, reports abound that the Russian campaign has been plagued by supply issues and low morale. Already, the war shows signs of becoming what the Institute for the Study of War has described as a “stalemate.” Perhaps most striking, U.S. intelligence officials estimate that the Russian military lost more than 7000 soldiers in the first 20 days of the war alone, as well as five Russian generals in the past month. By all indications, there is no clear path to victory for Russia absent a massive escalation, and the war has already proved perilously costly to the Kremlin—and especially to Putin himself.
For those who remember late Soviet history, there is a familiar analog to these events: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As with the war in Ukraine, the invasion of Afghanistan was driven by the fear that Moscow was losing a crucial piece of its sphere of influence. With Afghanistan, the Soviet leadership believed, as Putin apparently did about Ukraine, that the war would be quick and easy, that its troops would have no problem handling whatever resistance they might encounter, and that the United States and its allies, distracted by other events, would not mount an effective response. And like Putin, the Soviets assumed that it would be easy to install a puppet government in the newly conquered territory.
None of this turned out to be true. Instead, Afghanistan quickly turned into the most disastrous Russian foreign military engagement of the postwar era. Afghan insurgents quickly organized into effective guerrilla forces and created safe havens in Pakistan, where they were armed and trained by Pakistani intelligence officers. Within weeks of the Soviet invasion, U.S. President Jimmy Carter formed an alliance with Pakistan—an effort that was soon joined by China, Egypt, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia—to support the Afghan resistance. Deeply unprepared for what would be arrayed against them, Soviet forces dug their heels into what turned into a grinding decadelong war that undermined morale at home, drained Soviet coffers, and eventually precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Of course, Russia in 2022 is not the Soviet Union of 1979. But given the striking similarities that have already emerged between Putin’s Ukraine adventure and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, it is worth examining the defining features of that earlier conflict and its far-reaching consequences. If the Ukraine invasion continues to unfold as it has so far and becomes Russia’s bleeding wound of the twenty-first century, it could, as the Afghan war did for the Soviets, threaten the survival of Putin’s regime—and Putin himself.
Unlike Putin’s clumsy preparations for the invasion of Ukraine—botched in part because of U.S. intelligence revelations exposing Moscow’s intent to attack—the Soviet plans for Afghanistan unfolded in secret. In late 1979, KGB intelligence analyses had wrongly concluded that Afghanistan was sliding into the West’s orbit and that a U.S. military base in the country would allow the United States to completely encircle the USSR with nuclear missiles. Soviet leaders also feared that if Afghanistan were pulled into Washington’s sphere of influence, it could trigger a domino effect among the nations of the Warsaw Pact. According to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which proclaimed that a threat to socialist rule in any Soviet bloc country was a threat to all socialist states, these fears justified military intervention. Thus, on December 12, 1979, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, KGB Chair Yuri Andropov, and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko drafted a proposal to dispatch a “limited contingent” of the Soviet army to Afghanistan with a short and targeted intervention in mind. A dozen days later, the Soviet invasion began.
In its initial phase, the Soviet invasion was far more successful than Putin’s in Ukraine. On a snowy Christmas Eve, Soviet airborne troops—along with special units of the OMON, the militia division of the Soviet Interior Ministry—quickly seized strategic targets in Kabul, assassinated Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin and key members of his ruling team, and replaced him with their handpicked man, the pro-Soviet Babrak Karmal, who rode into Kabul on the tanks of the Soviet invaders. They moved occupation forces into Afghanistan’s major cities—Jalalabad in the east, Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west, and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, quickly became a Soviet Air Force base. Within a few weeks, the Soviet Union had brought Afghanistan under the semblance of control.
As with Putin in Ukraine, however, the Soviets badly underestimated the Western response. At the time the decision to attack Afghanistan was made, the KGB assessments had indicated that the United States would be unlikely to seriously challenge the invasion. The Americans had withdrawn from Vietnam just a few years earlier, and the presumably weak U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, was preoccupied with the American hostage crisis in Iran. But the West was on a much higher alert than the Russians anticipated. Fearing that failure to respond could embolden the USSR’s international ambitions, President Carter swiftly moved to cancel new consular agreements and major wheat sales with the Soviet Union and issued a boycott of the upcoming 1980 Moscow Olympics. Behind the scenes, he also ordered the CIA to covertly begin supplying the Afghan resistance movement with equipment, including lethal materials. Within weeks, the CIA had delivered thousands of Enfield .303 rifles to Pakistan for distribution to the mujahideen, and was soon sending rockets, mortars, and rifles, as well. Total U.S. funding for the Afghan resistance grew from about $100 million in the first year to $500 million in the fourth year; in the last two years of the war, it would top $1 billion.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine looks even shakier than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The failure of the Soviet Union to anticipate both the strength of the resistance and the extent of Western support had devastating consequences. What Soviet leaders had assumed would be a quick and easy military intervention turned into a bloody decadelong struggle. The human devastation of the conflict reverberated throughout the region: around a million Afghans were killed, a million and a half were wounded, three million sought refuge in Iran and Pakistan, and an unknown number were internally displaced—all out of a population of fewer than 20 million people. The Soviet Union itself eventually admitted to having lost more than 15,000 soldiers in the conflict, although that number is probably much closer to 25,000. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Soviet leaders who had launched the Red Army into Afghanistan had passed from the scene, but the USSR was continuing to pour blood, treasure, and its international reputation into the war. Eventually, with the U.S.-armed Afghan resistance increasingly on the march, Gorbachev gave his commanders a year to turn around the situation, but they could not. On February 15, 1989, the Soviets finally withdrew.
Signaling the Soviets’ defeat, the withdrawal from Afghanistan set in motion a stunning series of events that would change the world. Countries within the Soviet bloc and the Warsaw Pact saw an exhausted Soviet Union leave Afghanistan, and rightly concluded that the new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, would have little stomach for new military adventures. Thus, in May 1989, the Hungarian government, perhaps the most cerebral of the Soviet partners, cut the barbed wire fences on its border with Austria, allowing hundreds of East Germans to escape to West Germany. The following month, in the first free elections in over six decades, the people of Poland cast their ballots for the Polish dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa, effectively voting out over four decades of communism. That summer, East Germany’s antigovernment Monday demonstrations grew in numbers and sheer force until the night of November 9, 1989, when crowds of East German protesters breached the Berlin Wall. Less than a year later, Czechoslovakia and Romania had followed suit in breaking with Moscow, East and West Germany were reunified—as a member of NATO—and in 1991, Ukraine declared independence. On Boxing Day of 1991, a small group of Russian soldiers marched out on the Kremlin wall, lowered the red and gold hammer and sickle for the last time, and hoisted the Russian white, blue, and red tricolor.
It was these traumatic events—precipitated at least in part by the Afghan disaster—that Putin witnessed as a young KGB officer stationed in East Germany. The memory of the Soviet collapse has driven him to declare it “the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century,” but he appears to have taken the wrong lesson from those events. Paradoxically, in an effort to reconstruct his vision of the lost Russian empire and reclaim Ukraine from what he takes to be Washington’s sphere of influence, he has launched his own Afghan-like invasion. In setting out to reverse history, he may instead be repeating it.
If anything, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine looks even shakier than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The televised meetings of Russia’s Security Council indicate that Putin’s closest advisers, unlike Brezhnev’s Politburo, were not entirely briefed on the invasion plans and may have had their own misgivings. And in contrast to the Soviets’ initial success, Putin’s invasion has been poorly executed from the start, with failure to seize or control major cities and casualty counts in the first few weeks that would take the Soviets years to amass in Afghanistan.
Moreover, Putin has met far more resistance in Ukraine than Soviet forces initially met in Afghanistan, which may lead him to resort to more violent tactics. Already, Russian attacks on hospitals, residential buildings, and a crowded theater have caused President Biden to brand Putin a “war criminal,” to which he has responded by petulantly declared that he might break off all diplomatic relations with the United States. If Putin follows the pattern that he has shown in his previous wars in Grozny and Syria, he will likely use tactics the Soviets employed in their failed Afghan enterprise that resulted in an estimated one-third of the Afghan population killed, wounded, or displaced internally or into Iran and Pakistan.
At this stage, unless there is a negotiated settlement—an unlikely event—it seems that Putin will seek to seize and occupy Kyiv after a bitter and violent fight with its heavily armed civilian population. This task alone may prove extremely difficult and could take weeks or months of costly fighting. It is far from certain that Putin could take Kyiv with conventional tactics. But even if he is successful in taking Kyiv—removing the Zelensky government and replacing it with handpicked pro-Russian quislings—Moscow’s troubles could be just beginning. As in Afghanistan forty-odd years ago, Putin would likely face a relentless, heavily armed insurgency, covertly backed by a Western coalition similar to the one that pushed the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
If the Ukraine invasion continues to unfold as it has so far, it could threaten the survival of Putin’s regime.
Ukraine’s size alone will present formidable problems to any Russian occupation. As large as Texas, it has a population of over 40 million people—twice as many as Afghanistan’s in 1979—and is not isolated, landlocked, mountainous, and forbidding like Afghanistan, where mules and all-terrain vehicles were required to deliver arms to the Afghan resistance. Ukraine is also a reasonably modern country with decent roads and transportation networks. It has 850 miles of land and maritime borders with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania: all NATO countries. And although it lacks the rugged, mountainous terrain that helped the Afghan insurgents effectively counter a heavily armed Soviet Army, Ukraine’s vast geography, strong communication networks, and proximity to Western powers give its insurgents a great advantage.
As with the Afghan resistance in the 1980s, with its safe havens in Pakistan, a Ukrainian insurgency could also benefit from staging areas in neighboring countries. Already, millions of Ukrainian refugees crossing into these bordering NATO countries are being met with sympathy and support. In the coming days and weeks, as the war moves toward engulfing the entire country, these refugees are likely to be joined by growing numbers of fighting-age Ukrainians. These fighters will be seeking not refuge but safe havens, where they will begin to organize, train, and arm themselves as a roughly coherent resistance force against the Russian occupation of their country. With the United States and its NATO allies already funding and arming the budding insurgency against Russia, it will not be long before Putin finds himself pitted against a well-armed resistance movement that could make the occupation simply too politically, socially, and economically costly to sustain. As in Afghanistan, supply problems and morale issues among the occupying forces could reach a level that cannot be sustained.
The record of recent insurgencies suggests that the odds will be sharply against Putin in any prolonged occupation. In the decades since the end of World War II, nationalist-based insurgencies against foreign invading forces have almost always prevailed, as Afghan resistance fighters did against the Soviet Union. This puts Putin in a vulnerable position: either he wins and quickly pacifies Ukraine—a most unlikely outcome—or he orders a withdrawal of his troops from the country after he declares his “special military operation” successfully completed. The personal humiliation of such a move would likely be too much for Putin. He is approaching his 23rd year as Russia’s leader, about seven years short of his personal goal of exceeding Joseph Stalin’s 30 years at the helm. The options open to him are narrowing by the day, and further complicating any assessment of his likely actions is the growing suggestion that he is unhinged and capable of taking the unthinkable step of using nuclear weapons, as he has repeatedly threatened to do. The nagging suspicions regarding Putin’s state of mind can only serve to force the United States and its NATO allies to place themselves, quietly and without public pronouncement, on their own highest levels of alert, including regarding the nuclear option.
If Putin is to be taken out of the game before he escalates to the unthinkable, it will most certainly take his own military or intelligence people to accomplish the task. As the war in Ukraine drags on day by day and the international media reports on Russian atrocities and civilian casualties, the world continues to turn on Moscow. Although Putin may have started this war to remedy what he sees as the tragedy of the Soviet dissolution, he may well be replicating the disastrous war that precipitated that collapse in the first place—and jeopardizing his own future in the process.
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