Despite fears among Russian military that the Russian air campaign in Syria turn the conflict into another Afghanistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues bombing targets in the war-torn country.
Alexander Sokolov, who served as a communications officer in the Soviet-Afghanistan war, said he believes Soviet Russia left Afghanistan undefeated after the 1979-1989 invasion, because the pro-Russian government held on for three more years before entering the disastrous civil war.
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The collapse of the USSR in 1991 halted Russia’s superpower claims and ambitious in the Middle East, Sokolov believes, but when recalling the devastating war of his generation, the communications officer tells how it felt like and what are the consequences of the invasion.
The war in Afghanistan killed at least 15,000 Soviet soldiers, mostly conscripts in their late teens or early 20s, while tens of thousands Soviet troops were left wounded both physically and psychologically.
“We were forgotten,” Sokolov told Al Jazeera. “Most of the guys are now unhappy because of this war. They drink, or they are sick or disabled, and the state does not pay any attention to them. Of course, this is tremendous pain.”
And with Russia currently bombing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s foes, 78 percent of Russian citizens expect the ongoing military campaign in Syria to spiral into another Afghanistan.
A few days before Putin ordered Russian fighter jets to start bombing targets in Syria, 78 percent of Russians said the Kremlin’s new military campaign will turn into a “second Afghanistan,” according to a survey published by Russian independent pollster Levada Center.
However, over a quarter century after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, 72 percent of Russians support the airstrikes in Syria, mostly thanks to the Russian media, which biasedly covers the bombings in Syria and even reports weather forecasts in Syria for bombing conditions.
‘We will get ourselves new Afghanistan lasting 10 years with tens of thousands dead’ – Russian veteran
With Russian officials constantly saying that there will be no boots on the Syrian ground, many political experts are certain that the air campaign in the war-torn country will inevitably spiral into an Afghanistan-like war, in which this time Moscow will not be able to withdraw its troops in one piece.
“We will get ourselves a new Afghanistan. For another 10 years with tens of thousands of dead,” Arkady Babchenko, a war correspondent and veteran of the 1994-1996 Chechnya conflict, told the Open Russia website.
“The new Afghanistan [will become] the end of the current regime and a new stage in the collapse of the [Russian] empire,” Babchenko noted.
However, it seems that not all Russian political and military experts share such an opinion.
“I don’t believe that the Kremlin will [commit to] such a stupidity,” Alexey Malashenko, one of Russia’s best experts on the Middle East, told Al Jazeera.
Putin’s involvement in Syria is Russia’s first ever U.S.-style war – think tank
It was reported in Russian media in the middle of September, which is about two weeks before the air campaign in Syria began, that about a dozen Russian soldiers had refused to be deployed to Syria for the reason that their leadership allegedly tried to cover tracks by refusing to give officially written orders of their deployment that would therefore guarantee compensation for the Russian servicemen and their families in case injury or death on the battlefield.
However, Russia’s Defense Ministry then denied the reports.
Western analysts counted hundreds of Russian personnel – pilots, advisers and engineers – deployed in Syria by the middle of October. The Russians have been stationed at the Russian military facility in Tartus and the Hmeimim airbase. Russia also has 500 marines stationed in the Latakia region, which is guarded by Assad’s forces.
There have been no reports of Russian military participating in ground operations in Syria, while Russia’s Caspian Sea navy located some about a mile northeast of Syria, supports the airstrikes of Russian fighter jets. Russia launched 26 cruise missiles that flew over Iran and Iraq to hit targets in Syria on October 7, which was Putin’s 63rd birthday.
Putin’s involvement into the Syrian crisis has become Russia’s first ever “U.S.-style war,” according to Dmitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, a Moscow-based think-tank.
“Russian military aircraft are bombing the enemy from high above, plus the Russian navy is launching cruise missiles from 1,000 miles away,” Trenin wrote in his analysis of the Syrian war in mid-October.
“The enemy, again at least for now, has no chance to hit back at the Russians on the battlefield.”
‘Russia risks starting new Afghanistan’ – EU foreign policy chief ahead of peace talks
However, some Russian military experts believe that Russia’s military involvement in Syria drastically differs from Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, which relied on tens of thousands ground troops.
The Kremlin’s ultimate goals also differ. In Afghanistan, the Russian leadership wanted to put a communist government into power and try to change the entire lifestyle of a conservative Muslim society, while in Syria all Putin wants is to assist the Assad regime in fighting its foes, including ISIS and U.S.-backed rebels, and make sure that there will be no “Libyan scenario.”
On Wednesday, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, warned that Putin risks to trap his country in another Afghanistan war unless it helps remove Assad from power.
In what appears to be the broadest and most promising peace talks since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, foreign ministers from Western Europe and the U.S. will meet counterparts from Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, which joins such talks for the first time.