Moscow’s Clients from Kabul to Damascus: Strength and Strategy in International Politics

Long-Form | December 9, 2015 |

One might be forgiven for thinking that one of Russia’s state-owned media organs recently took over Forbes. Last month, the venerable business news magazine featured President Vladimir Putin as the world’s most powerful person. U.S. President Barack Obama placed third, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And one gets the sense that his is a distant third. Forbes characterizes Obama’s influence as “shrinking” and reports that “he’s outshined by Angela Merkel in Europe, and outmaneuvered by Putin in the Middle East.” This assessment is not an outlier. It follows prolonged rending of clothing over Russian military operations in Ukraine and Syria.  The Obama administration’s critics in Washington have viewed Russia’s intervention in Syria in particular as evidence of a weak foreign policy pursued by a feckless president enabled by feeble advisers. These critics’ underlying assumption is that Russia has acted from a position of strength and re-inserted itself into the Middle East as a power to be reckoned with. Obama’s insistence that Putin acted in Syria from a position of weakness was widely derided, especially by Republicans.

The United States often overreacts to foreign interventions by adversaries, attributing aggressive, expansive designs when, on further inspection, we discover motivations rooted in insecurity, fear, and defensiveness.

How can we better balance our understanding of these interventions? Will historians look back on this period and argue that Putin’s engagement in Syria was not only a decision made out of weakness, but one that was a grand-strategic mistake? Or will they interpret it as many of Obama’s critics do today? It is, of course, far too early to know for sure. Events are still ongoing. Developments such as the recent Turkish shootdown of a Russian tactical bomber and jihadist attacks in Paris have the potential to change the game (although they have not yet). And we do not have the kind of documentary access that future historians will hopefully enjoy. There is, however, a striking historical parallel—another episode when many Americans thought Russia had outsmarted and outmaneuvered a U.S. commander-in-chief similarly accused of being weak and feckless.

This intervention began in December 1979, nearly 2,000 miles east of Damascus, in Kabul. When we revisit Russia’s path to that war and the American interpretations of it, we find many of the same debates we are seeing today about strength and weakness in the Kremlin and the White House. The lesson is simple: Perceived weakness and strength—and especially perceptions of one’s own weaknesses—are often powerful drivers of world events and they are often incorrect. Further, actors tend to conflate a perception of strength in an opponent with good strategy and weakness with bad strategy when, in fact, these are distinct attributes. An adversary can be acting out of weakness and have a good strategy just as he can be acting from strength and executing a bad strategy.

The dominant narrative of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan to this day still holds that President Jimmy Carter’s anemic approach to foreign policy was responsible; that the Soviets moved because America had left a power vacuum. We now know from archival evidence that this was not the case. The Soviets acted, in large part, due to fears of American strength and the potential consequences of losing a client state. With arms negotiations ongoing, Moscow wanted to preserve what was left of détente. The Politburo was averse to a military intervention until the 11th hour. Even then, the decision to intervene was strongly resisted by the chief of the general staff, who was literally shouted down in the Central Committee. We also now know that the Soviet Union’s strategy in Afghanistan was a poor one and that the rocks upon which Moscow’s campaign would founder were foreseen by members of the Politburo’s Central Committee.

Setting the Scene: Détente on the Rocks

American and Soviet weaknesses and strengths were then measured in the context of détente, under which the superpowers would respect the status quo in the interest of relaxing tensions between them. At its center were arms control negotiations—the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT)—but détente was meant to encompass and limit a wide range of activities that could bring the United States and Soviet Union into conflict. President Richard Nixon, the key architect of détente along with Henry Kissinger, wanted to reduce the risk of nuclear war, limit nuclear weapons, end America’s war in Vietnam, and improve trade. Détente reached its peak with the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 during the Ford administration. For General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, the key appeal of détente was found in its tacit promise that the United States would not seek to become overly involved in the internal affairs of communist regimes.

In the latter half of the 1970s, a series of crises left détente on the rocks and the two superpowers watched each other warily. In Washington especially, détente was losing support. When facing pressure on his political right flank from Ronald Reagan, President Gerald Ford forbade members of his administration from even using the word “détente,” and sought to distance himself from Kissinger, his secretary of state, who was most associated with the policy. The hawks pressing for a more assertive foreign policy claimed that the Soviet Union had used détente as cover to meddle in the third world and to achieve a usable superiority in terms of their nuclear arsenal. If so, détente was a losing deal and should be abandoned.

In Washington, this was perhaps the most heated strategic debate of that period.  The hawks organized themselves under the umbrella of groups like the Committee on the Present Danger and wrote broadsides in Commentary. The Committee on the Present Danger was a vehicle for confidants and supporters of the hawkish Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson such as Eugene Rostow, Paul Nitze, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Richard Pipes, and Norman Podhoretz.

During Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, Zbigniew Brzezinski—who would become Carter’s national security adviser—wrote a note to the candidate in which he described détente as “desirable,” but not “reciprocal” enough. He added that détente “cannot be the basis for coping with global problems.” Carter, although never as activist as Brzezinski wanted him to be, came to embrace this position, but he would continue to try to have it both ways. He sought to appeal to hardliners by being tough on the Soviets on human rights issues, while also seeking to continue the SALT process to appease liberals. This Goldilocks approach to national security (which also suffuses the current presidential administration) left no one satisfied. In most respects, Carter’s foreign policy was a less skillfully executed continuation of those enacted by the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Not long after Carter entered the Oval Office, he received a report from the National Intelligence Council claiming that the “Soviets still see basic trends in the world as positive for themselves and negative for the United States.” While there was some truth to this—indeed, Moscow did see détente as a net gain and eyed the West, wracked by two oil crises in the 1970s, with some confidence—it elided the Politburo’s deeply ingrained paranoia and sense of insecurity.

Part of this Soviet feeling of insecurity was ideological, but much of it was pragmatic. As one Soviet general later put it, “By the seventies we had concluded that there was no chance in hell that we would survive” in the event of a nuclear war. The Soviets felt, in the words of historian Gordon S. Barrass, “at a considerable disadvantage in the psychology of deterrence.” They did not have faith in their ability to retaliate due to problems with their ability to detect a nuclear attack early enough and, once an attack had started, to maintain sufficient command and control for nuclear retaliation. Consequently, the Kremlin sought to project a sense of bullish confidence about its ability to prevail in a war, nuclear or conventional, with the unintended consequence of feeding the hawkish narrative in Washington. Soviet leaders would sometimes say that a nuclear war was unwinnable, but at other times insist that if one broke out, they would undoubtedly win. At the same time, the Soviets made heavier investments in their conventional and strategic forces (as well as an elaborate network of bunkers) that many Soviet leaders correctly viewed as unsustainable. In 1977, Anatoly Chernyaev, the deputy head of the Central Committee’s International Department, wrote in his diary, “If we do not undertake a real change in our military policy, the arms race aimed at our economic exhaustion will continue.” This was, crucially, when U.S.–Chinese ties were beginning to flourish, much to the Soviet Union’s chagrin.

The Americans were also highly anxious over their ability to survive a nuclear attack and retaliate. In an influential article in Commentary in July 1977, Richard Pipes accepted as a given that “the Soviet leadership thinks it possible to fight and win a nuclear war,” not understanding the insecurity that pervaded the Politburo. Pipes had led the Team-B exercise the prior year that inflated Soviet capabilities and intentions in an effort to pressure the Ford administration to adopt a more aggressive posture.

Pipes’ derisive disquisition on American strategic culture and the Soviet threat treats the members of the Politburo as master strategists – almost to the point of admiration – much like today’s hawks when they describe Putin. Pipes makes a number of claims that we now know to be false: that the Soviet leadership did not accept mutual deterrence, never believed that nuclear weapons had fundamentally changed warfare, and thought they could survive and prevail in a nuclear exchange with the United States. Pipes insisted that any Soviet leaders’ comments to the opposite effect were merely “a commodity for export.” In fact, Pipes got it backward: The Soviets’ bullish statements were the real commodity for export. He insisted that Soviet nuclear doctrine relied on the tenet of pre-emption, or first strike. We now know that in 1975, the Soviet general staff had been instructed never to use nuclear weapons first.

All this is to say that détente was becoming unpopular in the United States in no small part because of the growing efforts of hawkish American thinkers who propagated profound misinterpretations of the Kremlin’s military strategy and view of the world. And on the day after Christmas 1979, with a president in office that hawks viewed as provocatively weak, the Soviet Union intervened in a war-torn country to support a client regime.

Into the Hindu Kush: “Under No Circumstances May We Lose Afghanistan”

Since the April Revolution of 1978, in which the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power, the country had been slowly unraveling in the face of swelling rebellion by religious fundamentalists, conservative farmers, and disaffected soldiers. The PDPA’s ascension had caught Moscow totally by surprise. The Soviets dutifully embraced their Afghan communist brethren when they took power, but limited their involvement to providing military equipment, grain, fuel, and hundreds of Soviet advisers scattered throughout the Afghan government and military. In March 1979, the city of Herat in western Afghanistan erupted in revolt. The rebels, supported by Afghan Army units in mutiny, took the city. Nur Mohammed Taraki, then the leader of Afghanistan and the PDPA, asked Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to send in troops. Taraki said, “I suggest that you place Afghan markings on your tanks and aircraft and no one will be any the wiser.” When Kosygin refused, Taraki pushed for tanks manned by Soviet Tajik soldiers in Afghan Army uniform. Kosygin said this was not possible, but promised more military aid.

After a week, Herat was retaken by an Afghan Army operation that left somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 people dead, but the urban assault sparked a rural uprising. The crisis left the Politburo highly unsettled. The day after Kosygin and Taraki spoke, the Central Committee convened in Moscow. Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko insisted, “Under no circumstances may we lose Afghanistan. … [I]f we lose Afghanistan now and it turns against the Soviet Union, this will result in a sharp setback to our foreign policy.” In Moscow’s view, the rebels were religious fanatics being supported and trained by outside powers, especially Iran and Pakistan. Central Committee members were also anxious about what the United States and China might do if given a chance to weaken the Soviet Union in Central Asia. They agreed to increase aid to the PDPA, but came down against intervening directly, despite the increasingly desperate entreaties from Taraki along with his rival and deputy Hafizullah Amin.

Boris Ponomarev, the head of the Central Committee’s International Department, stated, “Above all, it will be necessary to accomplish everything that is necessary with the forces of the Afghan army, and only later, if and when the necessity truly arises, to deploy our own forces.” KGB head Yuri Andropov, for his part, argued firmly against direct Soviet intervention. Gromyko endorsed Andropov’s view, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

The army there is unreliable. Thus our army, when it arrives in Afghanistan, will be the aggressor. Against whom will it fight? Against the Afghan people first of all, and it will have to shoot at them. Comrade Andropov correctly noted that indeed the situation in Afghanistan is not ripe for a [communist] revolution. And all that we have done in recent years with such effort in terms of detente, arms reduction, and much more – all that would be thrown back. China, of course, would be given a nice present. All the nonaligned countries will be against us. In a word, serious consequences are to be expected from such an action. … One must ask, and what would we gain? Afghanistan with its present government, with a backward economy, with inconsequential weight in international affairs. On the other side, we must keep in mind that from a legal point of view too we would not be justified in sending troops. According to the UN Charter a country can appeal for assistance, and we could send troops, in case it is subject to external aggression. Afghanistan has not been subject to any aggression. This is its internal affair, a revolutionary internal conflict, a battle of one group of the population against another.

The aging Politburo member Andrei Kirilenko explained that Herat revealed the gap between the people and the government. He stated, “we are all adhering to the position that there is no basis whatsoever for the deployment of forces.” They agreed to an uptick in aid and political support to Kabul, but nothing more. The next day, the ailing Leonid Brezhnev endorsed their plan. “The time is not right,” he said, “for us to become entangled in that war.” A month later, the Soviets refused an Afghan request for Soviet-manned helicopters to fight rebels.

On May 24, the Central Committee refused another request from Kabul for direct Soviet military intervention in the form of Soviet-crewed helicopters and a commitment to land Soviet paratroopers in Kabul in case of an emergency. They agreed, however, to once again provide more military supplies, ammunition, and weaponry. The Soviet leaders reiterated that they were “deeply convinced” that a direct intervention was “fraught with great complexities not only in the domestic political, but also in the foreign policy sphere.”

The situation in Afghanistan worsened through the summer as rebellion spread, but the Central Committee did not relent to frantic requests from Kabul for a Soviet intervention. Mutinies became more common throughout the Afghan army. In August, an armored column of mutinous army personnel launched an unsuccessful coup attempt. In September, Amin overthrew and murdered Taraki and enacted more repressive measures against the mujahideen and, especially, rivals in his own party, much to Moscow’s distaste. Tens of thousands of Afghans were already dead in this brewing civil war.

By late November, the Soviets had come to totally distrust Amin. They worried he was testing the waters for friendlier relations with the United States. These concerns were, in part, fueled by the fact that Amin had studied at in New York two decades before. According to a Soviet report, “Amin’s conduct in the area of relations with the USSR ever more distinctly exposes his insincerity and duplicity.” He claimed to take Soviet advice and direction to heart, but in reality ignored everything Moscow said on how to fight the rebellion and unify his party. Gromyko, Andropov, Ustinov, and Ponomarev advised Brezhnev to restrict military aid to just small arms, spare parts, and ammunition. In a separate memo to Brezhnev, Andropov bemoaned Amin’s repressions, which — he claimed — had “essentially destroyed” the PDPA, the Afghan Army, and the government. He repeated the concern that Amin might tip Afghanistan into the American camp, or at least into neutrality, which would be disastrous for Moscow. Andropov was claiming that a state Moscow had not expected to have in its sphere just a year and a half before had suddenly become critical to the Soviet Union’s sense of security.

There was a possible solution to Moscow’s problems. Andropov informed Brezhnev of a conspiracy of Afghan communists led by Babrak Karmal who were willing to overthrow Amin, but who demanded Soviet military assistance to do so. Andropov wrote:

We have two battalions stationed in Kabul [originally deployed to protect air units at Bagram air base] and there is the capability of rendering such assistance. It appears that this is entirely sufficient for a successful operation. But, as a precautionary measure in the event of unforeseen complications, it would be wise to have a military group close to the border … The implementation of the given operation would allow us to decide the question of defending the gains of the April revolution, establishing Leninist principals in the party and state leadership of Afghanistan, and securing our positions in this country.

Moscow thereby found itself on the cusp of intervention. The Soviets deployed a regular infantry battalion to Bagram. A week later, there was a high-level meeting in Brezhnev’s office. Forgetting their earlier analysis on the perils of intervention, Andropov and Ustinov argued forcefully for the introduction of Soviet force to displace Amin. In making their case, they cited their belief that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was planning to carve a “new Great Ottoman Empire” out of the southern Muslim Soviet republics and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union would be vulnerable to this, they said, if the United States was able to place missiles in Afghanistan, taking advantage of the fact that the Soviets lacked a suitable air defense system on their southern flank. Pakistan and Iraq, they continued, could use uranium pulled out of Afghan mines to build nuclear weapons of their own. It is difficult to know if Andropov and Ustinov really believed all this. It could be that, having come to favor intervention, they sought to marshal every argument possible—even fantastical ones—in support of their position. It is also possible that other events inflamed fears that would not have seemed plausible had they been analyzed in isolation. For example, we know from Brezhnev’s letter to President Carter after the intervention kicked off that the Soviets also felt menaced by “the massive concentration of [U.S.] naval forces in the Persian Gulf.” Seeking to explain the Soviet decision to intervene, Lawrence Freedman writes:

Force on a major scale was seen [by the Soviets] as a “last resort,” but when force is kept as a last resort it is much more likely that it will be on a massive scale. This is the point, by definition, at which all other remedies have failed. As the United States had found in Vietnam in 1965, the very act of intervention, on behalf of a failing government when supposedly loyal forces are feeble and demoralized, further narrows the political base and requires taking full responsibility for the fight. When the last resort comes, there is no incremental option.

Brezhnev and his closest advisers agreed that Amin must be replaced by Karmal. To do this, they would deploy Soviet troops to Afghanistan to see that the deed was done, on top of the approximately 5,000 that were now in Afghanistan, between military advisers and units deployed to Bagram and around Kabul. On Dec. 10, Ustinov called in Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov and told him to make ready 70,000 troops. Ogarkov saw intervention as “reckless,” an assessment shared by the members of the Central Committee just months before, and believed 70,000 troops too few to ensure victory in any case. It seems he alone understood at this point what a consequential undertaking this would be. He made his case forcefully to Brezhnev and the others, warning, “We will reestablish the entire eastern Islamic system against us, and we will lose politically in the entire world.”

Andropov responded, “Stick to military affairs! We, the Party, and Leonid Il’ich [Brezhnev] will handle policy!” Two days later, the Central Committee approved the intervention. The Soviet Union was going to war in Afghanistan, but its leaders had no idea how costly and lengthy this war would end up being. They thought they would be able to oust Amin, get the Afghan Army back on the offensive, and be able to withdraw in short order.  On Dec. 25th, the Soviet paratroopers Amin had asked for months ago landed in Kabul, but, much to his surprise, they arrived to end his rule – which they had done by the morning of the 28th.

The View from Washington: “A Clear Threat to the Peace”

When the Soviets moved into Afghanistan and ousted Amin, the White House was already dealing with another crisis: that of the 52 U.S. hostages in Iran.  Senior U.S. officials, however, had also been warily watching Soviet involvement in Afghanistan since the Herat uprising. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was perhaps the most worried. According to his memoirs, in May 1979, he warned President Carter that “the Soviets would be in a position, if they came to dominate Afghanistan, to promote a separate Baluchistan [then and now part of Pakistan], which would give them access to the Indian Ocean while dismembering Pakistan and Iran.”

U.S. officials had long been anxious over the Soviet (and Russian before that) quest for warm water ports, as most of their ports are frozen solid in the winter. In 1978, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown commissioned a young Paul Wolfowitz to conduct a study on U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf on the premise that this was the most likely theater for a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The report, which was leaked 10 days after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan began, found that in the event of a war in the Middle East, the United States could not stop the Soviets in Iran with its conventional forces. Wolfowitz and his team assessed that the Soviets could mobilize five times more troops than the United States in the first 30 days of a conflict. The report therefore recommended the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Perhaps inevitably, key U.S. strategists saw Soviet moves in Afghanistan through that prism more than any other.

By mid-summer, while the Soviets were bluntly refusing PDPA requests for intervention, Brzezinski was forecasting an intervention. In July, he obtained Carter’s approval for covert, non-military aid to the Afghan rebels, which was to be channeled through Pakistan. Brzezinski later claimed in a 1998 interview that on that same day, he wrote Carter a note predicting that aid would “induce a Soviet military intervention.” He explained, “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” It is unclear if Brzezinski was being truthful in this interview or, as Freedman speculates, merely trying to claim some credit for the downfall of the Soviet Union, which many analysts to this day incorrectly attribute to the costs and strains of the Soviet-Afghan War.

After the August coup attempt, U.S. intelligence observed an uptick in Soviet military activity and readiness along their border with Afghanistan. In September, President Carter asked Brzezinski to put together contingency plans for a U.S. response to an intervention.

U.S. intelligence agencies came to see some sort of intervention as more likely, but there was disagreement on what shape it would take. Lawrence Freedman documents these disagreements and Washington’s view of the Soviet march to intervention in one chapter of his excellent book, A Choice of Enemies. The intelligence community understood that Moscow viewed Taraki’s ouster as undesirable, but they were unsure what the Soviets would do about it. A U.S. intelligence assessment requested by Brzezinski outlined two scenarios: continued incremental increases in Soviet support and personnel or a massive intervention. Two weeks after this report was delivered, an entire Afghan army division mutinied near Kabul.

As the year drew to a close, U.S. intelligence agencies observed as two Soviet divisions were mobilized to full combat readiness and a third brought up to a high state of readiness. These joined a fourth division that had been on heightened readiness since August. All together, these divisions could bring approximately 50,000 troops to bear. On Dec. 14, Marshall Shulman of the State Department reported, “The Soviets appear to have concluded that the advantages of more direct intervention in Afghanistan now outweigh the inevitable price the Soviets will pay in terms of regional and US reactions.” Two of the Soviet divisions were observed leaving their garrisons.

On Dec. 17, senior officials including the secretaries of state, treasury, and defense, as well as Brzezinski, the vice president, the CIA director, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, convened in the White House Situation Room. Admiral Stansfield Turner of the CIA assessed that the Soviets had “made a political decision to keep a pro-Soviet regime in power and to use military force to that end if necessary.” He said that Moscow either saw this as having a higher priority that the SALT negotiations or did not think such a move would affect SALT. While these U.S. officials recognized that Amin was vulnerable to being replaced, they incorrectly believed Moscow had not yet “found a suitable replacement.” In addition to trying to quietly get the Soviets to explain themselves, the group agreed to:

explore with the Pakistanis and British the possibility of improving the financing, arming and communications of the rebel forces to make it as expensive as possible for the Soviets to continue their efforts.

On Dec. 22, the National Security Agency informed Brzezinski and Secretary of Defense Brown that a major Soviet intervention was in the offing, but the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency disagreed.

On Dec. 26, it happened. The State Department, observing the continued airlifting of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, assumed it was an operation meant to bolster Amin rather than show him the door. That morning almost all of the same senior officials met again in the Situation Room. They agreed that the “greatest risk we face is a quick, effective Soviet operation to pacify Afghanistan.” The memorandum produced out of this meeting, which appears to be addressed to Carter, continues:

This would be extremely costly to our image in the region and to your position here at home. Our objective, then, should be to make the operation as costly as possible for the Soviets. The covert actions that you authorized [in July] have been very slow in getting off the ground.

In a personal memo to Carter, Brzezinski wrote:

If the Soviets succeed in Afghanistan, and if Pakistan acquiesces, the age-long dream of Moscow to have direct access to the Indian Ocean will have been fulfilled.

Historically, the British provided the barrier to that drive and Afghanistan was their buffer state. We assumed that role in 1945, but the Iranian crisis has led to the collapse of the balance of power in Southwest Asia, and it could produce Soviet presence right down to the edge of the Arabian and Oman Gulfs.

Accordingly, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan poses for us an extremely grave challenge, both internationally and domestically. While it could become a Soviet Vietnam, the initial effects of the intervention are likely to be adverse for us …

Brzezinski correctly predicted that the intervention would stoke calls at home for a more assertive U.S. foreign policy and that “Soviet ‘decisiveness’ will be contrasted with our restraint, which will no longer be labeled as prudent but increasingly timid.” He advocated for what became the U.S. response under Carter and later Reagan: more money and the provision of arms to the Afghan rebels, more support to Pakistan, and coordination with Islamic countries to discredit the Soviet Union and funnel support to the Afghan rebels.

On Dec. 27, the Soviets formally notified the U.S. ambassador in Moscow of their decision, claiming it was in accordance with international law, as their presence had been requested, and that the Soviets strongly desired to maintain détente. In the context of U.S. domestic politics, this was not possible. Détente was dead. To many in Washington, that was a good thing.

Lifting words directly from Brzezinski’s memo, Carter sent a letter to Brezhnev calling the move “a clear threat to the peace” and warning that it “could mark a fundamental and long-lasting turning point in our relations.” He rejected the Soviet legal rationale for the intervention, claiming they clearly overthrew Afghanistan’s government and replaced it with another. Carter wrote:

Large-scale movements of military units into a sovereign country are always a legitimate matter of concern to the international community. When such military forces are those of a superpower, and are then used to depose an existing government and impose another, there are obvious adverse implications both for the region and for the world at large.

Brezhnev’s response the next day rejected Carter’s interpretation of events. He informed Carter of the multiple times Kabul requested troops from Moscow and insisted that the only goal of the intervention was “to provide assistance in repulsing acts of external aggression.” Brezhnev essentially told Carter to back off and calm down, writing, “the immoderate tone of certain formulations in your message hit us squarely in the eyes.”

In a call to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Carter called the intervention “an extremely grave development” that was “similar in scope and permanent impact of what they did in Czechoslavakia [sic].” He voiced the idea of sanctions, telling Thatcher “it is essential that we make this action as politically costly as possible to the Soviet Union.” He made similar calls to the French and German presidents.

In remarks to the press, Carter condemned the Soviet intervention, but many in Washington blamed Carter for what had happened, atop the ongoing crisis in Iran. In an interview on Dec. 31, Carter admitted, “[T]his action of the Soviets has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

The Washington Post editorial board called the Soviet intervention a “geopolitical embarrassment to the United States,” and speculated that Washington would support Afghanistan’s “Moslem tribesmen protesting against modernization, Soviet-style.” On Dec. 28, the New York Times editorial board said that the Soviet Union was “sinking deeper into a backyard quagmire” analogous to America’s intervention in Vietnam. It speculated that Moscow might view its move as a “show of muscle that could impress adjacent Iran, Turkey and Pakistan” or perhaps it was “also meant as a deterrent signal to neighboring China” or “an intimidating gesture to India.” Aside from showing resolve to deter Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran, none of this was at the forefront of Soviet intentions. The Politburo acted out of fear of the consequences of losing Afghanistan either to neutrality or the West. And of course, it did end up being a quagmire.

Carter took steps to assure key allies, especially Pakistan. He wrote a letter to Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, hand-delivered by Brzezinski, in which he promised that the United States would defend Pakistan from the Soviet Union. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, writing in the Washington Post, claimed Pakistani leaders thought Carter’s promise had “fallen short,” leading Islamabad to question its partnership with Washington. They wrote, “Tough talk followed by empty threats has characterized [Carter’s] foreign policy for three years, a fact well known by every country exposed to Soviet power.” Zia reportedly bemoaned the uptick in Soviet propaganda accusing Pakistan (accurately) of supporting rebels in Afghanistan. He said this was a result of Washington’s “failure to react with specific deeds to the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan.” Evans and Novak wrote, “The Zias of this world need proof, and soon.” Channeling Zia, Evans and Novak said Pakistan wanted to see more military aid, weapons sales to China, aid to Afghan refugees, and the nixing of SALT II. However, Carter knew something Evans and Novak did not: Zia was continuing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. On top of his human rights abuses, this did not endear Zia to Carter. Moreover, the reaction of Pakistani authorities to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in late November had been slow and muted.

George Will, writing then as now for the Post, criticized the Carter administration for its naiveté, drawing comparisons between the Kremlin and Hitler (much like he did at least three times last year). Détente, he insisted, had always been a ruse:

The Soviets nurtured and exploited the West’s weariness with the Cold War. They told the West what it yearned to hear, and the yearning was so powerful that the West chose to hear, not to see. Thus, “détente” coincided with unprecedented Soviet war preparations and expansionism.

The investigative journalist Jack Anderson leaked the findings of an assessment from “professionals who watch Soviet moves” (presumably intelligence analysts) on Jan. 10, 1980. These professionals blamed the Soviet move on Carter’s weakness and predicted that they would “drive deeper into the vital Persian Gulf region” from Afghanistan. He wrote that the Soviets would fill “any world power vacuum where they find the resistance weak. Carter has left them with several vacuums.” As evidence of Carter’s purported weakness, Anderson offered Carter’s lack of response to the Cuban deployments to Ethiopia and South Yemen, and especially to the Iranian crisis, which, according to Anderson’s sources, “persuaded the Soviets it would be safe to take over Afghanistan.”

Anderson emphasized the bona fides of his sources, claiming they were privy to “elaborate intelligence detailing what goes on inside the Kremlin” including “conversations of Kremlin leaders [that] have been intercepted.” He quotes one of his sources as saying “I know Leonid Brezhnev better than I know my own father.” We now know, of course, this was all facile nonsense. The Soviets had no intention of using Afghanistan as a stepping-stone to the Gulf. And nowhere in the extensive Politburo records of  the Central Committee’s Afghanistan deliberations in 1979 do we find references to Ethiopia or South Yemen. Meanwhile, with respect to Iran, while Moscow did not mourn the fall of a U.S. client regime, Soviet leaders watched the nascent theocracy there with growing unease.

Despite what his critics said, Carter did, in fact, respond. He imposed an embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union and proposed and saw through a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. As noted, he began a serious military aid program to the Afghan rebels and also promised American support to the Pakistanis should the Soviets move against them. Carter and his national security adviser also endorsed the view that the Persian Gulf was under threat due to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In an interview in late January, the president stated:

This is a threat to a vital area of the world. It’s a threat to an area of the world where the interests of our country and those interests of our allies are deeply embedded. More than two-thirds of the total exportable oil that supplies the rest of the world comes from the Persian Gulf region in Southwest Asia.

Thus began the Carter Doctrine. But even this bold commitment could not save him. With the next presidential election less than a year away, Carter faced a swell, then a wave of Republican condemnation for his handling of the crisis. Senator Bob Dole attacked Carter for a “policy of inaction.” Early in 1980, this mood had not quite caught fire among the public. But after the Desert One fiasco, Carter’s reputation as a leader on the international stage was in irreparably damaged. The aggregate effects of multiple international crises and a poor economy brought his approval ratings down to a low of 29 percent—only five points higher than Nixon’s had been in the midst of the Watergate scandal.

Foreign policy became a major issue in the presidential race between Carter and former California governor Ronald Reagan. The differences between the incumbent and the challenger on foreign policy seemed stark. Until the eve of their only debate on Oct. 28, shortly before Election Day, Carter was slightly ahead in the polls (45 percent to 42 percent). But the debate turned the tide. In the first question of the debate, moderator Marvin Stone of U.S. News & World Report observed to Reagan:

President Carter has been criticized for responding late to aggressive Soviet impulses, for insufficient build-up of our armed forces, and a paralysis in dealing with Afghanistan and Iran. You have been criticized for being all too quick to advocate the use of lots of muscle — military action — to deal with foreign crises.

Reagan won a landslide victory. His policy on Afghanistan was largely a continuation of Carter’s, albeit with even greater resources devoted to the Afghan mujahideen.

Judging Weakness, Strength, and Good Strategy

The passage of time has given us a more nuanced picture of these events of the late 1970s. Over thirty years later, these septuagenarians of the Kremlin are no longer viewed as master strategists, but rather paranoid and doddering stewards of an empire that was even then beginning to crumble. And this is when so many in the United States saw the Soviet Union as being at its strongest, with America at its weakest. Still more ironically, those feelings were mutual: documents reveal the Politburo’s decisions as driven by anxiety, fear, and uncertainty rather than strength and confidence.

At the very least, the above story teaches us that it would be foolhardy to simply assume that Putin is acting from a position of strength. We should appreciate the limits of our knowledge of his decision-making calculus. There are, of course, differences and discontinuities between Putin’s actions in Syria and Ukraine and Brezhnev’s in Afghanistan, but even these do not argue for Russian strength. Putin’s Russia is far less of a threat to the West than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in terms of its ability both to project conventional power and to compete globally for influence. Even if Putin’s decision-making is murky to today’s observers, the structural basis of Russian power is clear. Putin’s Russia is dangerous, but it is a weak country, with dim long-term economic and political prospects. In all likelihood, these external military commitments will be regretted by Moscow in time, especially if they end up being more prolonged than expected – as most military operations tend to be.

Intervention was not Russia’s preferred option in the four-year-old Syrian civil war. Indeed, military interventions in support of client regimes are almost always undertaken to reverse or prevent a defeat and are therefore inherently decisions made from a position of disadvantage. As Freedman wrote in reference to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, “This is the point, by definition, at which all other remedies have failed.”

While it is in vogue in some circles to portray President Obama as feckless and to engage in “Putin envy,” the evidence we have indicates that Putin has deployed his forces to Syria because his last remaining client in the Middle East was in danger of collapsing. If this is not a position of weakness, I do not know what is. A much clearer indication of weakness would be if Russia lacked the capacity and capability to launch an expeditionary intervention, true, but this is not the Russia of the 1990s and Obama has no control over Russia’s military modernization efforts.

Obama’s critics should see the wisdom in being prudent and modest about what they think they know. The eminent military historian Williamson Murray, for example, argued here at War on the Rocks that “Putin has been willing to take extraordinary risks in the belief that President Obama and the Americans are incapable of responding to his moves.” Following in Pipes’ footsteps, neoconservative writers have taken to the pages of Commentary to make arguments that, after four decades of repetition, are predictable. Noah Rothman calls it a “crushing defeat for America.” Max Boot, our most reliable advocate for American military intervention, describes Russia’s move as a response to Obama’s weakness. In reality, however, it seems more likely that Putin is taking risks in using force because, from his perspective, not doing so—whether in Ukraine or Syria—would come at an unacceptable cost to Russia, such as eventually being encircled by NATO or losing his only ally in the Middle East. Indeed, Syria is arguably one of Russia’s two genuine allies in the entire world, the other being Belarus, which is held hostage to Russia by geography rather than affection.

In any case, differentiating between strength and weakness is different from assessing good strategy. Good strategy can come from a place of weakness or disadvantage and bad strategy from strength. Not all military interventions are failures. In retrospect, we now see that Brezhnev and his successors acted from a position of weakness and performed poorly as strategists. Indeed, they even foresaw most of the reasons for their failure. But could Putin be acting from weakness in Syria and still be implementing a brilliant strategy? The immediate aim of Russia’s intervention was to stabilize the military position of the Assad regime and in that sense it has been basically successful. But it has also further isolated Moscow and invited new risks for escalation.

These risks are very real, as the world saw when Turkey shot down a Russian tactical bomber that Ankara claims flew into their airspace. Russia is now baring its teeth at Turkey. Putin has imposed imposing economic sanctions in retaliation and has threatened more measures. Yet, Russia stands to lose out as well from striking back. Turkey is the fifth-largest importer of Russian goods ($24 billion in 2014) and Russia’s second-largest market for natural gas. Russia had hoped Turkey would be a partner in transporting gas from Russia to Europe. As such, Russian economic retaliation may prove to be self-defeating, particularly in the context of its already weakened economy. Such a clash over the skies of Turkey or Syria—where U.S. and other NATO planes are flying sorties—could escalate into a major war that Russia would probably lose.

Moscow has also attracted the animus of much of the Sunni Arab world, including and especially that of Sunni extremists. Russia also faces growing problems of extremism among its own Muslim population. This fall, the self-proclaimed Islamic State downed a Russian airliner at the cost of over 200 lives. Russia’s attempts to curry favor with France at the expense of the United States after the Paris bombings by offering assistance in the fight against the Islamic State have not borne any fruit. Some analysts viewed Russia’s intervention in Syria as a gambit to end the isolation it brought upon itself due to its annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of the civil war in Eastern Ukraine, but with the likely renewal of sanctions against Russia, it does not seem they have made any progress on that front either.

However, Putin’s intervention has undoubtedly prevented the collapse of the Assad regime and weakened the armed opposition. As Michael Kofman discussed when the intervention was first launched, it has also made the prospects of a no-fly zone enacted by the United States or its allies over a part of Syria far less palatable for Washington (particularly with the more recent introduction of a Russian S-400 umbrella over most of Syria and parts of Turkey). However, this has never been a wise option for the United States, despite the vocal advocacy of hawkish Democrats and Republicans in Washington. The Russian intervention also forced the re-establishment of military-to-military ties between the United States and Russia, later followed by two personal meetings between Obama and Putin. In aggregate, it is fair to say that Russia is no longer as politically isolated from the West as it was earlier this year, but this has not yet resulted in any material gains for Moscow. Arguments that Russia is re-establishing itself as a major power in the Middle East are overdone. Arms sales combined with a convergence of interests between Moscow, Tehran, and—in part—Baghdad vis-à-vis Syria should not be interpreted as a sweeping change in the balance of power in the Middle East.

Looking as objectively as we can at the situation, Putin’s strategy in Syria thus far has a mixed record. Russia has incurred some costs and assumed great risks, but has achieved its immediate military objectives. However, one could say the same of the Soviets in Afghanistan when that operation was only a few months old.

The story of Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan demonstrates that misperceptions of strength and strategy abound in international politics, and misery can be the result. The United States had no plans to place missiles in Afghanistan and break the U.S.S.R.’s southern republics away in to a Muslim empire, as some Soviet leaders feared, or at least claimed to. Meanwhile, Moscow had no plans to use Afghanistan as a stepping stone to the Persian Gulf, as Washington feared.  In this case, it was the Afghan people that bore the preponderance of suffering at somewhere between one and two million dead in the decade that followed the Soviet intervention. War rages on in Afghanistan to this day, a quarter of a century after Soviet troops finally withdrew, due in part to the poorly handled U.S.-led Afghan intervention and occupation and—perhaps more than anything else—Pakistan’s malignant influence in the region, but it all began with the crushing experience of the Soviet-Afghan War.

We can see many of the same dynamics in and around the Hindu Kush of 1979 that we see today in and around Syria: disingenuous allies blaming America for not doing enough to provide top-cover to their troublesome and destabilizing activities; members of both the Washington press corps and Congress willing to support this message for partisan political reasons; and announcements that “something” must be done and anything less than matching aggression for aggression is weakness. For years now, Obama’s critics have been eager to use the same playbook against him that they used to great effect against Carter, and they have had some success. A visitor from 1980 could be forgiven for thinking today’s GOP foreign policy talking points are about Carter rather than Obama. Today, a curious pattern appears in some polls: majorities have supported many of the specifics of Obama’s foreign policy decisions in Ukraine and even the Middle East, yet when asked about his foreign policy writ large, most Americans turn their thumbs toward the ground. Not strong enough, they say.

This is not an argument for isolationism or against acting when with vital interests are threatened. Nor is this a defense of American strategy in Syria. I for one hope that the foreign policy commentariat can set aside its Putin-as-master-strategist fetish and refocus on two pressing strategic concerns. First, how can the United States meet the threats posed by a weak but still dangerous Russia, based on a holistic assessment of current and future intentions and capabilities? Indeed, the Russian military has displayed a capacity for power-projection in Syria that surprised many Western analysts and should give the Pentagon cause for concern as they assess contingencies for the protection of allies on NATO’s eastern and southern flanks. Second, what is the best strategy for the United States in Syria that accounts for Russia’s maneuvers in the conflict, but does not necessarily entail matching them? Whether we act from positions of strength or weakness in international affairs, it is important that we do not act on the basis of paranoia and ill-founded projections of our own fears on to the strategies of our adversaries, which—upon historical inspection—are often found to be just as reactive and poorly informed as our own.


Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He thanks Lawrence Freedman, Frank Gavin, Frank Hoffman, Rebecca Lissner, Christopher Mewett, Joshua Rovner, Usha Sahay, Colin Steele, and Andrew Stern for providing invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.

Images: White House, Gerald Ford Library, Kremlin.