President Trump isn’t opposed to all foreign military interventions — only the United States’. While withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and vastly reducing their numbers in Afghanistan — on the way, one presumes, to a total withdrawal before the 2020 election — he offered praise for, of all things, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia,” he said during a Wednesday Cabinet meeting. “[The Russians] were right to be there.”
Whoa. Ever since the Soviet invasion on Dec. 24, 1979, it has been viewed by U.S. leaders as a byword for unprovoked aggression. President Ronald Reagan’s statement marking the seventh anniversary of the invasion, in 1986, was typical in denouncing this “brutal onslaught” and celebrating the Afghan people’s refusal “to surrender” their freedom.
The United States was so opposed to the Soviet invasion that President Jimmy Carter initiated, and Reagan expanded, a covert program to aid the mujahideen fighting the Red Army. As the book and movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” make clear, the United States’ hope was to hand the Soviets a defeat that would shake their empire. The U.S. strategy succeeded, even if Trump exaggerated in claiming that the U.S.S.R. “went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” and as a result “went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union.” Historians agree that that the Soviet defeat was but one factor among many in precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union — and that the blow to Soviet morale from this bloody morass was far more significant than its financial cost.
But this was hardly Trump’s most egregious bit of historical revisionism. Far more bizarre was the president’s claim that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan because Afghan terrorists had struck the Soviet Union. Afghan terrorism was a consequence, not a cause, of the Soviet invasion. The 1979 invasion was, like the 1956 invasion of Hungary and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, intended to prop up a “fraternal” Communist regime against “reactionary” forces.
Admittedly, the Soviet rationale was undercut by the fact that the very first thing that Soviet troops did was to murder the Communist leader who had ostensibly invited them, Hafizullah Amin. He was replaced with a rival, Babrak Karmal, who was viewed as a more dependable proxy. But Karmal had no more success in repressing a burgeoning insurgency, and Moscow was drawn into a war that would last more than nine years and result in the deaths of more than 15,000 Soviet troops.
The Afghan war became a national humiliation and embarrassment for the Soviets. In 1989, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Congress of People’s Deputies condemned the invasion as a “criminal gamble.” Now, as part of his general rehabilitation of Soviet history, Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to have his rubber-stamp parliament, the Duma, pass a resolution on Feb. 15, the 30th anniversary of the Red Army’s withdrawal, repudiating the 1989 resolution as “inconsistent with the principles of historical justice.” But not even Putin has the chutzpah to ascribe the invasion to Afghan terrorism: the resolution says that the attack was a response to “multiple requests of Afghanistan’s leadership for direct Soviet intervention into the conflict.”
Trump seems to have gotten his Russian wars confused. Terrorism was the rationale not for the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, but for the 1999 invasion of Chechnya. The brutal Russian attack on Chechnya, which had won de facto independence in a previous war from 1994 to 1996, was preceded by a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed 300 people. Putin, Russia’s newly appointed prime minister at the time, blamed the attacks on Chechen terrorists, but some Russia-watchers believe they were actually staged by the FSB, the KGB-successor organization which Putin had previously headed. Needless to say — given that this is Russia — we may never know the full truth. But the veteran correspondent Scott Anderson laid out the case in GQ in 2017. Two FSB men were even caught planting explosives in an apartment basement before being released with the cover story that they were only taking part in a “training exercise.”
The apartment bombings, followed by the invasion of Chechnya, helped Putin to consolidate his power, just as Adolf Hitler did in Germany after the Reichstag fire in 1933. He went from being an obscure apparatchik to a latter-day tsar who has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, made Russia a major player in the Middle East, and even meddled in an American election.
Now, the U.S. president elected with Russian help is not just parroting Russia’s own propaganda but actually offering excuses for Russian aggression that not even Russia has made. This incident reveals not only Trump’s invincible ignorance but also his rampant Russophilia — or, more accurately, his Putinophilia.
Trump is hazy on the details (perhaps he has trouble keeping straight the claptrap he hears from his pal Putin?), but he is convinced that the Russians are usually right. And when they are clearly wrong — as in their recent attack on Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait, or the arrest of former Marine Paul Whelan in Moscow — Trump has little to say. What accounts for the president’s pro-Putin orientation? That is a question we must hope that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will answer. But it’s difficult to think of an innocuous explanation.