President Trump said a lot of strange, untrue things after Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. But the most bizarre snippet might have been his “history” lesson on the Soviet Union.
Trump, who has assured us he is the foremost expert on many topics for which he has no formal education or training, gave his own version of why the USSR collapsed. And to be clear, it is his own version.
Here’s what he said:
“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. … The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.”
The overlap between the fall of the Soviet Union and its foray into Afghanistan is obvious. The USSR invaded in 1979 and left a decade later, in 1989. The superpower dissolved shortly thereafter in 1991.
But correlation is not causation. And Trump — who was using that anecdote to argue that the United States should pull out of Afghanistan and Syria — is really straining for causation here.
Let’s take this piece by piece.
“Russia used to be the Soviet Union.”
This might be the truest thing Trump said, but it’s only partially true. While Russia and the Soviet Union are often used interchangeably, there were 14 other republics also bundled into the USSR. Today’s Russia has about half the population of the Soviet Union. But we’ll forgive the president this popular shorthand.
“Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. ... And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union."
First off, “bankrupt” isn’t the correct term. The Soviet economy did collapse, but bankruptcy entails the dissolution of debts, and Russia assumed responsibility for most of the Soviet obligations after 1991. (This is a distinction, it bears noting, that Trump should be well familiar with.)
As for Afghanistan’s role? It was perhaps among the many reasons the USSR collapsed. But it was not the reason.
"I think most scholars would agree that Afghanistan was a contributing factor in the Soviet collapse, but I don’t think anyone would go so far as to pin sole blame for the collapse on Afghanistan or to say that the Soviets went ‘bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan,’ ” said Sarah Cameron, a historian who studies Russia and the Soviet Union at the University of Maryland.
And Afghanistan’s role in the collapse was more military- and perception-based than economic. A world power that helped defeat Nazi Germany and had crushed uprisings within its borders was suddenly viewed as weak and unable to control a small country.
“The moral, social and political costs of the war were substantial and contributed to the crisis of the Soviet Union, but it wasn’t a decisive financial burden,” said Eric Lohr, another expert at American University. “By far, the Soviet Union’s biggest financial problem was declining oil prices through the ’80s. Then Perestroika [a political and economic restructuring] unleashed all kinds of problems that hit the performance of the state economy, the state budget. The costs of Afghanistan were significant, but not on anything like that scale.”
“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia.”
This is simply not true. The Soviet Union ventured into Afghanistan as part of its effort to prop up communism abroad, not because terrorists were striking the Soviet homeland.
“The most shameless Soviet propagandist never claimed that Afghan terrorists were attacking Russia,” said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University. “You can read all Soviet media in the 1980s and never find anything this ridiculous.”
There was ultimately a problem with extremism in Afghanistan, but it developed largely after the USSR left, and the mujahideen groups that sprang up to fight the Soviets devolved into the Taliban.
“They were right to be there.”
This isn’t so much a fact check as an aside. It’s remarkable and unprecedented for a president of the United States to argue that the Soviet Union was right to be in Afghanistan, regardless of the purported reasons. The United States, after all, was on the other side, aiding the mujahideen.
"A lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.”
It’s not clear to what Trump is referring when he says “a lot of the places you’re reading about.” The other countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. About the only one that is regularly in the news is Ukraine — thanks to the Russian incursion into Crimea.