When Russia invaded Ukraine, they encountered a heavy resistance and initial losses in the battlefield were apparent. The observers drew parallels between the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The initial assessments were not far from reality. However, over the course of more than a year into the war, the internal dynamics of war has taken a different form. It differs starkly from the one in Afghanistan.
The colossal amount of resources the United States has invested in Ukraine to fight Russians presents us with a dilemma. It reminds us of the US involvement in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The US has already committed more than €70 billion in aid most of which comprise of military assistance. Apart from the already made commitments, this month, the US President asked Congress to ratify an additional $20 billion in assistance to Ukraine. The US played a critical role in arming Mujahedeen guerrillas against the Soviets in Afghanistan. We see a similar role played by the US in Ukraine but on a much larger scale.
Therefore, on a strategic level, the war in Ukraine resembles to that of the Soviet war in Afghanistan where one superpower fights an adversary supported by another superpower. In-spite of this fact, a bird’s eye view of the war can be misleading. The ground realities have emerged to be different and we need to look at the war in Ukraine from a different perspective.
As discussed earlier, the early stages of Ukraine war shared some similarities with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When the Russians barged into Kyiv, the modus operandi was adopted from the invasion of Kabul. The Russians expected a quick and decisive blow to topple the Ukrainian government or bring it into submission. Additionally, there were a large number of Russian troops en route to Kyiv. However, things didn’t go well for the Russians in Kyiv and the forces en route to Kyiv were pulled out.
In my opinion, this was the point from where the internal dynamics of the war started diverging from the war in Afghanistan. There was a shift in Russia’s strategy. The Russians concentrated their effort in the eastern part of Ukraine which they announced as their primary goal. The current features of Ukraine war are markedly different from the Soviet war in Afghanistan and we will dissect some.
Absence of a loyal regime.
When Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they were able to install a loyal government in charge of Afghanistan soon after taking over Kabul. The government was led by Babrak Karmal (Payind, 1989:121). The Afghan government and the Soviets allied to fight the Islamist insurgency. However in Ukraine, the Russians suffered a heavy defeat in their attempt to take over Kyiv. The Ukrainian government remained intact and hostile towards Russians.
Absence of insurgency
Unlike the Soviets who were up against a popular insurgency in Afghanistan, the Russians are facing a conventional national army in Ukraine. The Afghan rebels could not muster a conventional fighting force. They lacked resources and adequate training. They had to resort to guerrilla tactics. Therefore, the Soviets were fighting a guerrilla force in Afghanistan. The Soviets had difficulty making distinction between friends and foes. However, in Ukraine, the Russians have hardly been bothered by any insurgency within the territory occupied by them. The military tactics used by both sides in the Ukrainian war resembles more that of a large scale battle fought during the World Wars.
Presence of a clearly demarcated frontline
The war in Afghanistan was fought in every nooks and corners of the country. The fact that Afghan insurgency waged a guerrilla war against the Soviets explains the lack of a frontline.
In Ukraine, in addition to Crimea which Russia annexed in 2014, majority of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts are under Russian control. There is a clear frontline and it stretches from Kherson oblast in the west to Luhansk in the east as shown in the Figure below.
Source: The Economist
Absence of hostile locals in the Russian occupied Ukraine.
In contrast to Afghans who viewed Soviets as a foreign occupying force, the situation in eastern Ukraine is conspicuously different. The eastern part of Ukraine consists of a majority of ethnic Russian population. They have a very close cultural and familial ties in Russia. There was an active separatist insurgency against the Ukrainian Armed Forces prior to the Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine. The insurgency was supported by the Russians. The insurgency has allied with the Russian forces after the invasion. The Russian forces enjoy a greater degree of support from the locals in the occupied zones of eastern Ukraine and that is one of the reason we see a lack of hostility within the occupied zones.
Though the war in Ukraine in initial phase bore some semblance of war in Afghanistan launched by the Soviets, over the time it has diverged so much in form that drawing parallels would be a futile exercise for someone trying to predict the course of war. Had the Russians managed to take over Kyiv in February of 2022 and install a loyal government, the situation on the ground would have been different. If that were the case, assessments made by commentators by drawing parallels with the war in Afghanistan would have carried a lot more weight.
However, the war in Ukraine has turned out be different. The Russians had to change their strategy because of unrelenting Ukrainians. We see an emergence of a clearly demarcated frontline and a fight between two conventional armies. Both sides have suffered heavy losses and there is little hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The war in Ukraine has evolved from the one that reminded us of Soviet invasion in Afghanistan to the one which reminds us of trench warfare of the World Wars and with time the war is only getting progressively brutal and unpredictable.