Moscow: Soviet authorities themselves condemned the USSR’s bloody occupation of Afghanistan but 30 years later some in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are coming to see the operation in a more positive light.
After a decade of military intervention to bolster Kabul’s embattled Communist government against Islamist fighters, the USSR finally pulled out its last units February 15, 1989.
The withdrawal, ordered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was a humiliating defeat for the Union and helped lead to its collapse.
Mikhail Kozhukhov, who covered the conflict as a correspondent for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, remembered how the final Russian troops left without joy or bitterness.
The reporter remembered crossing the “Friendship Bridge” across the Amu Darya river separating Afghanistan from then-Soviet Uzbekistan in the second-last armoured vehicle of the last Soviet convoy, flying red flags.
The journalist, who briefly served as Putin’s Press Secretary in 1999 and 2000, said that “the intervention in Afghanistan was always a tragic and senseless escapade” and was officially condemned in 1989 at the height of Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost”, or transparency.
But this judgement is now being reassessed, under pressure from veterans.
Putin in 2015 appeared to back the intervention, saying that the Soviet leadership was trying to confront “real threats” even though he acknowledged “there were many mistakes.”
In late January, Russia’s Parliamentary Defence Committee backed a draft resolution saying that “the moral and political condemnation of the decision to send in Soviet troops” was “against the principles of historical justice.”
The draft resolution, however, has yet to be voted on in full session, reflecting the authorities’ reluctance formally to revisit the traumatic episode.
Historian Irina Shcherbakova of Memorial rights group said amid heightened tensions with Western powers in recent years, “Russia is reviving its Soviet past to justify its new opposition to the West.”
For political analyst Pyotr Akopov, from pro-Kremlin site Vzglyad, Russia has nothing to apologise for. “We didn’t use napalm and managed to leave Afghanistan with our supporters replacing us, which the Americans have never managed to do,” he added.
Alexander Kovalyov, president of the association of ex-combatants for the CIS region including most ex-Soviet countries, insisted that the invasion of Afghanistan was justified and opined Gorbachev “betrayed all the dead” by condemning it.
“Without our troops, the Americans would have installed their missiles to target Moscow,” he said.