The Lessons of the Soviet Retreat from Afghanistan
On February 15, 1989, Soviet General Boris Gromov walked across the Friendship Bridge from Afghanistan into the Soviet Union, where he was greeted by Soviet television cameras and given a bouquet of red carnations. After a decade-long war in Afghanistan, Gromov was officially the last Soviet soldier to leave the country. Moscow used his choreographed walk to signal that the mission had been successful and to highlight its orderly departure, one that stood in stark contrast to the final days of the Vietnam War, when Americans desperately clambered onto helicopters to escape Saigon.
But it was a charade. Gromov had spent the previous night at a hotel in the Soviet Union and traveled to Afghanistan only to stage the exit. In the end, the theatrics fooled hardly anyone, including within the Soviet Union itself. The country’s war in Afghanistan was supposed to be rapid: Moscow had planned to quickly install a new regime more friendly to its interests and then depart. Instead, the long intervention provoked a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that led to 14,000 official Soviet fatalities (the true figure is probably much higher). Moscow did install a new government in Kabul, but it was deeply unstable.
Ultimately, this failure discredited the entire Soviet system and encouraged domestic reforms that helped collapse the state. The war helped drive a wedge between the Soviet military and the people, spurring anti-military and anti-draft protests in Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and elsewhere. In 1992, Edward Shevardnadze, the former Soviet minister of foreign affairs and a key architect of perestroika and glasnost, described the decision to leave Afghanistan as “the first and most difficult step” in the reform process. “Everything else flowed from that.”
Thirty-three years after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, Russia finds itself in another destructive and unwinnable conflict. It is now clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s original objective in Ukraine—overthrowing the country’s government and replacing it with a pliant proxy regime—is unattainable. Ukraine will continue to exist as an independent state, and it will be more pro-Western than ever. Rather than weakening NATO, Russia’s war has reinvigorated the alliance while isolating its own economy. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have already been slain and injured in the invasion, which is becoming a grinding war of attrition.
Ukraine, however, is also suffering from the war, as thousands of its residents are killed while its economy collapses. Other parts of the world are struggling with the ripple effects of the conflict, including influxes of refugees and grain shortages. The ongoing catastrophe has led some Western commentators to call for a negotiated solution to the war that could grant Putin significant material concessions in exchange for a Russian withdrawal, such as expanded and formalized Russian control of the Donbas region—offering Moscow what the military theorist Sun Tzu called a “golden bridge” out of the conflict. Critics, meanwhile, decry any talk of an off-ramp for Putin as an act of appeasement and a reward for Russia’s brutal atrocities that will only embolden the autocrat to engage in further aggression. As they see it, there is no substitute for a total Ukrainian victory.
The story of how the Soviet Union left Afghanistan suggests that both pathways are possible—the West can craft a negotiated settlement and give Ukraine a decisive win. In the late 1980s, the United States agreed to let Moscow have face-saving concessions to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. But these were deliberately hollow and did little to mask what was a clear defeat. Today, the West and Ukraine can offer Moscow superficial gains as an incentive to withdraw while working to entrench the image of Russian failure and weaken Putin’s political position. The West should, in other words, build Putin not a golden bridge but a gilded bridge: a path out of the war that is attractive enough for Kremlin to end the fighting but in time comes to be seen as cheap and tawdry. The result might not be the climatic win that hawks envision: Ukrainian soldiers may not chase bedraggled Russian troops out of the Donbas. But it will nonetheless be a substantive victory for Kyiv.
THE STORY OF SUCCESS
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, every party in the conflict has tried to shape perceptions about who is winning and losing. As Kyiv resisted Russian advances, Ukraine and its Western allies have crafted a narrative of Ukraine as a plucky and surprisingly triumphant underdog. U.S. President Joe Biden recently said that “the battle of Kyiv was a historic victory for the Ukrainians” and “a victory for freedom.” Meanwhile, Moscow has claimed that the war is going according to plan and highlighted the supposed valor of its forces in the Donbas. After meeting with Putin in April, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said that the Russian leader “believes he is winning the war.”
It’s easy to see why both sides are aggressively promoting their storylines. Narratives of victory and defeat—whether true or false—can affect soldiers’ morale and public backing for war, shape battlefield outcomes, and determine the fate of leaders. In the coming years, it will be far easier to sustain NATO’s newfound cohesion if the alliance is seen as having succeeded in Ukraine. The political careers of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and perhaps some Western leaders may be tied to perceptions of whether Ukraine wins or loses. Crucially, Putin’s future may hinge on the outcome of his war, which is his biggest and riskiest political decision. In 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was widely seen as the loser in the Cuban missile crisis. Partially as a result, he was toppled from power two years later.
The most obvious Western strategy might then be to single-mindedly focus on portraying Russia as the loser in Ukraine. But this approach risks needlessly prolonging the war. Putin cannot tolerate humiliation, and his overarching aim—more than capturing Ukrainian territory or even toppling the regime in Kyiv—is to restore a sense of Russian glory and pride and preserve his personal brand as a winner. He is not the first leader to fight with this motivation; great powers often prosecute wars to avoid the appearance of losing. In 1965, for example, a U.S. government memo said the United States fought in Vietnam “70%—to avoid a humiliating US defeat.” The West may therefore need a more dexterous approach to end the war.
History shows that it’s possible to craft peace terms that allow powerful countries to end failing wars with a modicum of dignity, but nevertheless in clear defeat. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is perhaps the foremost example. The 1988 Geneva Accords created a timetable for Soviet withdrawal in which the signatories and guarantors agreed to let Afghanistan’s communist regime stay in power—so there was, as one Soviet official put it, a “decent interval” between Moscow’s departure and the final collapse in Kabul. This enabled Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to claim that Soviet troops had succeeded in their mission to stabilize Afghanistan and produce national “reconciliation.” Widespread international involvement in the accords also allowed Moscow to emphasize the role of the United Nations in its exit strategy and cast the Soviet departure as an attempt to renew the international organization. The Red Army then left in good order: the withdrawal took only nine months and ended ahead of schedule. Soviet officials made it look like they were in control.
They weren’t. The Afghan regime temporarily survived, but it was clear to everyone that it wouldn’t stay in power forever. (The government in Kabul eventually collapsed in 1992.) The United States, one of the guarantors of the accords, conceded little of substance and retained the right to arm the Afghan rebels. Hardliners in Washington, who wanted to see Moscow indefinitely bogged down in Afghanistan, opposed even a face-saving agreement. But they were ultimately defeated by U.S. “dealers,” who were willing to offer symbolic concessions to get Moscow out and knew that the war would still be widely seen as a Soviet debacle. Their assessment proved correct. There was no peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Thousands of Soviet troops had died for nothing. In 1988, Gorbachev bluntly told the Politburo that the Soviet Union had “lost in Afghanistan.”
The Kremlin’s failed war imposed massive material and psychological costs on a struggling empire. The campaign undermined morale and cohesion in the Soviet military—the country’s most important institution. Soviet troops had entered Afghanistan as supposedly worthy successors to the World War II generation, only to play, as one soldier put it, “the role of the Germans.” Veterans (the Afgantsy) grew embittered by the lack of postwar care they received and their neglect in official media, and they organized to spread narratives about how brutal the war really was. The defeat also undermined the Soviet system more broadly. In Moscow, the war discredited the use of force as a tool to hold the Soviet bloc together, and outside Moscow, the campaign showed that the Soviet Army was beatable and emboldened non-Russian republics to pursue independence. As the political economist Rafael Reuveny and political scientist Aseem Prakash wrote, Afghanistan was “one of the key causes” of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
THE ILLUSION OF VICTORY
Afghanistan and Ukraine are, of course, different wars, and they are taking place in different political contexts. Gorbachev was a reformer who sought to improve relations with the West and liberalize his country. Putin is almost the complete opposite: a revanchist authoritarian determined to concentrate power and remake the world through force.
But there are important parallels. In both cases, a sclerotic and overconfident Kremlin invaded a neighbor, fought a war that officially did not exist (the Afghan invasion was named the “Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan”), faced a resolute adversary backed by Western arms, and had to improvise a larger and costlier campaign than expected. Eventually, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union was forced to negotiate. As the casualties and other costs in Ukraine rise, Putin may also have to come to the table. Meanwhile, unless the Russian military completely collapses, Kyiv will need to concede some of its maximal goals—Moscow’s withdrawal from Crimea and the Donbas and massive Russian reparations—if it wants the war to end.
The terms of peace in Ukraine will, of course, primarily be up to Kyiv. But the West should also think about how it can help craft an agreement that will facilitate Putin’s exit while ensuring both a real and perceived Ukrainian win. This means distinguishing between meaningful and superficial concessions while considering how gains and losses could shape future narratives of victory and defeat. Western leaders cannot, for instance, pressure Ukraine to cede its territorial integrity and the right to strong armed forces, nor should it deprive the country of a road to membership in the European Union. But the West can encourage Kyiv to acquiesce on symbolic issues that will create a gilded bridge to get Russia out.
NATO, for example, has no plans to admit Ukraine, and so Kyiv could pledge to shelve its aspirations to join the alliance—something it has suggested it is open to doing. This would allow Putin to declare that he has, in some sense, stopped NATO (even as the alliance likely expands elsewhere). Similarly, Kyiv could “demilitarize” by promising not to host foreign bases, which it already has no intention of accommodating. Moscow has made far-fetched claims that it launched its special military operation to prevent an attack on Russia from Ukraine, and Kyiv may agree to mutual security guarantees to prevent attacks on both Ukraine and Russia as part of a broader deal.
The Russian president has declared that his invasion was necessary to stop Ukraine from committing a “genocide” against its Russian-speaking residents. In response, Ukraine could enact new measures that safeguard the rights of Russian speakers or other minorities. This shouldn’t be hard for Kyiv. Most Russian-speaking Ukrainians back the Ukrainian war effort, and such measures would be consistent with the European Union’s commitment to protecting minorities—and therefore worthwhile if Ukraine wants to join the institution. International actors such as the European Union, as well as non-Western powers like China, could play an important role in making a Ukrainian settlement palatable to Moscow. Historically, the Kremlin has been more willing to make deals when they are crafted in forums that highlight Russia’s great-power status, such as the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which helped stabilize European security, or the 1988 Geneva Accords.
The West might consider a peace deal that leaves Russian proxies in charge of parts of the Donbas while preserving the right of Western states to continue supplying Kyiv with weapons, much as the United States allowed the communist regime in Afghanistan to temporarily stay in charge even after the Soviets withdrew. The Ukrainian government may eventually retake all or part of its eastern territories. But like in Afghanistan, this will come after a decent interval, allowing Moscow to blame local separatists for defeat.
Even light concessions to Putin may be tough to swallow, given the brutality of Russia’s war. Building a gilded bridge in Ukraine may lack the emotional satisfaction of trying to rout Russian troops, much as letting the Soviet Union calmly walk away from Afghanistan did not appeal to hardliners in the United States. But humiliating Russia is likely to backfire. Nations that feel disrespected often choose aggression to redress an emotional loss. The punitive Treaty of Versailles, for example, fueled the rise of Adolf Hitler. Ukraine should avoid shaming the Russian nation for the sake of it, such as by marching Russian prisoners before cameras or burning the Russian flag. It should allow Russian troops to leave Ukraine in good order as part of a peace deal. The defeat should be seen as a failure of Putin and his system rather than the Russian people at large.
The West, after all, doesn’t need to humiliate Russians to achieve its aims. Symbolic concessions will not stop the war from being widely seen as a defeat for Putin—including within Russia itself. Putin controls the Russian media, and he will declare victory no matter what happens. But Russians cannot forever be blinded to the stark costs of the invasion, and they will slowly come to realize that they have lost thousands of soldiers for no real gains. Russians will feel the massive economic damage wrought by global isolation, and they will be aware that the war pushed Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Indeed, there are already signs of mistrust within Russia about official narratives. After Ukraine sank the Russia Black Sea flagship Moskva, Moscow claimed that no Russians (or at most one) had died. The parents of missing sailors nonetheless expressed anger and grief.
If Ukraine ultimately emerges as a stable democracy, rebuilt with billions of dollars in foreign funds and frozen Russian assets, bonded together by narratives of a great patriotic war, then the country will stand as a living testament to Putin’s recklessness. Ukraine will be a beacon of freedom, and its heroic resistance may dissuade other countries from acts of aggression. And memories of a failed war in Russia could spur doubts about the Kremlin’s judgment that, in time, undermine Putin’s regime—just as Afghanistan helped bring down the Soviet system.