Russia in Syria: Ghosts of Afghanistan may limit Kremlin's options now

Memories of the Soviet Army's failure in Afghanistan still haunt the Russian public – making a major deployment to Syria almost unthinkable, Russian experts say.

Estate of Alexander Sekretarev/AP/File
Soviet soldiers observe the highlands, while fighting Islamic guerrillas at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in April 1988.

Russia is stepping up its involvement in Syria according to multiple reports, and may launch air strikes against Islamic State forces opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime.

But despite the Russian activity in Syria, a range of Russian security experts insist that Russia's military intentions there will be constrained by one powerful condition within the Russian public's psyche: "Afghan Syndrome."

The syndrome had much the same effect as the Vietnam War on the US public. The former USSR's painful intervention in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 – which killed 15,000 Soviet troops – scarred a generation of Russians, arguably contributed to the collapse of the state, and left Russia with an abiding public aversion to using force beyond its borders.

"The Russian population does not want our Army taking part in active military operations anywhere, period," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency.

Even in Ukraine, where opinion polls show most Russians support their country's official policies of allowing volunteers and other forms of assistance to the Ukrainian rebels, the Kremlin has gone to great lengths to conceal involvement of Russian troops over the past year, including secret burials of the inevitable casualties

"Polls consistently show they don't want Russian troops in Ukraine," says Mr. Grazhdankin. "The attitude to introducing Russian forces in Syria will be negative."

A new airbase

Syria has been Moscow's client state for more than 40 years. At any point in that time there would be plenty of Russians on the ground in Syria, in training and advisory capacities, says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. Russia has maintained a naval supply station at Tartus and possibly intelligence-gathering facilities in other places for decades.

What is apparently new, says Mr. Golts, is construction of a Russian airbase near Latakia, from where it's possible that Russian-piloted helicopters and jets could launch attacks against advancing IS forces.

"I think this new activity is in connection with [Vladimir] Putin's upcoming speech at the UN General Assembly, where he plans to propose to the West a grand anti-terrorist alliance, of which Russia would be a key part," says Golts. "So there is an effort to show some activity on the ground, proof that we are serious."

He and other experts dismiss "newspaper reports" of Russian troops going into action in Syria, but say that one marine battalion – about 500 men – has been sent aboard three assault ships out of Sevastopol to defend the new airfield.

"This is an escalation, no doubt about it. But there will be no big intervention there; Putin knows the Russian public will simply not understand this," says Golts.

A Vietnam-like trap?

Some experts warn that the Kremlin could be stepping onto a very slippery slope.

"The idea is to help protect the Alawite population around Latakia, to stabilize the situation and deter IS," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "No large-scale operation is planned. But, as happened to the Americans in Vietnam, one thing can lead to another, and troops who are advisers one day can find themselves fighting the next."

Mr. Makarkin adds that "the 'Afghan Syndrome' is not as sharp and fresh as it used to be. A similar thing happened to Americans, who got over their 'Vietnam Syndrome' and went on to invade Iraq and Afghanistan."

While Russians tend to venerate World War II veterans and extoll the USSR's role in defeating Nazi Germany, those who fought in Afghanistan have not fared so well in the public eye. Aside from virtually bloodless interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan was the first time in the postwar period that Soviet forces were deployed abroad, starting in December 1979.

That conflict introduced the Soviet public to a different kind of war. Its goals seemed incomprehensible; it lasted twice as long as WWII, turned into a bloody quagmire, and ended in humiliating defeat.

"Of course we didn't go into Afghanistan with the goal of making war. We meant to help those people, restore national accord, defend their southern frontier," says Oleg Tikhonov, deputy chair of the Sverdlovsk regional chapter of Afghan war invalids. "From the point of view of high politics, it sounded like the right thing to do."

But the lessons of that failed war have struck deep in the national psyche. "Public opinion will never support [military intervention in Syria]. Never," he says.

The threat of the Islamic State

Most Russian security experts say that something should be done to stop the spread of IS. They say the radical group could commit genocide if it breaks into the minority-inhabited pro-Assad strongholds of Syria. IS looks to Russians increasingly like a gathering threat not far from their own borders.

No one advocates deploying Russian troops to Syria. But many say air strikes, increased arms supplies, and more logistical and intelligence aid to the Assad regime will probably be acceptable to the Russian public.

In a trenchant article this week, one of Russia's top foreign policy experts, Fyodor Lukyanov, said that Russia should help to build a "fortress" for Syria's Christian, Druze, and Alawite minorities around Damascus and Latakia against the advance of IS. And he argued the West is not likely to oppose this. "The course of events [over the past four years] has demonstrated that Russia has a clearer understanding of Syria's specifics than the West does," he writes.

Many Russian experts also express bewilderment over US opposition to Russia's intentions, including Washington's efforts to get countries like Greece and Bulgaria to close their airspace to Russian air supply flights. They say that dozens of Western air forces are already bombing IS, with insufficient impact, and that bolstering Assad's beleaguered forces on the ground is the only way to seriously counter the burgeoning challenge from IS.

"I'm really shocked at the way Americans say that Russia is one of the principle threats to the world along with IS, and then turn around and claim we're not doing enough to counter IS," says Viktor Baranets, a former Defense Ministry spokesman and military columnist.

"It's time to understand that we need put aside political differences and forge a real united front against IS. People need to wake up today, because tomorrow it may be too late."

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