2022 Ukraine Crisis

The Legacy of the Soviet Afghan War and Its Role in the Ukrainian Invasion

By Emily Hoge
Monday, April 25, 2022, 3:01 AM

Editor's Note: Listen to Emily Hoge talk about themes discussed in this piece on the Lawfare Podcast here

About a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an unsettling video began making the rounds on social media. The video was originally posted to Telegram by a Russian group calling itself the “[Z]ashchitniki”—meaning “protectors,” but with the first letter styled as the Latin letter Z. The letter Z was quickly becoming a mark of support for Russia’s war, and in the video, the camera pans over a crowd of young people standing in a white room under fluorescent lights, many of them holding Russian flags. They’re all wearing black T-shirts with a Z symbol, styled to look like a ribbon—which is commonly used in Russia to commemorate World War II—and the words #wedonotabandonourown on them in Russian.

Most of the video is given over to a pro-war rant by a muscular bald man with an intense gaze. This man describes the invasion of Ukraine as a noble mission of denazification, completing the work of World War II. Some people in Russia have been interfering with that noble mission by protesting, he says. He describes Russian city streets as the army’s rear front, announcing that the mission of this group is to protect that front. He then appeals to Russian soldiers in Ukraine directly, calling them “brothers,” and tells them to finish their mission, assuring them that this group, at least, considers them heroes. The video ends as the whole group of young people gathered in this strange warehouse start to chant, “For Russia! For Putin!” 

Though the central figure of the video says that he supports a mission to cleanse Europe of fascism, the whole video looks astonishingly fascistic itself. 

The bald man speaking in the video, who also originally organized the demonstration, is named Anton Demidov—a nationalist activist and frequent organizer of astroturfed pro-Kremlin protest movements and rallies. Demidov is also the head of the volunteer brigade of an organization called Combat Brotherhood, a group for veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. The group shared the video on its Instagram with the caption, “Combat Brotherhood’s Volunteer Brigade,” suggesting a connection between that organization’s work and this video. (Just a week later, the Russian government blocked access to Instagram within the country, and Combat Brotherhood released a statement that it would stop using violently Russophobic platforms like Facebook and Instagram.) 

As Demidov’s video suggests, organizations of veterans of the Afghan War have played a central role in building domestic support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Afghan veterans’ movement was originally organized in response to another bungled invasion just across another border. The story of how this movement transformed from an anti-war movement of disgruntled veterans into the biggest ultranationalist cheerleader for the war in Ukraine provides important context for understanding the larger political mood in Russia regarding the invasion. The same feelings of resentment and betrayal that first sparked the veterans’ movement have also come to shape the ideology of the Russian state.

The video was striking in part for prominently featuring the Z symbol, which has become ubiquitous as a sign of Russian support for the war. The symbol first appeared on Russian military vehicles entering Ukraine and was quickly adopted by right-wing nationalists and by the Russian state as a tool of propaganda. Demidov’s video, which appeared in early March, is an early example of the Z’s prominence.

Parts of this video from Combat Brotherhood’s Volunteer Brigade align with characteristics of the movement for veterans of the Afghan War—known as the “Afghan movement”—when it started in the 1980s. These characteristics include referring to other soldiers of other wars as “brothers,” or regarding anti-war activists at home as betraying and undermining soldiers abroad. Overall, the new stance of this group has little continuity with its origins. And in some ways, it betrays its history entirely. The Afghan movement was originally, after all, at least partially an anti-war movement. And, most fundamentally, its members thought of and organized themselves as victims of the state—not supporters of it. 

I first began studying Afghan veterans’ groups in the summer of 2014 while researching post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and war trauma in Russia and the Soviet Union, a focus for many Afghan veterans’ groups. When I first traveled to Russia to conduct research for that project, I reached out to a number of veterans’ organizations. Some responded politely; most ignored me. But I was surprised when one man wrote back, “Fuck off, American bitch.” 

That was right after the Russian seizure of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine—the conflict that eventually would lead to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine eight years later. Separatist forces backed by Russia and using Russian equipment had shot down the Malaysian passenger flight MH17 over the Donbas just a week before I received that email. At the time, I was thinking as a historian, not as an analyst of contemporary Russian politics. And I didn’t know that it would be politically sensitive for me, as an American, to reach out to veterans’ groups in that moment to talk about PTSD. Then again, I also didn’t yet know how involved veterans’ groups already had become in the war in the Donbas.

Soviet soldiers arrived in Afghanistan in December 1979 to overthrow the communist government of Afghanistan and install a slightly friendlier communist government for reasons that are too complicated and opaque to explain here. The idea was for Soviet troops to accomplish their task in a few days and leave quickly. Instead, the war lasted until 1989. At first, information about the conflict was tightly controlled within the Soviet Union, and bodies of Soviet soldiers were returned home at night in sealed zinc coffins. Then, during Glasnost, news about the war suddenly appeared in Soviet papers, especially stories about the most negative aspects of the war from a Soviet point of view. As money and support for the war dwindled, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared the invasion a political mistake. And in February 1989, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan. Many veterans returned home feeling that their country had abandoned them, that it had sent them off to do a pointless task, and that it had brought them home before they could actually do it. 

The Afghan veterans’ movement started in the mid-1980s, as veterans began to meet with one another back home. At first, their meetings were largely social, trying to deal with problems and commiserate about their war experiences and difficulties adjusting to life after the war. They pivoted in the late 1980s and 1990s, forming organizations to make demands for increased support from the government, because, since the war was not exactly considered a war and was considered a political embarrassment, veterans weren’t considered real veterans and weren’t provided the same benefits as veterans of more heroic wars.

The Afghan movement was diverse, and its perspectives on the war itself were also diverse. Most veterans didn’t like criticism of the war from people who hadn’t fought in it but frequently criticized the conflict themselves. Many of them described it as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam—a very negative thing to say in the Soviet Union—or called it pointless, failed or a betrayal.

The unifying feature of the Afghan movement was a sense of victimization. Regardless of their politics, Afghan veterans were united by the feeling that they had been betrayed: by a government that sent them to a fight in a disastrous war, by people who now said they were murderers, by the fact that they weren’t considered heroes in the way that World War II veterans were, and by the lack of recognition and benefits they had expected and that were granted to veterans of other wars. In response, they started founding political and mutual aid organizations built around the idea that veterans of Afghanistan were and should be loyal to each other above all else. They felt they didn’t owe anything to and couldn’t rely on anyone but fellow soldiers of complicated wars—members of an international “combat brotherhood” that included them, veterans of Vietnam, and eventually veterans of the conflict in Chechnya and other “local wars.” Above all, they felt that they couldn’t rely on the state, the Soviet state or later the Russian state, to take care of their needs and would take care of each other themselves.

Yet by 2014, when I sent my email for my PTSD research, Afghan veterans’ groups had become loyal advocates of the government, frequently represented at and organizers of pro-Kremlin rallies. Afghan veterans’ groups gathered and trained volunteers to send to Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. Some Russian “volunteers” wounded there were treated in a sanatorium belonging to an Afghan veterans’ group, according to a 2014 interview with fighters published by a now-defunct Russian-language website. Veterans’ groups were some of the first Russian organizations to establish branches in Crimea after its annexation. Many Afghan veterans, even though they were mostly in their 50s and 60s, went to fight in eastern Ukraine themselves. 

Afghan veterans’ groups used the same kind of language Anton Demidov would later use in last month’s video to convince potential volunteers to go to Crimea in 2014: that they needed to help defeat fascism, that they would be considered heroes, and that Afghan veterans wouldn’t leave behind their new “combat brothers” if they were wounded or killed in Ukraine. 

But leave them behind they did. Those Afghan veterans’ organizations didn’t do much to support their volunteers who returned from the Donbas and Crimea. Some of those former volunteers have the same issues that Afghan veterans did in the 1980s. Again, they are not officially considered veterans, because they were not officially fighting as Russian soldiers and weren’t participating in a declared war. No one, not the state and not veterans’ groups, pays for the treatment of ongoing medical and psychological problems resulting from their “volunteerism.” Today, some of those soldiers describe the same feelings of resentment and victimization as Afghan veterans did when they founded their organizations. 

How did the veterans’ movement go from protesting this resentment to re-creating it? This shift happened in the 2000s, as the goals and the historical politics of the Afghan movement began to align with those of the Russian state. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Afghan movement was defined through its mix of trauma and resentment. You can see the manifestation of that mix, and the way that Russia conceptualized the Afghan War, through the monuments the Afghan movement built in the 1990s. One of the largest of these monuments was the Black Tulip war memorial built by an Afghan veterans’ group in Yekaterinburg in 1995. The center of the monument is a statue of an Afghan War soldier, young and very masculine, with exaggeratedly large hands. He’s sitting and hanging his head in despair, but he hasn’t been defeated: He still holds his gun in his hand. The idea here is that this soldier didn’t lose the war—the Soviet state did, or those at home who opposed the war did. It’s a memorial to the Afghan War, defined through betrayal and abandonment.

At the time, the post-Soviet Russian state did not consider Afghanistan a war to memorialize, and it didn’t have money to build monuments anyway. The 1990s in Russia were a brutal time of intense poverty and trauma for most people. But Afghan veterans’ groups made money for themselves in that time and used it to build their own monuments.

Then, in the 2000s, the economy improved and the state became relatively functional again. The Russian state under the new president, Vladimir Putin, began to define and legitimize itself through a nationalism based on the same trauma and betrayal the Afghan veterans’ groups were hawking. Its main, legitimizing story was that it had ended the deep poverty and trauma of the 1990s—a period in which the Russian state argued that Russia had been victimized by the West in such a way that undermined its security needs and sold it off for parts. This story resonated with Russians who had struggled to survive the chaotic and violent 1990s, so it was particularly effective at earning support for the Russian state and its new kinds of repressions and militaristic nationalism. The Afghan movement and the state were both working to create a betrayal-based traumatic community that then became a traumatic nationalism, a phenomenon explored in Serguei Oushakine’s book “The Patriotism of Despair.” 

As the Afghan movement and the state began to align in that way, their memory and memorialization of the Afghan War began to align as well. Part of this change occurred after the beginning of the American war in Afghanistan: The Russian government started to describe the Afghan War as the first war against al-Qaeda. But as relations between Russia, the U.S. and Europe deteriorated, the Russian government also started describing the war as a war fought to protect the southern borders of the Soviet Union from the legitimate threat of incursion by the West. This tended to valorize the war for the first time, giving the veterans the respect they had always craved. 

By about 2009, the memory of the Afghan War also changed in the Afghan veterans’ movement in a fashion that tended to align with the state’s rewriting of its history. Leaders of the Afghan veterans’ movement, who in the 1990s had frequently questioned the reasons for the war or described it as pointless, also started describing the war as having been about protecting the Soviet Union’s southern border against Western influence. In 2015, the head of the largest organization for disabled Afghan veterans said in an interview that the “false historians” who don’t agree that the war was about protecting Russia’s southern border from a mix of westerners, drugs and terrorists should be “punished for fraud,” a narrative that would have made very little sense to members of the Afghan movement a few decades earlier.

Having thus reassessed the Afghan War, the Russian government also started to provide the kind of financial assistance to veterans that the Afghan movement long sought from the state. This new financial support was provided in exchange for Afghan veterans’ groups conducting “military-patriotic education of youth.” This created a significant financial and reputational incentive for the leaders of the Afghan movement to join with the needs of the state. Today, veterans’ groups generally focus on instilling militaristic patriotism in young people and representing themselves as heroes of a good war who should be emulated. They run summer camps that teach young people military discipline, organize youth rallies in support of the Russian military, and defend the government and the military against any and all public criticism. 

These veterans’ organizations’ work in military-patriotic education has become increasingly bloated—and the organizations themselves have moved away from their original purpose of taking care of veterans. Between the money required to astroturf youth rallies, and the money lost to the mind-boggling corruption of these organizations’ leadership, there isn’t that much money left for supporting actual veterans. Not that many Afghan veterans are even in these groups anymore. Many of the people who are members aren’t veterans at all. 

Demidov, who heads the volunteer branch for one of the largest veterans’ organizations, Combat Brotherhood, and calls Russian soldiers “brothers” in the 2022 video, isn’t a veteran. Nor does being the head of Combat Brotherhood’s Volunteer Brigade mean Demidov engages in volunteer work on behalf of veterans of the Afghan War. The volunteer brigade is focused on “involving young people in the patriotic education of the younger generation” and “the preservation of historical memory,” not helping veterans. In fact, “getting young people involved” is exactly what Demidov is doing in the video. He’s gotten quite a lot of them to put on Z T-shirts and stand around in a warehouse. 

Whether or not that movement is astroturfed, Afghan veterans’ groups and their traumatic nationalist fellow travelers represent one of the key support bases for the invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s speech shortly before the invasion began was a culmination of the history, politics, and resentment nationalism around which the state and the Afghan movement aligned. In his speech at the war’s outset, Putin talked about NATO expansion, a source of bitterness in Russia largely irrelevant to Ukraine, which isn’t in NATO and wasn’t about to be. A few days before that, he gave a long, rambling speech in which he described even the existence of Ukraine as a kind of victimization for Russia. Leaders and regional branches of Afghan organizations have issued statements in support of the war, using the same kinds of language as in Putin’s speech. Combat Brotherhood sent about 100 representatives to Putin’s big rally at Luzhniki Stadium, and the group’s leader condemned Ukrainian veterans of Afghanistan as fascists for not supporting the Russian invasion of their country. So much for the brotherhood of the Afghan War veterans. 

This kind of traumatic, militaristic nationalism is self-perpetuating. Afghan veterans in the 1980s didn’t agree about how to assess their war, but they would have been overwhelmingly against creating more veterans, as lost and embittered as they were. Yet that’s what they’re supporting now. 

This shift in tone is ironic because these two wars are similar in a few fundamental ways. In Afghanistan, soldiers frequently didn’t know where they were being sent until they arrived, and people back home didn’t know a war was happening and didn’t believe it when they were told. Soldiers frequently felt they were put in unwinnable situations. When things didn’t go well, soldiers were allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to act with incredible brutality, targeting civilians and engaging in other war crimes. Sometimes they fought an organized force, but often they fought a civilian population that quite reasonably did not want an invading army in their country. Soviet soldiers frequently didn’t want to be there either. And when the war ended, it wasn’t exactly because the Soviet army lost, but mostly because it ran out of money. When they came back, the country they had fought for collapsed. 

Similarly, in the current war in Ukraine, there are reports that Russian soldiers didn’t know they were heading to Ukraine until they got there. As in Afghanistan, no war is officially acknowledged, so soldiers in Ukraine are fighting a “special military operation,” not a war. Their families often don’t know a war is happening and may not understand how their family members were wounded or killed in Kyiv during a special operation in the Donbas. As the tides of the war started to turn, soldiers have been, as in Afghanistan, allowed and almost certainly encouraged to engage in horrific levels of brutality and to commit war crimes. They are fighting not only an effective Ukrainian regular force but, once again, civilians—and the constant reports of abandoned Russian tanks also seem to suggest that, once again, some Russian soldiers don’t want to be there either. 

And, similar to Afghanistan, when Russian soldiers return home—those lucky enough to do so at all—they will return to a country whose economy has completely collapsed, which has no money to take care of their newly acquired physical and psychological wounds, and which has no clear understanding of the kind of war in which they fought. 

When these soldiers return and are eventually considered veterans—likely only sort of—the whole apparatus that Afghan veterans set up to respond to that same situation in the 1980s and 1990s won’t work for them. It doesn’t exist anymore. The Afghan veterans’ organizations, after all, don’t do veterans’ service any more, just military-patriotic education now. 

When these soldiers come back, whom will they resent most? And what will they do with their resentments?