Artistic rendering of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union's invasion. Image: Facebook / Crescent

A Democratic president, buffeted by crises at home and a Cold War on the verge of turning hot, told a rapt audience in the chamber of the US House of Representatives that Moscow’s recent invasion was the “greatest threat to peace since the Second World War.”

Joe Biden on Tuesday night? Nope. Try Jimmy Carter.

Forty-two years ago, Mr Carter, faced with a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, took to the House rostrum and denounced the Soviet incursion as an attempt “to subjugate the fiercely independent and deeply religious people of Afghanistan.” 

“These two acts – one of international terrorism and one of military aggression – present a serious challenge to the United States of America and indeed to all the nations of the world. Together,” said Carter, “we will meet these threats to peace.”

The similarities between the moments are hard to miss. President Joe Biden, faced with a surprise Russian attack on Ukraine, outlined a response along the same lines as Carter proposed, including a laundry list of economic sanctions.

But alas, the policy Carter outlined on January 23, 1980, ultimately went much further than that which he outlined in his State of the Union address. 

Following the advice of his Polish-born national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter, and later, his successor, Ronald Reagan, funded a decade-long covert operation in support of the Afghan jihadis in their war against the Soviet occupiers. 

Today, Washington seems sorely tempted to follow the Brzezinski playbook and support an insurgency against the Russians in Ukraine. History would suggest this would be a grave mistake, and one that, for now anyway, Biden seems disinclined to make.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden are at loggerheads. Photos: AFP / Jim Watson and Alexander Nemenov

Yet the idea that Ukraine will be (or with American arms, intelligence and money, might become) Putin’s Afghanistan is gaining wide purchase among US foreign-policy elites including former State Department official James Bruno, who worked on Afghanistan in the 1980s. Bruno recently declared: “It’s time to make Mother Russia bleed for her crimes. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. 

“In addition to sanctions and other measures,” writes Bruno, “the Biden administration has enacted, we need to increase the pain to Moscow on the ground by stepping up economic warfare, psychological operations, and robust covert military support to the Ukrainian insurgency.”

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul seems to be in agreement, tweeting that “Ukraine will be Putin’s Afghanistan.” Meantime, US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer appeared on MSNBC and said that in his view, “The Ukrainian resistance, I think, will make the Afghan resistance to Russian intervention look tame.”

And then there’s former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who went on television to remind everyone that when the Russians invaded Afghanistan “it didn’t end well for the Russians.” “The fact is,” Clinton continued, “that a very motivated, and then funded, and armed insurgency basically drove the Russians out of Afghanistan.”

Yet the unintended consequences of US support of Osama bin Laden and other anti-Soviet jihadists became blindingly clear with the passage of time. The idea that Afghanistan was the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet empire (or that and a combination of runaway US defense spending under Reagan), now taken as gospel in Washington, bears little resemblance to history.

The USSR was overthrown in a bloodless coup in the forests of Belarus by Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk and Belarus’ Stanislav Shushkevich, not, as the mythology goes, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.

Still more, as historian Jeff Rogg recently pointed out in a piece in the Los Angeles Times, “We have no clear evidence that the Ukrainians are capable of sustaining an insurgency, or that Russia would retreat if faced with such resistance.”

Another problem with this line of thinking is that we have no way of knowing how Russia might respond to a US-backed insurgency. The urge to undertake an insurgency should be tempered by the uncertainties surrounding Russia’s nuclear doctrine, particularly with regard to the use of so-called tactical or “battlefield” nuclear weapons.

An intercontinental ballistic missile at a military parade in Moscow, May 9, 2017. Photo: TASS / Valery Sharifulin

On February 27, Putin, citing “unfriendly economic actions against our country” as well as the “aggressive statements” coming out of NATO capitals, issued an order to place Russia’s deterrence (that is, nuclear) forces on a “special regime of combat duty.”

How the Russian leadership might respond in the face of not just aggressive statements but an armed insurgency is anyone’s guess.  

In the end, the longer this war goes on the more dangerous it becomes. The US and its NATO partners should be working overtime to find a negotiated settlement to the war, instead of setting the stage for Armageddon.

James Carden

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.