Only 150 people join protest in Russian capital against country’s military involvement in Syrian conflict.
Moscow, Russia – Alexander Sokolov proudly showed black-and-white pictures of himself snapped more than 30 years ago at a Soviet military base outside Kabul, the Afghan capital, where he served as a communications officer.
Sokolov said he thinks the USSR left Afghanistan undefeated after the 1979-1989 invasion, because the pro-Moscow government held on for three more years before the country slid into a devastating civil war.
The 1991 Soviet collapse appeared to have brought an end to Moscow’s superpower ambitions in the Muslim world. But when it comes to summarising the impact of the invasion on his generation, the gaunt, gray-haired 54-year-old grows serious and sad.
The invasion of Afghanistan claimed the lives of at least 15,000 Soviet soldiers, mostly conscripts in their late teens or early 20s, and left tens of thousands wounded and psychologically traumatised.
“We were forgotten,” Sokolov told Al Jazeera, sitting on a sofa in his one-bedroom apartment in Moscow.
“Most of the guys are now unhappy because of this war. They drink, or they are sick or disabled, and the state does not pay any attention to them. Of course, this is tremendous pain.”
“Pain” is the name of an NGO Sokolov heads that helps war veterans overcome bureaucratic hurdles to get medical treatment, benefits – or a free land lot at one of Moscow’s graveyards.
More than a quarter century after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, almost four-fifths of Russians await another Afghanistan – this time in Syria.
Just days after Russia deployed its fighter jets to bomb President Bashar al-Assad’s foes, 78 percent of Russians said Moscow’s new military campaign will turn into a “second Afghanistan”, according to a survey by independent pollster Levada Center released in early October.
To some, the reminder was painfully personal. A retired Muscovite recalled the death of her cousin who was tortured to death in Afghanistan in 1982, after his helicopter crashed.
“He died a slow death. His death was a great sorrow and that is why I am so against another deployment, very much against it,” the woman, who only provided her first and patronymic name, Valentina Georgievna, told Al Jazeera.
“I would protest but people get their kidneys beaten off for doing that,” she added referring to the violent dispersion of opposition rallies by riot police.
The Levada poll showed, however, that 72 percent of Russians were positive about the air strikes – mostly because Kremlin-controlled media triumphantly cover the raids and even end weather forecasts with reports on bombing conditions in Syria.
Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed strongman and one of Russia’s most outspoken politicians, pledged to lead Chechen special forces in a ground operation to fight the “devilish” Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – if only President Vladimir Putin orders him to do so.
And even though Putin and his ministers have already said more than once that no Russian boots will touch the Syrian ground, some observers are sure that Moscow will inevitably be drawn into another quagmire – and won’t come out of it in one piece.
“We will get ourselves a new Afghanistan. For another 10 years with tens of thousands of dead,” Arkady Babchenko, a war correspondent and veteran of another ignominious Russian war – the 1994-1996 conflict in Chechnya, told the Open Russia website.
“The new Afghanistan [will be] the end of the current regime and a new stage in the collapse of the [Russian] empire,” Babchenko said.
Other analysts are, however, more cautious about possible ground operations.
“I don’t believe that the Kremlin will [commit to] such a stupidity,” Alexey Malashenko, one of Russia’s leading experts on Islam and the Middle East, told Al Jazeera.
In mid-September, almost two weeks before the air strikes began, the Gazeta.ru online daily claimed that several Russian servicemen refused to be deployed to Syria because their commanders allegedly refused to provide official, written orders of their deployment that would guarantee compensation for them or their families in case of injury or death.
The defence ministry denied the claims, but the servicemen were court-martialled, the daily said.
By mid-October, Western officials and analysts said that hundreds of Russian pilots, advisers and technicians were deployed at the Russian military facility in Tartus and the Hmeimim airbase – along with some 500 marines who guard them – in the Latakia region, the stronghold of Assad’s forces and the Alawite sect.
So far, none of them have participated in ground operations, and Russia’s Caspian Sea flotilla located some 1,500km northeast of Syria, is backing the air strikes: It launched 26 cruise missiles that flew over Iran and Iraq to hit targets in Syria on October 7 – Putin’s 63rd birthday.
Russia’s participation in the Syrian civil war has become Moscow’s first ever “US-style war”, according to Dmitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think-tank.
“Russian military aircraft are bombing the enemy from high above, plus the Russian navy is launching cruise missiles from 1,000 miles away,” Trenin wrote in an analysis in mid-October.
“The enemy, again at least for now, has no chance to hit back at the Russians on the battlefield.”
The military operation in Syria is radically different from Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan, which involved tens of thousands of ground troops crossing into Afghanistan from the Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Moscow’s political goals are also different – while in Afghanistan it wanted to install a communist government and completely change the lifestyle of a conservative Muslim society, in Syria, it simply wants to prop up Assad’s regime and prevent what Moscow calls “the Libyan scenario”, or disintegration of Syria into several warring enclaves that might eventually be taken over by ISIL.
But, contrary to what Trenin wrote, the enemy is already trying to strike back.
On October 13, Russian security services announced the arrest of three ethnic Chechens who arrived in Moscow with detonators and explosives to organise an attack in Moscow.
The suspects were trained in Syria and their attack was supposed to “destabilise the situation and stop the use of air forces in Syria against ISIL”, a prosecutor told the Kommersant daily.
Follow Mansur Mirovalev on Twitter: @mirovalev