What Could Possibly Go Wrong When Dealing with the Russians?

Thomas A. Loftus (Norway, 1993-1998)

Cross-posted from The Cap Times of Madison, Wisconsin

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A look at history should give President Donald Trump pause if he and his administration think they understand the workings of Russian minds. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provides a lesson in how the Soviet Union and the U.S. miscommunicated and misunderstood each other — with long-lasting, dire results.

On Sept. 21, 1995, as Norwegian ambassador I hosted a private lunch for Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and Admiral Stansfield Turner. Vodka was served.

Dobrynin had been the Soviet Union’s ambassador to the United States from 1962 to 1986, from JFK through Ronald Reagan. His book “In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents” is a must-read. Stansfield Turner was the head of the CIA for Jimmy Carter.

It was a sunny day in Oslo and the three of us chatted like old friends, as we had come to know each other over three days at a closed-door conference hosted by the Nobel Prize Institute recounting the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

The conference can best be described as “What didn’t we know, and when didn’t we know it?”

All of the actors making decisions during the 1979 invasion were at the conference, including the head of the KGB and the head of the White House National Security Council. It was to be an oral history of those in the Soviet Union involved in the fateful decision to invade Afghanistan and those in the Carter administration who decided how to respond.

The 1979 invasion was the end of “detente” — the thaw in the Cold War that began in 1969 as the new policy of President Nixon and that produced the SALT 1 treaty reducing nuclear weapons.

A direct telephone link between Washington and Moscow — “the red telephone” — was installed at that time so the leaders of the two world powers could talk and avoid a crisis that could escalate into war.

That phone must have been off the hook in December 1979 because it became clear from the conference — my memory helped by reading the now-available transcript — that neither side knew what the other was doing or thinking despite being sure they did.

The Soviets thought that the U.S. would understand that this action was directed at keeping a Muslim country on their southern border from falling apart. The inept government the Soviets had been propping up was about to be overthrown.

The Carter White House thought the invasion was part of a grand plan to expand the Soviet Empire and that the Soviets were creating an “Arc of Crisis.”

The Soviets’ reading of Washington was that this local matter in their “near abroad” would be criticized but would not harm the U.S. relationship under detente.

Dobrynin: “I am trying to tell you how we really thought. There was no discussion in the Kremlin of any Grand Design. There was no discussion in the press — well, the press did not matter — nor in the Politburo, or the Foreign Ministry. I spoke privately with Brezhnev at the time and there was never a single word about it. … In one of the meetings Brezhnev even asked me, “Anatoly, where is the ‘Arc of Crisis?'”

As a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was a Western embargo and sanctions on the Soviet Union, and President Carter pulled the United States out of the Moscow summer Olympics in 1980.

The war lasted nine years, over a million civilians were killed and millions more fled as refugees to Pakistan and Iran. The CIA started a not-so-covert action to harass the Soviets: “Charlie Wilson’s War.” The fighters against the Soviets became radicalized and when President Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the Soviet 40th Army to return home, what was left in Afghanistan was a mess that turned eventually into the Taliban and al-Qaida.

If President Trump deals with the Russians thinking he knows how they think, there will be disappointment — not deals. And, if President Putin, a man too clever by half, thinks the new administration gives him license in his “near abroad,” tragedy will result.

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