Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His forthcoming paperback is The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Russians are not winning the war in Ukraine and they may even be losing.
Neither option is good for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which he surely knows well, both as a veteran of the Cold War and as a student of Russian history.
The last time the Russians lost a war was in Afghanistan during the 1980s. After a quick victory when they invaded the nation in 1979, the Soviets faced a countrywide insurgency that wasn’t particularly effective at first because the Russians completely controlled the airspace.
In an echo of some of the dilemmas that President Joe Biden faces today, the Reagan administration feared a possible nuclear confrontation with the Soviets and was initially reluctant to arm the Afghan rebels with anti-aircraft weapons.
By 1986, reluctance among President Reagan’s officials to arm the Afghan resistance with weapons that might actually help them to win the war had evaporated. The CIA armed the Afghans with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that ended the Soviets’ air superiority and greatly increased the Afghans’ capacity to inflict significant losses on Soviet forces on the battlefield.
Realizing they were losing the war, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989 and installed a puppet Afghan communist government that collapsed three years later, after the Soviet Union had itself expired.
The official Soviet death toll during the Afghan War, which lasted more than nine years, was around 15,000 soldiers. It is therefore quite telling that the Russians may have already lost as many 15,000 soldiers in just one month in Ukraine, according to estimates given to CNN by senior NATO officials.
When the Soviet military departed Afghanistan in 1989, the countries and populations of Eastern Europe – then under varying degrees of the Soviet yoke – took note. If the feared Soviet army couldn’t win a war on its own borders against Afghan guerrilla forces, what did it say about its ability to control the fates of East Germany, Hungary and Poland?
The failure of the Soviet war in Afghanistan hammered a giant nail into the coffin of the Soviet empire. It’s not an accident the Berlin Wall fell just months later, opening up East Germany to the West.
This was arguably the hinge event in Putin’s adult life. He was then a KGB officer stationed in East Germany. When Putin sought instructions about what he should do from a Soviet military unit, he was told, “Moscow is silent.” Since then, Putin has been trying to reverse Moscow’s silence with the goal of restoring as many elements of Russia’s former glory as he can.
Just as the Soviets were undone by their loss of the Afghan War, so too was the Romanov monarchy undone by its military defeats in the early 20th century, which ended the Romanovs three-century reign over Russia.
Under the feckless leadership of Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s disastrous performance in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was the first time in the modern era that an Asian power had defeated a European one. The loss of the Russo-Japanese war was soon compounded by Russia’s defeats during World War I. Those losses, along with other factors, led to the overthrow of Nicholas II in 1917 and the subsequent rise of the Soviets.
By contrast, Joseph Stalin emerged victorious from World War II – albeit at a tremendous cost of an estimated more than 25 million Russian dead. Known in Russia as “the Great Patriotic War,” this victory helped allow Stalin to continue being, well, Stalin – a murderous dictator.
An edition of The Economist earlier this month declared “The Stalinization of Russia,” which is surely Putin’s goal. But it’s hard to be neo-Stalinist if you are a loser – and losing Ukraine isn’t out of the question for Putin.
This, of course, raises the possibility that US officials keep warning of, which is that backed into a corner, Putin might use chemical or biological weapons.
The use of nuclear weapons by Russia was also not ruled out by Putin’s chief spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, when he spoke to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday.
Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine could lead him to a point where he uses weapons of mass destruction. And even then, he may still lose the war.
This was surely not how Putin dreamed of restoring Russia’s glory, a dream that is fast turning into ashes – just as Putin has reduced the Ukrainian city of Mariupol to ashes.