After enjoying a dominant position in international diplomacy over the United States, the latter 1970s carried a decline for the Soviet Union. Nixon had opened US relations with Communist China and ended American involvement in the Vietnam War that had nearly torn the country apart. In 1979, Egypt and Israel had reached a peace agreement hosted by the US. Iraq, too, had fallen away from Soviet dependence when it began purchasing Italian and French weapons. Farther east, however, things were looking up for the Soviet Union: Iran had overthrown its US-backed Shah and American-Afghani relations had all but ended after their ambassador was killed during an assault against the militants who had kidnapped him.
With waning influence in the western Middle East, the Soviets looked to a goal dating back over a century in the Great Game, political one-uppings with the British Empire in an attempt to hold all of Central Asia under a sphere of influence. Always looking for warm-water ports, the Russians had long desired to add Iran to their empire. Even if possible, it would be a long-term goal, and more immediate were the goings-on in Afghanistan.
In 1973, former Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud Khan overthrew the king in the coup known as the Saur Revolution and would be overthrown himself five years later by the army and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Forced modernization and violent purges of factionalism caused a great deal of turmoil, but the government was Soviet-supported, even signing a treaty that outlined rights for calling upon the Soviet Union for military support. As the unrest broke into full-fledged civil war and half of Afghanistan’s army deserted or joined the opposing Mujahideen, President Amin and the PDPA asked for Soviet help, first with helicopter support in June, then rifle divisions in July, and increasingly through December when Brezhnev gave orders prepping for deployment of Russian troops.
His plans changed immediately, however, after a leaked, and possibly false, note from US President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski read, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.” Brezhnev did not make the note public, but it did alter his opinion on Afghanistan’s significance. President Amin had already been straying from Soviet loyalty, and his purges had killed numerous supporters of Russia. Brezhnev decided that the Afghanis would lie in the graves they dug for themselves rather than support them.
The diplomatic shift was handled carefully. The PDPA cried out as abandoned, but Brezhnev remained firm and offered advisers and the use of training facilities. Amin and his government attempted to appeal to China and Pakistan, that latter of which did send troops to defend Pakistani nationals, but it was too little and too late. His government collapsed in 1980, the same year as the successful Olympics in Moscow. Sending food and medical supplies to the new nation, Brezhnev managed to gain a foothold in diplomacy there, opening up relations that would later lead to heavy Russian economic influence.
With the 1980s, international significance returned to the USSR. Using Afghanistan as leverage, the Russians were able to convince Carter and the US Senate to ratify the SALT II nuclear weapons manufacture treaty. The Iran-Iraq War saw another leap forward as the American-supported Saddam Hussein began a long stalemate as the two nations brutalized one another beginning in 1980. The USSR secretly afforded the Iranians weapons, keeping the war going and ultimately drawing in beleaguered American action to contain the altercation.
By the time the war ended, the Americans were war-weary in the Middle East. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait prompted action from the UN Security Council, and the USSR led action by securing northern Iraq. Citing defense of the Kurdish people, the Soviets refused to pull out much as they had done in Eastern Europe after World War II, and the US saw a new wave of the Cold War begin in the Middle East. Using Afghanistan as a model, the USSR would also later see Iran become an economic satellite, cutting the Middle East in half.
CIA actions in Pakistan and beyond the Sandy Curtain encouraged insurgence, finding a new balance between the world’s two superpowers. USSR influence continues to push eastward with increased Socialist activity in India, where many political commentators speculate we may see another Korea in coming decades of the Cold War.
In reality, Brezhnev ordered the USSR’s 40th Army into Afghanistan. Over the next decade, the Soviets would fight a never-ending war against guerilla soldiers who disappeared among the mountains and caves after devastating attacks. The war would drain the Soviet Union of military might and public support, ultimately contributing to its fall and the end of the Cold War in 1991.