Graveyard of Empires/Yeltsin '96 (2022)


Graveyard of Empires/Yeltsin '96 (1)

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

—Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1889

BY THE TIME Kipling wrote these lines, Afghanistan had been stymieing the great Asian world powers for well over two millennia, repelling all but the most brutal of invaders. Even those ruthless conquerors who managed to occupy it, like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, had to garrison a significant portion of their forces they could have used elsewhere. All to keep hold of what ultimately was nothing but a couple of snow-covered roads in landlocked mountains populated by a dozen different tribes that could only agree on one thing: killing outsiders was even more fun than killing each other.

Exactly a hundred years after Kipling published this little ditty, the Soviet Union finalized its pullout of the Red Army from Afghanistan. It was the only hot war that the Soviet war machine ever lost, and it would be their last.

Americans do not fully appreciate what Afghanistan did to the mystique of Soviet invincibility. During the brief period of hugging and vodka toasts to peace and friendship with that ubiquitous Scorpions song in the background that was US-Soviet relations during Bush 41, our vets and their vets sympathized over the same wounds. We came to the simplistic observation that their Afghanistan was our Vietnam.

It wasn’t. Vietnam cost the United States the fear of our enemies for about a decade, until Reagan started picking on easy targets like Grenada, Lebanon, and Libya, but it never cost us the complete respect of our friends. Soviet-funded green or red street protests aside, we were never in any real danger of being asked to pull out of NATO or Europe or the Far East. If anything, our partners welcomed us home like Adrian helping Rocky limp off at the end of every fight he lost. Vietnam wounded but did not maim us. Somehow, it defined us as a matured superpower, capable of being humiliated without disintegrating.

(I know. You think I’m looking at the malaise years and Star Wars with the fond nostalgia of an old man for his adolescence. Tell you what. You look around at where we are now and remember where we were thirty years ago. Take your time. When the crying is over, wipe your nose and let’s proceed.)

If Vietnam gave the United States a chance to evolve, Afghanistan was a fatal wound to the Soviet Union. Getting beat by a bunch of well-armed goatherders cost Russia the respect of its enemies and the fear of its allies. There was no coming back from that ignominious comeuppance. Within months of withdrawal, Russia had to put up with the public humiliation of watching Gorbachev treated like the prodigal son in Washington, feted like a repentant boy who’d finally found Jesus, Elvis, and Coca Cola.

America was not only no longer legitimately worried by the Bear; we thought he was cute, cuddly, and collectible, like the Russian edition of Teddy Ruxpin. Needless to say, that spectacle brought about the end of the Warsaw Pact, whose satrapies had been watching the Americans and the Russians glaring at each other across Europe for 45 years, and realized that the Russians just blinked with both eyes and kept them closed. And that, as discussed last time, was the end of the Curtain and the end of the Union.

Here’s where Tit for Tat comes in. The Soviets could have probably held on to Afghanistan for at least another five years, maybe another decade. They had the tanks, the munitions, and a steady supply of young men from the collective farms for whom the odds of surviving against small arms fire were not much worse than the odds of surviving a drunken tractor rally back on the sugarbeet fields. The Afghans lived in a perpetually failed state with no natural allies, surrounded by mountains, known for little more than a blanket and a dog named after them (that and most of the world’s raw heroin supply). As random and chaotic as the military situation on the ground was, the government that the Soviets invaded in 1980 to support was actually stable enough that it survived the departure of the Red Army by four years.

So why did the Soviets demob? Quite simply, because a blue dog Texas Congressman decided the best way to distract the FBI from his coke and party girl habit was to plant both feet to the right of Ronald Reagan on the topic of sending as many Red Army soldiers home from Afghanistan in body bags as we could possibly afford. Good plan. Throughout the 1980s, Charlie Wilson kept the Bureau out of his nose and his jacuzzi (Wikipedia is your friend) by leading the US Government into fully funding a CIA-run and -supplied guerilla war waged by anticommunist freedom fighters who just happened also to include Muslim fundamentalists from the Arabian peninsula named Bin Laden.

There is, of course, no paper trail that we paid bounties to the precursors of either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The Russians did not publicly complain if they knew of it. We certainly won’t admit we were buying trophies, but given that we were happy to spend hundreds of millions a year on tankbusters that could be operated by a teenager from the back of a donkey, paying a modest head tax was within our budget. Nevertheless, the Russians would have no trouble believing that, at the same time their beloved Soyuz was busy falling apart from internal corruption and an arms race with the Americans, the mujahideen and the local warlords were standing outside CIA safehouses in Kabul with bags of Russian scalps, ears, and foreskins to sell.

Because, as it turns out, that’s probably exactly what they’d do if the tables were turned. For instance, 35 years later—when we’re the schmucks on the ground with the targets on our backs and they’re the guys paying the Millennial grandchildren of the same Boomer warlords we paid. The only difference is that the New Kids on the Korangal all have smartphones to record the kill and text it to Ivan along with the Yandex.Dengi funding request so nobody has to send Kipling’s women out with the knives to collect sweetmeats. Progress, that.

But here’s the best part of the whole thing. The Russians don’t actually have to get their hands dirty to get all the benefits. Afghans have been enthusiastically slaughtering outsiders with no need for inducement since before the foundation of Rome. The Russians don’t even have to spread the bounty rumor themselves. They just have to leak it to one or two outlets, let it go viral, and when the accusation is laid at their feet, they simply deny it—completely truthfully—but with just enough diplomatic insincerity to convince us of the opposite. The effect is the same as what they suffered when it was their turn in the barrel: fear and mistrust of their local allies, and (as an added bonus) another wedge driven between the American IC and a man-whore President who will not hear a word spoken against his pimp daddy in the Kremlin.

Speaking of the biggest mistake the United States of America ever made, politics (to take license with Clausewitz) is the extension of war by other means. In 1996, the big story in Russia was the re-election campaign of Boris Yeltsin. This was the first post-Soviet election, and it was a real beaut. There was a free-for-all of eleven candidates—half from real political parties and half independents. They had actual platforms. They argued policy in public. It was messy. It was real. It was democracy. Russia had never seen anything like it before, and they’ll never see anything like it again in my lifetime. After the first round of voting in June, eight candidates—including Vladimir Zhirinovsky (who is still the head of the same party 24 years later) and Mikhail Gorbachev (who posted half a percent)—were knocked out. Left to face each other in a July runoff were the incumbent Boris Yeltsin, the USSR’s Sweeney Todd, and Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (which he still is).

A few words about Gennady Zyuganov. Despite what you would expect from someone carrying the mantle of Bolshevism, the man and his party have behaved themselves since 1992 much like a center-left party in any major European country, not at all the modern avatar of the CPSU. They are the loyal opposition that negotiates for overtime wage protections in exchange for not blocking the third fire-sale of a major port to the President’s son-in-law. The man himself has the charisma, demeanor, and oratorical skills of a governor from the Midwest in the days before television and radio.

But of course, Zyuganov was a Red back when that was a bad color in American politics. His primary platform was trying to prevent the rest of the country from being sold off to the friends, family, and cronies of President Yeltsin in rigged privatization deals. In retrospect, he was an astute fighter against (or at least an accurate observer of) systemic corruption. But at the time, he sounded to us like a populist commie Cassandra trying to re-nationalize assets and turn back the clock against the march of liberal democracy. (Worse than Jeremy Corbyn, even.)

Zyuganov was doomed as a candidate. Not because he had the looks of a potato inspector and the personality of a mothball sachet. Not because there wasn’t a single oligarch who backed him financially. He was doomed because Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin’s greatest asset was not his incumbency, not his full head of hair, not his remaining daytime sobriety, but his status as a Friend of Bill.

Let’s switch from Russia to the United States for a minute. In the summer of 1996, Bill Clinton was a highly popular US incumbent running for re-election against Bob Dole and Ross Perot. Clinton was in the best position of an incumbent since Eisenhower forty years earlier, running on prosperity at home and peace abroad. Perot was ready to reprise his 1992 cornpone magic act and sponge just enough independent votes from Dole (just like he’d done four years earlier to Bush I). This was Bill’s race to lose.

About the only way Clinton 42 could be in trouble is if we lost Russia just in time for Dole’s nomination convention. And that’s where the story of the half a billion in greenbacks in briefcases comes from. The rumor, reported in some of the underground papers in Moscow at the time—life before Putin was interesting—goes like this:

Bill Clinton needed Yeltsin to win, and he needed Zyuganov to lose. Yeltsin, of course, felt Bill’s pain, but he needed to buy the support of the richest men in the country to make sure that their television stations, newspapers, billboards, etc. all pushed him over Zyuganov. Yeltsin didn’t have that kind of money. He wasn’t going to bribe the oligarchs with his own cash, and he couldn’t just pull it out of the Russian Central Bank because (a) he couldn’t trust his cabinet members not to spill the beans to the newspapers and (b) the country was broke anyway since he had already let the oligarchs rob the country blind during his first term. So where could Yeltsin get hard cash money in a hurry? Who did he know who would just hand it over, and who would want to? Which brings us back to Slick Willy.

Half a billion bucks barely pays for the instrument panel on a stealth bomber. In US government accounting, it’s a rounding error. So Clinton, the story goes, was perfectly fine with sending money to Yeltsin—but there was no legal mechanism to wire funds from the US Treasury to the Yeltsin campaign without at least routing it through the Russian central banking system first, where neither president could trust that it would not be reported, stolen, or both. The solution was brutally simple and eloquent:

One fine day, as legend has it, Clinton put $500 million in satchels of hundred-dollar bills into the hold of a cargo jet with US diplomatic registration and flew it to one of Moscow’s five airports. It landed, and without connecting to the airport’s infrastructure, simply sat on the tarmac and opened its hatch, where international law forbade any Russians from entering without permission. US Embassy trucks, also with diplomatic immunity, drove into this extraterritorial titanium pelican, and the cash was loaded onto the trucks inside its gullet. Once emptied, the bird flew back home having never docked or cleared Russian customs. These trucks were then escorted by one or more levels of local Russian police to the US Embassy compound, where the trucks and their cargo were admitted. Legally, none of that money had by this point in time touched Russian soil. At all times it had been in US diplomatic custody and no reporting by either government of a monetary transfer out of the US nor into Russia was required. After a respectable interval of maybe two or three hours, the cash was handed over on Embassy grounds to the same Russian security trucks. Five million Benjamins drove off into the Moscow night to work their magic, protected from scrutiny by any one of a dozen security services (the most Yeltsin-loyal of these being something called the “Presidential Property Administration,” run at the time by a faceless nonentity fresh from St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin).

The President of the United States, so concludes the story, personally made sure that the President of the Russian Federation would have enough money to put the fix in on a presidential election. And for the next four years, Hillary Clinton’s husband never let Vladimir Putin’s predecessor forget it.

Now, it may be that this rumor is false, that this never happened. I certainly can’t vouch for its veracity. Even so, plenty of Russians believe the story, and they have been living in a post-facts world a lot longer than we have.

And if I still need to explain how this all came around 20 years later to bite us all in the cankles, maybe I should just give up.

Next time: you can’t spell Crimea without Crime, or “What Is To Be Done?”


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