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Archive for July 8th, 2008

“It’ll finish exactly the same way it did with us” – Franz Klintsevich

Between 1979 and 1989 thousands of Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan fighting the US-backed mujahideen. But 110 British soldiers have been killed in the country since 2001 as fighting rages with the Taleban. So what do Russian veterans think of Afghanistan and the current Nato campaign?

“It’s not the truth,” said a voice over my shoulder. I turned round. A man had seen me taking notes as I looked at an exhibition of a pristine Soviet field hospital.

It was 1991. In its last days, the USSR was trying to come to terms with its military campaign in Afghanistan.

The Manezh exhibition hall, almost in the shadow of the Kremlin, was open for anyone who wanted to have a look.

The man explained that he had fought in Afghanistan, and the reality had been very different to the display.

Today, Russian veterans of the Afghan war still have little good to say of their experience.

They look at the presence of British and other Nato troops there with an air of grim recognition.

“When the troops went into Afghanistan, a lot of our veterans said: ‘It’s a shame they’ve gone in. People are going to get killed. People understand they haven’t just gone for a stroll,'” says Franz Klintsevich, who heads the Russian Union of Afghan Veterans.

He was 28 when he went to fight in Afghanistan – still “a little boy”, as he describes it now.

He sees the current conflict as one of young men pitted against veterans whose skills were forged fighting the Soviets.

“Today the British troops, these young lads, are fighting 40-year-old blokes who were 14 or 17 in our time,” he says.

“Experienced, knowing, fighters.”

Alexander Golts, a military analyst with the ej.ru website, covered the conflict as a war correspondent.

He saw a Soviet generation who were deeply affected – and left with a bleak view of the situation they see in Afghanistan now.

“You should understand it’s approximately one million people who went through Afghanistan during the years of occupation. And everybody among them understood that it was a deadlock.”

There’s no sense things are different now.

“It’ll finish exactly the same way it did with us,” Franz Klintsevich says.

Sense of solidarity

If there is a feeling here that unpleasant episodes of history are repeating themselves, then it brings no pleasure.

Instead, there seems to be a sense of solidarity, and understanding. Mr Klinsevich believes that British troops are doing the world a service by being there.

“There’ll be people too who’ll accuse them of losing, who’ll say this was all in vain, all the crippled and dead lives were in vain,” he says.

“No, it’s not in vain. These British and American soldiers will always get moral support from us. They aren’t there in vain.”

There are other factors shaping Russia’s opinion.

Many in Russia loathe and mistrust Nato, but Moscow recognises that it benefits from the alliance’s presence in Afghanistan.

The country borders the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – a group which includes most of the former Soviet republics. Moscow has a stake in seeing an Afghanistan which is as stable as possible.

Little optimism

Alexander Golts explains Russia’s view.

“There is a very mixed feeling. First, the Russian authorities show that they are not very happy that Nato is deploying on our southern borders, or the southern borders of CIS countries.

“There is a strong feeling that Nato has another plan – not only dealing with the situation in Afghanistan,” he says, reflecting suspicion of Nato’s motives.

“On another hand, it’s absolutely clear that Nato countries, and Great Britain among them, they are doing our job,” he adds.

“Now western countries are doing our job and support tremendously Russian security.”

Still, it is hard to find optimists here.

“No-one knows the way out,” Mr Golts concludes.

I wonder if the man I spoke to at the exhibition all those years ago might accept that as the truth.

(BBC)

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