It was the growing outspokenness of Soviet mothers who had lost their sons and the influence of a more critical press that pressured the Kremlin to begin seeking to bring the occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s to an end.
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“It’s everyone else’s fault but ours” has become the constantly hammered mantra of the Kremlin when it comes to justifying its brutal war in Ukraine in which tens of thousands have already died on both sides, although far more of them Russian troops. Mixed with misinformation, a blatant omission of the facts and outright lies, it is also the stance cynically presented by Russian diplomacy abroad, particularly within the context of the United Nations. Not only does Russia remain a permanent member of the Security Council, enabling it to dominate agendas, but it continues to assure political appointees, such as the head of the UN in Geneva.
Speaking last week to the UN Foreign Press Association (ACANU) at the Russian mission in Geneva, just opposite the Palais des Nations where the European headquarters of the UN are located, Moscow’s ambassador, Gennady Gatilov, launched into a litany of criticisms against the West to justify his country’s continued illegal military occupation of the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, including its ongoing bombardment of civilian targets. He made no mention of Russia’s horrendous human rights abuses, such as alleged war crimes, which are being currently documented by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva as well as other international human rights and law organizations.
Gatilov also claimed that the majority of countries in the developing world did not support the West’s stance regarding Ukraine. In March 2022, 141 nations voted against the invasion with four opposing and 35 abstaining. Last month, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had previously refused to condemn it, opted to criticize Russia’s war but stressed that the world must now seek to stop it.
1/4 This stoic soldier was confirmed to be Olexander Matstievsky. Before the war, he worked as an electrician in one of Kyiv's exhibition complexes. I find it so forceful to know who're the people fighting and becoming symbols of heroism and dignityhttps://t.co/zQvW9durK6 pic.twitter.com/Jxjnbhlbyl
— Nataliya Gumenyuk (@ngumenyuk) March 9, 2023
Gatilov’s points were unabashedly similar to the views steadfastly maintained by both President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, ranging from NATO’s ‘illegal’ bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis (considered part of a humanitarian operation by NATO) to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. While listing his criticisms, the ambassador failed to note that that while certain Western countries, notably the United States and United Kingdom contrary to the UN position, did indeed indulge in deliberate disinformation and falsifications for interventions such as Iraq, the press was still free to report and ultimately, in many cases, held such abuses to account.
Russia and the Press: A One-Sided View
A heavy-set man with a growling voice, Gatilov particularly complained of Washington’s blocking of visas to Russian journalists recently seeking to accompany Lavrov to New York as part of Moscow’s rotational presidency of the UN Security Council. This was believed to be in retaliation for Russia’s arrest in March 2023 of Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Evan Gershkovich for allegedly collecting state secrets about the military for the United States.
He omitted to elaborate on the Kremlin’s own increasingly brutal curtailment of freedom of expression, particularly of Russian journalists seeking to criticize the war. According to Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and other press groups, over 40 Russian journalists are believed to have been killed or imprisoned since Putin first came to power in 2002. Others have been beaten, threatened, or forced into exile.
When specifically asked by this reporter about the continued jailing of Gershkovich, Gatilov showed little sympathy other than to say that justice would follow its course. A Russian judge recently denied Gershkovich an appeal and the American journalist now faces 20 years in jail for seeking to report on Moscow’s war in Ukraine. He was also being denied access to the US ambassador.
More Open Reporting Changed Moscow’s War in Afghanistan
Gatilov further refused to comment on a question regarding the pivotal role of the Soviet press in bringing Moscow’s war in Afghanistan to an end in February 1989 once it was allowed to report openly. At the same time, Soviet mothers were conducting their own protests against the war by holding vigils in cemeteries at the graves of their sons, husbands, brothers, and other family members who died in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union’s secret police, the KGB, at first sought to contain these demonstrations but then eventually allowed them to take place as it proved awkward to reprimand the women.
While the official figure for Afghanistan lingers at 15,000 Soviet dead, a more likely estimate stands at 25,000 or more. In contrast, this is four to five times less than the number of Russian soldiers believed to have been killed in Ukraine. According to a just released assessment by the White House, over 20,000 Russian combatants, both military and the Wagner mercenary group, are believed to have been killed in current fighting in Bakhmut alone together with 80,000 injured.
More open coverage of the Soviet war in Afghanistan included the highly influential Artyom Borovik, an investigative Russian TV journalist and writer, who was granted special permission by Gorbachev to report without constraint from the mid-1980s onwards. For the first time, the Soviet public was allowed to witness on television the real on-the-ground situation, including rising Red Army casualties and the complete pointlessness of the conflict. This included Borovik’s vivid frontline reports about guerrilla ambushes or the annihilation of military convoys by partisan rockets. This made a huge difference in the manner with which the Soviet public began to perceive the war.
Later, as a western journalist covering Afghanistan, I got in touch with Borovik, enabling us to compare notes given that we had sometimes reported in the same locations at the same time, such as the Panjshir Valley, but from different sides. Borovik, who had begun investigating Putin prior to Russia’s presidential elections in March 2000, was killed nearly three weeks earlier on March 9 in a plane crash. Some believe his death may have been linked to his outspoken reporting.
Government Officials: Too Fearful to Speak Out as Long as Putin Is in Charge
Putin, however, has shown no indication of allowing any form of open criticism of the war in Russia. Instead, his autocratic regime continues to repress anyone seeking to mount any form of public expression of dissent. As Russian dissidents in exile, including several who have previously worked with the Kremlin, have made clear, nothing will change as long as Putin remains at the helm and no open criticism is broached. To date, only one senior diplomat at the Geneva mission, Boris Bondarev, opted to resign in May 2022 over what he described as the “warmongering, lies and hatred” brought about by the invasion.
Nevertheless, the bodies of young Russian soldiers killed in droves are being increasingly sent back to their towns and villages. According to outside monitoring, such as the BBC, this is prompting a noticeable rise in discontent amongst the mothers and wives. While regime propaganda regarding one’s patriotic duty for defending Mother Russia against perceived threats from the outside world continues to dominate and silence, this is how it started with Afghanistan. And presumably, the Russian missions to the UN in Geneva and New York will continue to allow open access to international journalists to their press conferences.
A version of this story by Edward Girardet was originally published by Global Geneva on May 1, 2023. WhoWhatWhy is partnering with Global Geneva to help expand access to content that will benefit a broader global readership.