Putin and Saddam Hussein have a lot in common

Leonid Bershidsky
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

The significance of the war in Ukraine to the Western world lies largely in its geography: It’s being fought in Europe, only a small distance away from some of the wealthiest and most avowedly peaceful nations of the world. Parallels with earlier European wars, most notably the Winter War unleashed by the Soviet Union on Finland, abounded in the conflict’s early weeks. But the war that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is coming to resemble most was fought in distant Mesopotamia.

Every historical comparison is a stretch — history doesn’t quite repeat itself. And yet, to a reader of the chapters of Saddam Hussein biographies that deal with the Iraq-Iran war, the parallels are unavoidable.

Ostensibly trying to prevent Iran’s Islamic Revolution from spreading to his country’s large Shiite community, Saddam Hussein first launched bombing raids on Iran’s military airfields and then sent tanks rolling into the neighboring country in late September 1980. Putin, too, has sought to portray his invasion as preemptive — to him, Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi regime” was creating an “anti-Russia,” a beachhead of the hostile West, next to Russia’s borders.

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Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Nov. 10, 1987, in Amman, Jordan, during a session of the emergency Arab summit. (Mona Sharaf/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

“We wish neither to destroy Iran nor to occupy it,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz declared 11 days before the invasion began. Russian official statements matched this one almost verbatim — and as late as October 2022, Putin himself claimed: “We have never set the goal of destroying Ukraine.”

Saddam’s military goals in 1980 were as vaguely defined as Putin’s in 2022: specifics drowned in nationalist rhetoric. While Putin has compared himself to Czar Peter the Great, who, according to him, won back much historically Russian land, Saddam styled himself another Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas, the Arab general who defeated a numerically superior Persian army in the year 636, or even another Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who conquered Jerusalem in 587 B.C.

Like Putin in February 2022, Saddam in 1980 saw his country winning a blitzkrieg (his vision stemmed, somewhat counterintuitively, from the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967).

“By all accounts he expected the war to last only a few days — to end through mediation to the collapse of Iranian resistance,” Said Aburish wrote in Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, published in 2000.

The Iraqi forces advanced along a broad front, taking some villages and towns and initially looking much stronger than their poorly armed Iranian adversaries. Yet, like Putin’s Russia, Iraq failed to destroy the Iranian air force on the ground and establish full air superiority, and it soon became clear that the frontline was too long for Iraqi troops to maintain the initial pressure. Like Putin 42 years later, Saddam had underestimated his enemy’s fighting spirit; young, often poorly trained Iranian volunteers proved a match for his professional military.

Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi wrote in their 1991 political biography, Saddam Hussein:

"Finding themselves entrenched for months in hastily prepared defensive positions and subjected to the hardships of the climate and the suicidal attacks of the Iranian militias, the Iraqi troops began to lose all sense of purpose. This loss of will, which was reflected in reports of discipline problems and a growing number of defections, as well as in the large numbers of Iraqi prisoners or war taken and weapons abandoned, was exploited to the fullest by the revolutionary regime in Tehran."

If this sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve been reading reports of poor morale, duty avoidance and even rioting among the invading Russian troops.

The blitzkrieg failed in large part because Saddam attempted to command his invasion himself — “down to platoon level action and the bombing of minor tactical targets,” according to Aburish. Putin’s apparently heavy involvement in tactical decisions through the spring of 2022 is reminiscent of Saddam’s heavy-handedness — and neither Putin nor Saddam ever served in the military at any level.

By the spring of 1981, Saddam’s forces were no longer advancing; moreover, in May of that year the Iranians won back the symbolically important city of Khorramshahr, which the Iraqi propaganda called Al-Muhammara (the practice of using different names for cities is widespread today, too — many pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, for example, use the Soviet name, Artyomovsk, for the town of Bakhmut, where the war’s heaviest fighting currently rages). The setback prompted Saddam to fortify the border with Iran, fearing a counterattack, something Russia is doing today in the Belgorod and Kursk regions following the Ukrainian military successes of last fall.

At the same time, like Moscow four decades later, Baghdad, with its bustling commerce and no visible shortages or defensive measures, didn’t look or feel like the capital of a country at war.

“Instead of concentrating most of Iraq’s resources on the military effort and, like Iran, stressing the virtue of sacrifice, the Iraqi president sought to prove to his people that he could wage war and maintain a business-as-usual atmosphere at the same time,” Karsh and Rautsi wrote.

Like Russians today, Iraqis acquiesced to the battlefield losses, not least because Saddam’s government provided the bereaved families with free cars, land plots and interest-free construction loans. Putin’s government, too, pays enough compensation to buy a new Russian-made car.

Both countries, it turned out, were able to sustain another seven years of off-again, on-again fighting that saw relatively small bits of territory lost and regained, the use of chemical weapons and Iranian cities bombed and attacked with missiles as Saddam — like Putin in the last two years — launched retaliation strikes against civilian infrastructure to make up for his inability to win decisively on the battlefield.

This resilience on both sides was, in part, explained by the U.S. attitude: The superpower didn’t mind a long war between sworn enemy Ayatollah Khomeini and pan-Arabist dictator Saddam. The U.S. mostly leaned in favor of Iraq, viewing Saddam, a secular ruler, as the lesser evil — but it did secretly sell weapons to Iran under the Iran-Contra deal. In the current conflict, of course, the U.S. and its allies are firmly on the Ukrainian side — but they will not intervene directly, and Russia, with its vast reserves of both manpower and armaments, is not Iran in the 1980s, so the belligerents are more or less evenly balanced, just like Iran and Iraq back in the day.

War, however, is exhausting. By 1987, the Iran-Iraq conflict was one of the longest regular conflicts of the 20th century, and Saddam was ready to pull back his troops in line with a United Nations resolution, but it wasn’t enough for Iran, which, like Ukraine today, demanded extensive reparations. Only a year later, after a string of battlefield setbacks, did Iran accept the resolution — with Iraq still occupying some of its territory. This allowed Saddam to claim victory. Aburish wrote:

"He gained weight, smiled a lot, walked with a swagger, gave speeches in praise of his fighting men, announced plans to build monuments, received Arab guests offering their congratulations and on one or two occasions spontaneously joined crowds in performing the chobbi native dance. That over 360,000 Iranians and Iraqis had died and over 700,000 had been injured, and that the war had cost an estimated $600 billion, were temporarily forgotten."

Putin may well celebrate in similar style (perhaps minus the dancing) if an eventual peace deal allows him to hold on to any conquered territory. When war goals are essentially undeclared, and especially years later, after initial goals have faded away, dictators have a lot of flexibility to play the victor. For the likes of Saddam and Putin, any outcome that ensures their continued ascendancy is a win.

Putin, however, is unlikely to return any territory voluntarily, as Saddam did in 1990, when he was already focused on his invasion of Kuwait. That other adventure was the one that sealed his fate — but only after the U.S. put boots on the ground, and even then, not immediately.

With his invasion of Ukraine, Putin removed himself from the ranks of European leaders and turned Russia toward Asia. Yet his behavior at Russia’s helm has often resembled that of a Middle Eastern oil dictator; Saddam, whose admitted role model was Joseph Stalin, is especially similar. Both came from humble origins and poverty, both have craved a historic role, both have embraced violence and suppression, and both built corrupt, nepotistic systems propped up by lavishly funded security agencies.

The uncomfortable truth built into this admittedly imperfect historical parallel is that even Saddam, whose regime never acquired nuclear weapons, would have survived as Iraq’s authoritarian ruler and initiator of aggressive wars without a direct U.S. military intervention. With a powerful suppressive apparatus keeping a fragmented, weakened opposition in check, Iraqis were willing to tolerate his less than brilliant military adventures even if they resulted in some loss of life and a less than catastrophic decline in living standards. What Saddam could achieve is not impossible for Putin, either — the U.S. military marching into Moscow as it did into Baghdad is an image as unlikely as it may be desirable for many Ukrainians. And sadly, if the Iraq-Iran precedent is any indication, there is no imperative for a quick peace, either.

— Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”