The thinking in Washington goes like this: for the “low cost” of Ukrainian lives and some American dollars, the West can end Putin’s strategic threat to the United States. No Americans are dying. It’s not like Iraq or Afghanistan ’01–’21. This is postmodern, something new, a clean great power war, Jackson Pollock for international relations—getting a lot of foreign policy mojo at little cost. It’s almost as if we should have thought of this sooner.
Well, we did. It didn’t work out past the short run, and there’s the message. Welcome to the new 1980s-style Afghanistan, with the U.S. playing both the American and the Soviet roles at times.
At first glance it all seems so familiar. Russia invades a neighboring country who was more or less just minding its own business. Russia’s goals are the same: to push out its borders in the face of what it perceives as Western encroachment on the one hand, and to attain world domination on the other. The early Russian battlefield successes break down, and the U.S. sees an opportunity to bleed the Russians at someone else’s bodily expense. “We’ll fight to the last Afghani” is the slogan of the day.
The CIA, via our snake-like “ally” in Pakistan, floods Afghanistan with money and weapons. The tools are different but the effect is the same: supply just enough firepower to keep the Bear tied down and bleeding but not enough to kill him, and, God forbid, end the war that is so profitable—lots of dead Russkis and zero Americans killed. (OK, maybe a few, but they are the use-and-forget types of foreign policy, CIA paramilitary and special forces, so no need to count them.) An ironic historical bonus: in both Afghanistan 1980s and Ukraine, some of the money spent is Saudi. See the thread yet?
Leaving aside some big differences that enabled initial successes in Afghanistan, chief among which was the long Russian supply lines, let’s look at what followed those heady early days.
While NATO countries and others sent small numbers of troops and material to Afghanistan, the U.S. has gone out of its way to make Ukraine look like a NATO show when it is not. Washington supposedly declared support for Ukraine to preserve and empower NATO, despite the fact that Ukraine was not a member. Yet to keep Germany on the sidelines in this war, Washington (allegedly) conducted a covert attack on Germany’s critical civilian infrastructure that will have lasting, negative consequences for the German economy.
This allegation, in addition to the open U.S. treatment of NATO countries as convenient supply dumps and little more, suggests that NATO will emerge from Ukraine broken. One does also wonder if the future of Europe is at stake why the greatest concern is expressed in Washington and not Berlin, Brussels, or Paris.
As with Afghanistan, there are questions if we Americans will ever be able to leave, about whether Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rules applies—you break it, you bought it. Ukraine was a basket case even before Russia invaded, in large part because of Western intervention in its internal affairs.
President Zelensky, a comedian and TV producer portrayed in the West as a cross between Churchill and Bono, derived his popularity from his anti-establishment image and his promises to fight corruption and improve the economy, winning the Ukrainian presidential election in 2019. He was preceded by the Ukrainian Revolution, also known as the Euromaidan Revolution, which began in late 2013 as a series of protests in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union and instead pursue closer ties with Russia.
The protests grew in size and intensity, with demonstrators occupying the central Maidan Nezalezhnosti square in Kiev, demanding Yanukovych’s resignation and new elections. In February 2014, the situation escalated when Yanukovych’s security forces cracked down on protesters, resulting in violent clashes that left dozens dead. Yanukovych fled the country, and a new government was formed in Ukraine. The revolution inflamed tensions with Russia, which subsequently annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine.
None of those problems go away even if the Russian army retreats to its pre-invasion borders. The notion that there is nothing going on here except a rough land grab by a power-made Putin is shallow and incomplete.
What’s left? Concerns about the level of corruption in Ukraine, and the American role in addressing it. Despite significant American financial aid to Ukraine, there have been reports of corruption and mismanagement of funds. Some have argued that the U.S. has not done enough to address these issues, and has instead turned a blind eye in order to maintain its strategic interests in the region. America’s history with pouring nearly unlimited arms and money into developing nations and corruption is not a good one—as we saw, again, in Afghanistan, 1980s edition, or from the Bush invasion onward. Corruption can only get worse.
A great fear in Afghanistan was arms proliferation, weapons moving off the battlefield into the wrong hands. Whether that be a container of rifles or the latest anti-aircraft systems, an awful lot of weapons are loose in Ukraine. In the case of Afghanistan, the real fear was for Stinger missiles, capable of shooting down modern aircraft, ending up in terrorist hands. The U.S. has been chasing these missiles through the world’s arms bazaars ever since.
It is worse in Ukraine. America’s top-of-the-line air-defense tools are being employed against Russian and Iranian air assets. What would those countries pay for the telemetry data of a shoot-down, never mind actual hardware to reverse engineer and program against? There are no doubt Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other intelligence agencies on the ground in Ukraine with suitcases full of money trying to buy up what they can. Another cost of war.
It is also hard to see the end game as the demise of Putin. This would mean the strategy is not to fight until the last Afghani/Ukrainian but to fight until the last Russian. The plan is for that final straw to break, that last Russian death, to trigger some sort of overthrow of Putin. But by whom? Trading Putin for a Russian-military-led government seems a small gain. Look what happened the last time Russia went through a radical change of government—we got Putin. In Afghanistan, it was the Taliban 2.
History suggests the U.S. will lose in a variety of ways in Ukraine, with a fun added question in the case of “success”: Who will follow Putin, and why do we think that guy will be more palatable to the U.S.? As one pundit put it, it is like watching someone play Risk drunk.