The Shadow of Afghanistan: Thinking about the Day After in the USA
Ukraine’s counter-offensive is stuck in deep crisis. It has already failed to achieve its original objectives (most importantly to break through to at least the Sea of Azov and perhaps even Crimea). Ukrainian soldiers are still dying in large numbers, but their sacrifice is in vain, even if crazed “experts” such as Edward Luttwak want to see even
Those Ukrainians who have received criminally truncated courses of NATO training are now dead, wounded, or reverting to older tactics that offer a better chance of, at least, survival. As in other areas of life in eastern Europe – from politics via economics to “values” – the NATO/EU West’s arrogant belief that its special magic, from “free markets” via “civil society” to “combined arms,” is always “best practice” and must be transferred everywhere has met reality, and reality is stronger, again.
The Russian military, meanwhile, is destroying the much touted miracle weapons delivered by Kyiv’s Western allies. Un-diplomats like Germany’s grotesquely incompetent Annalena Baerbock may have joked about Leopard costumes, but they don’t have to burn in Leopard tanks.
In the process of rudely shredding what the West believed was invincible, Moscow’s growing and adapting army is receiving a crash course in how to deal with much of the NATO arsenal. It is now more likely than not to come out of this war stronger, not weaker.
If historical comparisons are your thing (as they are mine, by deformation professionnelle), think Great Northern War (1700-1721) or World War II: In both cases, Russia (or the Soviet Union with its Russian core) started very weak. The Battle of Narva (1700) was as much an embarrassing dud for Peter the Great as the Battle of Kyiv (2022) was for Vladimir Putin. The first half-year of the German-Soviet war of 1941-1945 was a blistering catastrophe for Soviet forces (while also, often overlooked, already severely stretching the Nazi invaders and their allies).
And yet. The Great Northern War ended with a Russian victory that demoted the former great power Sweden to a peripheral player (which it has remained ever since), recast the balance of power in Europe so much that even the British took fright, and, last but not least, established the Russian empire as a recognized great power – a status mostly maintained and only occasionally and temporarily suspended since then. And must we summarize the results of World War II?
While Western intervention has probably made the Russian military stronger, the same, of course, holds for the Russian economy, which has not only proven much more resilient against the West’s economic warfare than many observers expected (this author included), but is now beating the German economy – no less, the former powerhouse of Europe – hands down on growth and prospects.
This is a bleak picture for the NATO/EU West. Whereas it used to be heresy to argue that Russia could actually hold its own and force the West to accept a draw, we are now in a place where the really relevant question is if Moscow will win this war. This seems to be a scenario that Western leaders and most Western experts have long failed to even consider. But when you go to war, you need not only a plan A (for winning) and a plan B (for a draw). You also should consider C: the possibility of defeat. Almost no one ever does. And yet you should.
If you want a recent example of what happens when you don’t, remember the shameful Western rout of Kabul, seemingly so remote already and yet only, really, yesterday. And that, unlike now, was a war against a much weaker opponent and far from the centers of NATO/EU power. But, as John Mearsheimer has pointed out, it seems that US generals can no longer even imagine what it means to fight against an enemy big enough to pose real risks, that is, capable of inflicting the kind of defeat you cannot simply walk away from.
Put differently, an unheard-of question is coming into view: What would happen to NATO and the EU – both having chosen to be up to their necks in the proxy war against Russia – if they lose? We don’t know. But some form of a geopolitical earthquake with massive ripple-on effects in domestic politics is likely (An AfD break-through in Germany? A “Ukraine Syndrome” in the USA, either impeding or accelerating the current drive to war against China?). We may soon find out.
In an ultimate irony, all those eager, self-congratulatory Cold War Reenactors in the West who saw and sold the war in Ukraine as a golden opportunity to topple Putin and subdue his kind of assertive Russia, may end up with a Putin greatly enhanced by the prestige of having beaten not only Ukraine but the West. Spot the difference.
As I wrote two months before Russia’s attack of February 2022, “sometime between, say, 2008 and 2014, the post-Cold War era has ended, and we are now in a post-post-Cold War world. It is this tectonic shift, Russia’s come-back, far from perfect yet substantial, that fundamentally drives the need for a geopolitical re-adjustment. The latter can happen in a deliberate and negotiated manner, or the movers and shakers of the West, first of all the US, can decide to let geopolitical nature take its course. The second course of, as it were, malign negligence would lead to a much bumpier ride to a new status quo, quite possibly with catastrophic effects.”
I was right, but also wrong: The movers and shakers of the West have not practiced “malign negligence.” Instead they have not only criminally blocked negotiations that could have prevented the war entirely or ended it quickly. They have also forcefully intervened, making everything much worse again. For Ukraine and, soon probably, for themselves. As to Russia, they may have handed it a victory bigger than it dared to dream of. Slowest clap ever for our “elites” in the American Indispensable, the EU value “Garden,” and, of course, on the foggy, self-insulated Thames.
With things so bad and especially so much worse than reckless talk show warriors, narrative mis-shapers, and myopic experts made them appear for so long, it is no wonder that we are now seeing signs of damage control. While Ukrainians and Russians die, careers and egos, after all, must be protected, political fall-out managed, and publics kept in line. Various Western voices are now carefully pruning back expectations, preparing the public for the counter-offensive failure that has already happened. Mark Milley, for instance, the always political US Chief of Staff has now noticed that there are seasons in Ukraine and the clock is ticking. Trent Maul, head analyst at the Defence Intelligence Agency, meanwhile, is doing his best to repackage a great lowering of expectations as a form of “realistic” optimism.
None of this is surprising, even if the sheer panache of shameless spinning, twisting, and creative reframing is an always fascinating if undignified spectacle to behold. What is more interesting is the reappearance of that other catastrophe in mainstream memory, the Western war and defeat in Afghanistan. Intriguingly, a member of the New York Times editorial board has brought it up in a recent opinion piece that is ostentatiously about corruption in Ukraine. Corruption, Farah Stockman reminds her readers, is pervasive and severe in the country, still ranked, even by Transparency International, the second-most corrupt in Europe after Russia. So far, so banal. Yet, Stockman insists, Ukraine has made progress – one wonders where? – and Ukrainians are well aware of the problem and want to solve it.
Yet, frankly, who wouldn’t (except those who profit, of course)? In my five years of living in Ukraine, I have not met a single “ordinary” Ukrainian who did not suffer from and hate their country’s corruption. But that is now more than a decade ago, and yet, the rot persists. The Maidans come and go, the bribery remains. And the West pumping dozens of billions of military aid into a Kyiv regime with pronounced authoritarian tendencies, while hysterically feting its out-of-his-depth and narcissistic leader to the point of personality cult, probably did not help.
But Stockman’s key concern, I suspect, is not the issue of corruption at all. That merely serves as a peg. For suddenly we encounter a very short, very wrong, and very convenient theory about why the USA was defeated in Afghanistan. That happened, Stockman imagines, “because we didn’t foster Afghan institutions that could withstand a U.S. withdrawal.” Given the rest of her transparent piece, it is clear that she wants to prevent US Republicans (and others) from beginning to seriously investigate what happens to American money once it is handed over to Kyiv. That is a fairly humdrum, if dishonest, attempt to suppress accountability for partisan reasons. The New York Times arguing for “trust” over verification for the government? Hey presto, as long as the argument serves Democrats.
Yet what is that reference to “institutions that could withstand a US withdrawal” doing here? Even if Stockman used to report from and about Afghanistan, that allusion is entirely superfluous to her arguments and agenda. So superfluous indeed, it is almost Freudian. Are we in the US Vietnam-Afghanistan end game already? The moment when Americans start thinking about how precisely to abandon their allies and clients? Slowly? Abruptly? First one, then the other? Put differently, is it “decent-interval” time again? Whoever is naïve enough in Ukraine to mistake Stockman’s “support” for support, is to be pitied. Perhaps even she does. Yet the fact remains: Talk about a withdrawal of vital support and what comes after in one of the USA’s top and most officially aligned newspapers means that the idea is no longer taboo.
Of course, there are alternatives. In the best, but less and less likely case, it may not be too late for a negotiated end of the war that leaves at least a large part of Ukraine intact and as safe as can now be. But that would take unprecedented if (finally) reasonable Western concessions. The Nulands of this world will have World War III before going down that path, which is the other alternative that can by no means be excluded.