“The language people speak in the corridors of power,” former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter once observed, “is not economics or politics. It is history.” …
What kind of history is informing today’s decisions in Washington as the war in Ukraine nears the conclusion of its first month? A few clues have emerged.
“American officials are divided on how much the lessons from Cold War proxy wars, like the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, can be applied to the ongoing war in Ukraine,” David Sanger reported for the New York Times on Saturday.
According to Sanger, who cannot have written his piece without high-level sources, the Biden administration “seeks to help Ukraine lock Russia in a quagmire without inciting a broader conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary or cutting off potential paths to de-escalation … CIA officers are helping to ensure that crates of weapons are delivered into the hands of vetted Ukrainian military units, according to American officials. But as of now, Mr. Biden and his staff do not see the utility of an expansive covert effort to use the spy agency to ferry in arms as the United States did in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union during the 1980s.”
Reading this carefully, I conclude that the U.S. intends to keep this war going. The administration will continue to supply the Ukrainians with anti-aircraft Stingers, antitank Javelins and explosive Switchblade drones. It will keep trying to persuade other North Atlantic Treaty Organization governments to supply heavier defensive weaponry. …
I have evidence from other sources to corroborate this. “The only end game now,” a senior administration official was heard to say at a private event earlier this month, “is the end of Putin regime. Until then, all the time Putin stays, [Russia] will be a pariah state that will never be welcomed back into the community of nations. China has made a huge error in thinking Putin will get away with it. Seeing Russia get cut off will not look like a good vector and they’ll have to re-evaluate the Sino-Russia axis. All this is to say that democracy and the West may well look back on this as a pivotal strengthening moment.”
I gather that senior British figures are talking in similar terms. There is a belief that “the U.K.’s No. 1 option is for the conflict to be extended and thereby bleed Putin.” Again and again, I hear such language. It helps explain, among other things, the lack of any diplomatic effort by the U.S. to secure a cease-fire. It also explains the readiness of President Joe Biden to call Putin a war criminal. …
There is no question that the Russian invasion force has sustained very high casualties and losses of equipment. Incredibly, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin Russian newspaper, just published Russian Ministry of Defense numbers indicating 9,861 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and 16,153 wounded. (The story was quickly removed.) By comparison, 15,000 Soviet troops died and 35,000 were wounded in 10 years in Afghanistan.
Moreover, there is ample evidence that their logistics is a mess, exemplified by the many supply trucks that have simply been abandoned because their tires or engines gave out. By these measures, Ukraine does seem to be winning the war, as Phillips O’Brien and Eliot A. Cohen have argued. History also provides numerous cases of authoritarian regimes that fell apart quite rapidly in the face of military reverses — think of the fates of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Al Qaddafi, or the Argentine junta that invaded the Falklands almost exactly 40 years ago.
It would indeed be wonderful if the combination of attrition in Ukraine and a sanctions-induced financial crisis at home led to Putin’s downfall. Take that, China! Just you try the same trick with Taiwan — which, by the way, we care about a lot more than Ukraine because of all those amazing semiconductors they make at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. …
The Biden administration not only thinks it’s doing enough to sustain the Ukrainian war effort, but not so much as to provoke Putin to escalation. It also thinks it’s doing enough to satisfy public opinion, which has rallied strongly behind Ukraine, but not so much as to cost American lives, aside from a few unlucky volunteers and journalists.
The optimism, however, is the assumption that allowing the war to keep going will necessarily undermine Putin’s position; and that his humiliation in turn will serve as a deterrent to China. I fear these assumptions may be badly wrong and reflect a misunderstanding of the relevant history. … Betting on a Russian revolution is betting on an exceedingly rare event, even if the war continues to go badly for Putin; if the war turns in his favor, there will be no palace coup. …
Events on the ground will be crucial to the negotiated settlement:
Begin with the military situation, which Western analysts consistently present in too favorable a light for the Ukrainians. … The next blow will be when Belarusian forces invade western Ukraine from the north, which the Ukrainian general staff expects to happen in the coming days, and which could pose a threat to the supply of arms from Poland. …
I fail to see in current Western strategizing any real recognition of how badly this war could go for Ukraine in the coming weeks. … The Ukrainians have shown their cards. They are ready to drop the idea of NATO membership; to accept neutrality; to seek security guarantees from third parties; to accept limits on their own military capability.
What is less clear is where they stand on the future status of Crimea and the supposedly independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. It seems obvious that Putin needs more than just these to be able to claim credibly to have won his war. It seems equally obvious that, if they believe they are winning, the Ukrainians will not yield a square mile of territory. Control of the Black Sea coast would give Putin the basis from which to demand further concessions, notably a “land bridge” from Crimea to Russia.
Meanwhile, the mainly financial sanctions imposed on Russia are doing their intended work, in causing something like a nationwide bank run and consumer goods shortages.
Yet, so long as European Union countries refuse to impose an energy embargo on Russia, Putin’s regime continues to receive around $1.1 billion a day from the EU in oil and gas receipts. I remain skeptical that the sanctions as presently constituted can either halt the Russian war machine or topple Putin. Why has the ruble not fallen further and even rallied against the euro last week? [Because the Russians are now demanding payment in rubles, no longer in US dollars, thereby creating strong demand for rubles outside Russia.] …
Cold War II:
The invasion of Ukraine in many ways resembles the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950.
I would put it like this: Cold War II is like a strange mirror-image of Cold War I. In the First Cold War, the senior partner was Russia, the junior partner was China — now the roles are reversed. In Cold War I, the first hot war was in Asia (Korea) — now it’s in Europe (Ukraine). In Cold War I, Korea was just the first of many confrontations with aggressive Soviet-backed proxies — today the crisis in Ukraine will likely be followed by crises in the Middle East (Iran) and Far East (Taiwan).
But there’s one very striking contrast. In Cold War I, President Harry Truman’s administration was able to lead an international coalition with a United Nations mandate to defend South Korea; now Ukraine has to make do with just arms supplies. And the reason for that, as we have seen, is the Biden administration’s intense fear that Putin may escalate to nuclear war if U.S. support for Ukraine goes too far.
That wasn’t a concern in 1950. Although the Soviets conducted their first atomic test on August 29, 1949, less than a year before the outbreak of the Korean War, they were in no way ready to retaliate if (as General Douglas MacArthur recommended) the U.S. had used atomic bombs to win the Korean War.
History talks in the corridors of power. But it speaks in different voices, according to where the corridors are located. In my view — and I really would love to be wrong about this — the Biden administration is making a colossal mistake in thinking that it can protract the war in Ukraine, bleed Russia dry, topple Putin and signal to China to keep its hands off Taiwan.
Every step of this strategy is based on dubious history. Ukraine is not Afghanistan in the 1980s, and even if it were, this war isn’t going to last 10 years — more like 10 weeks. Allowing Ukraine to be bombed to rubble by Putin is not smart; it creates the chance for him to achieve his goal of rendering Ukrainian independence unviable. Putin, like most Russian leaders in history, will most likely die of natural causes.
And China watches all this with a growing sense of certainty that it is not up against the U.S. of Truman and Kennan. For that America — the one that so confidently waged the opening phase of Cold War I — is itself now history.