The Forever War Comes Home

Ukraine and American Strategy

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues with no end in sight.

Berlin on Ukraine. Schillerkiez, Neukölln.

Kyiv’s campaign for Kherson has yielded some successes, but there is no reason to think that the conflict is any closer to ending than it was six months ago. 

Even though Russia invaded to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, Moscow has since given several different reasons it went to war, markedly different in objectives.

Some blame NATO for igniting the conflict, while others claim Russia is regaining imperial territories wrongly ceded by the Soviets.

If you’re confused, so is the Kremlin. 

It would be one thing if it were just a matter of being inconsistent about its framing and that Vladimir Putin wasn’t managing his media team properly.

Something different is afoot. Something far more significant, and more revealing of the leadership failings that have plagued the Ukraine conflict and prevented it from coming to a quicker conclusion.

That something is a lack of strategic vision. Moscow started one war but found itself fighting another. The Kremlin’s response has been to change its story periodically, to cover its tracks.

Why it chooses one propagandistic cliché after another, only Putin would know. Nothing could be more transparent and an admission of failure. 

Perhaps he’s in denial that things have gone so badly and can only admit he was wrong through indulging caricatures of Orwellian rhetoric. 

Or, perhaps the Russian leader is communicating in code to his military to consider changing its strategies. Continually reframing the war out loud is one way to pressure it to perform better.

Whatever Vladimir Putin’s objective is, the confusion is revealing. 

Not just about a lack of agreement within his government about the war’s objectives but, more importantly, what the Russian armed forces are doing. 

Ask any defence analyst about such crises, and they’ll be the first to tell you that without such consensus, countries that start conflicts rarely end them.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, a popular argument about the origin of the conflict was that it was due to US interference in the country. 

Either intentionally or through incompetence, the United States had prodded the Kremlin to war to defend its legitimate regional interests.

This view, forcefully propounded by conservative political scientist John Mearsheimer and many others in the international relations establishment, has a good deal of prima facie credibility.

On numerous occasions, Vladimir Putin made clear that he regarded Ukraine as within the Russian sphere of interest. 

He had further shown a willingness to address questions of threats to Russia’s perceived local interests by resorting to hard power. 

In the various phases of the war in Chechnya, in its war with Georgia in the summer of 2008, and in the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia employed military force.

At the same time, Washington’s protestations of innocence in Ukraine rang hollow. 

The US project of exporting liberal democracy since the end of the Second World War more often than not disguised the pursuit of American interests.

The instances in which democracy promotion and nation-building coexist with (or resulted in) the formation of regimes whose brutality was tolerated by the United States constitute a recurring theme both during the Cold War and after. 

These were not small-scale coups, such as in Iran in 1953 or Guatemala in 1954. As Vincent Bevins showed in The Jakarta Method (2020), Sukarno’s brutal, US-backed seizure of power in Indonesia resulted in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of (real and supposed) communists, becoming a model for the Cold War.

Both the United States and the European Union engaged in projects to encourage the formation of liberal democratic political institutions in Ukraine. 

Perhaps there was some altruistic motive underlying these initiatives. However, history has shown it is impossible to separate foreign policy idealism from impulses of a realist nature.

Realism can mean many things. For John Mearsheimer, it means understanding that Putin’s Russia has legitimate security concerns in areas that it regards as its sphere of influence.

US foreign policy has for decades evinced a rejection of the concept of “spheres of influence”, a somewhat ironic stance given the continued significance of the Monroe Doctrine. 

The United States has consistently shown a willingness to meddle in areas other states regard as their areas of concern.

The Cold War, which continues to shape the theory and practice of international relations to the present day, was undertaken in the shadow of atomic weapons. 

The devastation wrought by US nuclear strikes on Japan in 1945 created a potent argument against their future use. But they also created a sense of limit in international politics. 

The implicit threat that atomic weaponry might be employed became a factor in all subsequent military calculations involving world powers.

This led to the prevalence of a new variety of warfare: the proxy war. While wars undertaken by subcontractors were not unheard-of before 1945, in the second half of the 20th century, they took on a new significance in the era of competition between nuclear-armed superpowers.

The proxy war is one in which the forces of a first-rank power face off against a second-rank power armed and or funded by another power that is not immediately a party to the conflict. 

At its root is the apotheosis of Clausewitz’s axiom: “War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means…” 

Given the mutual capacity for remote annihilation, proxy war is an avenue for superpower conflict with a tacit brake on the employment of maximal solutions.

The case of Korea might seem to be an early example but it is not representative for two crucial reasons. Both sides functioned as proxies for leading Cold War powers (China and the US). But within a year, both powers were on the ground in Korea. 

China would not obtain nuclear weapons until the early 1960s. While the US military discussed the use of nuclear weapons, this idea was squelched by civilian authorities. Thus, one pole of the nuclear guarantee was missing.

Vietnam forms the paradigmatic example. Both the United States and its Cold War opponents had their respective proxies in the conflict. 

But, while the United States would eventually devote more than 2.7 million soldiers to support its client regime, Russian and Chinese communist support was mostly limited to materiel.

The Chinese had backed the Viet Minh insurgency against France in the 1950s, with the latter receiving more aid from the United States to fight the conflict than it did under the Marshall Plan. 

The French war in Indochina fundamentally differed from the US war in the subsequent decade. The French fought and lost a colonial conflict. 

The US war in Vietnam, commencing in earnest in 1965, was a direct conflict in which one side, China, sought to deplete the power of the other side, the United States, through proxy warfare.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is perhaps the last significant incidence of proxy war before the present conflict in Ukraine. 

There, Soviet forces intervened to battle insurgents backed by the United States with materiel but not with human assets (except for some CIA and sundry other covert operators). 

As in Vietnam, a superpower was enticed into an asymmetric conflict in which the expected effectiveness of hard power assets was diluted by weapons and funding provided by a competing power.

There are certain ways in which the war in Ukraine deviates from previous proxy wars. 

The Ukrainian army, which is outnumbered and outgunned by Russia, is not an insurgent force like the Vietnamese National Liberation Front or Afghan mujahideen. To the extent that the war in Ukraine is asymmetric, it is only because Russia is bigger and, in some respects, better armed.

Proxy conflicts of this kind differ fundamentally from the numerous cases in the Cold War in which neither side committed its own forces. 

Those might be termed proxy conflicts simply for the sake of clarity. And this is key because what is going on in Ukraine is fundamentally different.

When the United States and Cuba backed opposing sides in Nicaragua in the 1980s, this was a Cold War conflict fought out by proxies    in a twofold sense in the case of Cuba – since it was in turn a Soviet proxy. 

While the Cold War combatants sought geopolitical advantages, the goal was fundamentally different than in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Ukraine.

The difference can be summed up in a comment made about Mao by the North Vietnamese leader Pham Van Dong. In a 1981 conversation with American journalist Stanley Karnow, Pham said of Mao, “He was always ready to fight to the last Vietnamese.”

Herein is revealed the true nature of proxy warfare. 

While geopolitical advantage is the ultimate goal, achieving it is not so much about the client states doing the fighting but force depletion. For Beijing, the Vietnam war was a way of occupying the US and degrading its military and political capital — not liberating the South.

Likewise, US support for Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan was not undertaken with an eye to a postwar Afghan state. Given the political and cultural orientation of the mujahideen, the CIA can hardly have had any illusions about what sort of political formation might emerge if they won.

The United States and EU might have some thoughts about liberal democracy in Ukraine being the war’s outcome. But there is an important sense in which this is an afterthought.

Currently, the conflict is achieving US goals, not so much those of the EU. The latter, especially Germany and the Baltic states, now face a winter of spiralling energy costs. 

In normal circumstances, this might cause sitting governments to worry about their electoral prospects. But fear of Putin’s Russia has served to tamp those down for the moment.

From the American perspective, the war in Ukraine is very close to an optimal outcome. 

Russia is expending men and weapons on a project that looks increasingly quixotic. The more he invests himself in the gambit, the further Vladimir Putin is from being recognised as one of the world’s acknowledged great leaders. 

Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine is expending both military capital, with an estimated 100,000 casualties to date, and political capital. Russia is well on its way to becoming a pariah state. 

Russia’s military, shown to be a paper tiger, with inferior equipment and inadequate training, cannot reverse this.

John Mearsheimer and other realists argued that the US had blundered into the conflict. 

But, instead of looking at the slide toward war in Ukraine as a blunder by NATO, perhaps it is one of a range of outcomes pursued by Washington’s foreign policy bureaucracy. 

To better understand this line of thinking, it is necessary to accept three propositions.

The first is that Russia is viewed as a threat by the foreign policy establishments of the United States and most EU member states. 

All you need to do is listen. Vladimir Putin has been unequivocal over the course of his tenure about his desire to see the power and influence of Russia restored to that of the Soviet Union.

A second premise is that Putin has successfully extended Russian influence over the last twenty years through a mix of hard and soft power. 

Not only had Russia successfully intervened militarily in various conflicts around the world, but its president had become a regular on the international conference circuit. 

Russia has also been plausibly accused of attempting to manipulate elections in the US and elsewhere. If the Republicans dispute it, the allegations merit scrutiny. 

Finally, there is concern within the American foreign service community that at some point the pro-Moscow faction of the US right will come to power, at which point resisting Putin’s expansionist foreign policy will be much more difficult. 

This prospect was cast in relief by Donald Trump’s illusion that Vladimir Putin wanted to be his friend. Even absent his fawning, many US conservatives see the Russian leader’s politics as their own.

From this perspective, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has presented Washington with a low-cost means of blunting Russian power. 

All that is required is the application of money and technology. 

Russia’s military power has been degraded. Its weapons are expended and its front-line troops are dwindling, replaced by poorly trained, heavily Muslim conscripts from the Asian periphery.

Putin seems to have forgotten how the Chechen wars immediately followed the defeat in Afghanistan, radicalised as the Chechens were by a conflict viewed as much against Islam as it was the US.

More importantly, Russia has conclusively conceded the high ground. 

Its ham-fisted attempts to characterise the Ukrainians as Al-Qaeda equivalent Nazis never managed to get much traction outside Tankies and the far-right in Europe and the United States. 

The harder Vladimir Putin tries to press on Ukraine, the further he gets from his goals. 

In Europe, a long cold winter looms ahead. No settlement seems possible. If the proxy war in Ukraine is a confection of the US foreign policy bureaucracy, it has so far been successful. 

But even if it is the case that this is meant to be a mode of conflict that precludes nuclear solutions, the only reason to believe that it won’t escalate is that it hasn’t so far. 

Brinksmanship comes with inherent risks. The success of this strategy depends on how long the European Union is willing to live with the pain and how long Putin is willing to play the game.

Pity those who thought Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan meant an end to the so-called ‘Forever Wars’ which began on 9/11. Ukraine is just another version of the same.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.