Russia Must Avoid a Second Afghan War in Ukraine

If attempts to drag Russia into a direct military conflict in Ukraine are successful, it would be a catastrophe for Russia comparable to the 1979-1989 Afghan war. There is no direct evidence that the US is trying to bring about a second Afghan war, but indirect evidence abounds.

If attempts to drag Russia into a direct military conflict in Ukraine are successful, it would be a catastrophe for Russia comparable to the 1979-1989 Afghan war.

Regardless of who is responsible, the crash of the Malaysian airliner – the “black swan” that fell from the sky – could aggravate the international political crisis around Ukraine, or it could offer a way out.

There is no easy solution in Ukraine because of the deep distrust between Russia and the West. The Ukrainian tragedy is the result of poor governance by the oligarchic groups that have been slowly bleeding the country, making it poorer even than Belarus. The current crisis has made Ukraine even less governable, and the majority of experts say the economic tailspin cannot be arrested, at least not in the medium term.

The Ukraine crisis was elevated from the regional to the international level on July 17, when a Malaysian plane with 298 passengers and crew crashed over eastern Ukraine. In light of this tragedy, what are the likely intermediate results of the battle in and over Ukraine? What would a rational strategy for Russia look like?

Russia won the first round of the crisis, which lasted until April, having turned its competition against the West from a low-intensity information war, which the West is winning because it controls most world media, into a hard power contest and a test of wills. Russia has said “enough” to the West’s creeping military, economic and political expansion into its sphere of vital interests after almost 25 years of the West’s “iron fist in a velvet glove” and the feelings of humiliation and desire for revenge it engendered in the majority of the Russian elite and the general public. Crimea’s reunification with Russia was an expensive but important victory.

By losing part of its territory, Ukraine has missed an opportunity to join NATO. By regaining Crimea, Russia has demonstrated its resolve to defend and advance its interests, and to have its interests respected by the international community.

The world has taken an important but by no means final step toward the end of Western domination and the beginning of a more equal and democratic world order.

And finally, Crimea’s reunification with Russia has helped ease the country’s Weimar syndrome, engendered by years of having its dignity and interests trampled on by Western policies. Russians feel proud of their country and their president again, which is reflected in Putin’s soaring approval ratings. Putin could use this newly gained political capital to overcome Russia’s economic stagnation.

But the fear that Russia will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory began growing in May.

The biggest problem is that Russian authorities and the elite have been more eager to talk about the crisis and debate the possible effects of economic sanctions than to formulate a development agenda, whether liberal or anti-liberal. Meanwhile, the Russian economy is stagnant. Even friends of Russia believe that our future is bleak. As one of my Chinese colleagues said, “Russia has won a tactical victory, but it may suffer a strategic defeat.”

The items on the top of any development agenda for Russia are clear and have been discussed at length, including on the pages of this newspaper.

This is the backdrop for the attempts to ensnare Russia in a protracted, direct military conflict in Ukraine resembling the Afghan war, which hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.

US neoconservatives are talking and acting like this is exactly what they want. The neoconservatives in the US administration together with some European politicians provoked the crisis in Ukraine by attempting to draw the country into the Western zone of influence with an EU association agreement and the promise of NATO membership in the future – all over Russia’s objections.

There is no direct evidence that the US is trying to bring about a second Afghan war, but indirect evidence abounds.

The current mood among the US elite is reminiscent of the late 1970s. Humiliated and frustrated by the defeat in Vietnam, an oil crisis, rising anti-Americanism and the growing strength of its rival, the Soviet Union, the US elite lured the geriatric Soviet government into the Afghan war trap. But Russia is not the only country that the West is trying to cut down to size. Other non-Western (and increasingly anti-Western) countries that are gaining in the global competition, primarily China, are also in the West’s sights. The stakes are very high in the world again.

The defeat of the US and the West that followed the apparent triumph of the 1990s is bigger and more painful than in the 1970s, which explains the West’s desire for revenge. And the quickest way to get revenge is to drag Russia into the war in Ukraine. This would certainly suit the Ukrainian government, which needs the war to keep its faltering grip on power amid economic chaos. It’s no longer just oligarchs running the country, but also the ultranationalist forces elevated by the winter coup.

Of course, greater Russian involvement would also suit the self-defense forces in Ukraine and their supporters in Russia, who have taken to the media to promote the idea of a large-scale Russian military intervention in the hope – however tenuous – of rallying the support of the pro-Russian majority in southeast Ukraine.

The crash of the Malaysian airliner may force the self-defense forces and their supporters to make a choice: either fade away, or escalate the conflict and further complicate the situation for the Russian government.

Such a conflict would directly threaten Russia’s border regions as well as its sovereignty and security by unleashing a wave of thousands of refugees, with terrorists and subversives mixed in. This poses a greater danger than the Afghan war, which was fought farther away from Soviet borders.

The other players interested in keeping the conflict boiling – even at a low boil – are the Americans and the members of the ruling European elite who resent Russia’s luck and diplomatic daring. Russia has been punching well above its economic weight class, contrary to the rules set by the once dominant and nearly victorious but now rapidly declining West.

American and European experts and politicians don’t want Russia to fill the power vacuum in the Middle East, or to turn towards the Pacific, thus strengthening its economic and political bargaining positions with the West. Worse still for the West, a greater role for Russia in the Pacific could redound to the benefit of China and US allies like Japan and South Korea, which would have more room for maneuver and less need for US guarantees.

The West appears to have achieved its not terribly well-concealed goal of preventing Ukraine from joining the nascent Russian-dominated economic and political unions. Personally, I have always doubted that Ukraine would join such unions, because the Ukrainian elite does not want to compete against a stronger Russian elite. On the other hand, the corrupt Ukrainian elite, if it survives the current conflagration, will also resist joining Europe, because European rules and standards represent a fatal threat to their bottom line.

The crisis in Ukraine could also slow down or even reverse the drift between the US and Europe, which, left unchecked, could have led to the creation of a continental Eurasian union built around Moscow and Berlin.

The US and the European actors that follow its lead are clearly preparing to move from the short-term phase of hard power and a test of wills, which Russia could win, to the phase of economic and information warfare, where the West has the upper hand for now.

At the same time, uncompetitive anti-modernization forces have gained momentum in Russia and are using patriotism to squeeze out the better educated and more effective members of the bureaucracy and the middle class. We’ve seen a more radical version of this scenario play out in Russia after 1917.

Russia’s geopolitical rivals will try to exploit the tragedy of the plane crash for all its worth. The confrontation will continue for some time, and the attempts to isolate Russia will become more effective. But what comes after that?

Russia can take one of four courses.

First, Russia could back down, as it did in 1991, under the slogan of “even newer political thinking.” I hope no one is considering this option.

Second, Russia could maintain the status quo and keep the low-intensity conflict in Ukraine alive. But in this case Russia faces the threat of losing the initiative and must play on the opponent’s turf. This scenario could also release a whole flock of “black swans” or lead to large-scale military intervention, i.e. a second Afghan war.

Third, Russia could escalate the conflict and deploy troops in Ukraine (a second Afghan war) in the hope of bringing Ukraine to its knees and/or splitting it into several states. This path is extremely dangerous and therefore totally unacceptable.

The fourth option is risky but also promises the greatest reward: Russia could simply declare victory. It has achieved its immediate goals: NATO will not expand, and Crimea is Russia’s again. The next goal should be to avoid getting involved in a big war. Russia should continue to apply economic and political pressure on Ukraine and expose the inevitable large-scale human rights violations. Ukraine will have to learn to live within its means, without Russian subsidies and concessions. We’ll see if Kiev and its current patrons can manage.

Russia is rightly skeptical of Europe’s departure from many of its traditional values. But declaring that “Russia is not Europe” is to betray nearly 300 years of Russian history since Peter the Great and to admit that, far from being defeated by the army of Dmitry Donskoi and his allies in the Battle of Kulikovo, the Golden Horde won in the end.

If we love Russia and want to preserve its identity and culture, we should reaffirm our long-term intention to create an economically integrated, visa-free Union of Europe with a common energy market and other regulations. Working together to help Ukraine survive could be a first step.

But Russia wants to work toward that union from a fundamentally different direction: by relying on its de-facto alliance with China, the growing role and expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasec (even without Ukraine), and a new policy in Asia Pacific, the demand for which is growing in that rapidly developing region.

The Russian government and the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East have put forth a new development concept for Russia’s eastern regions. The artificial crisis in the West must not prevent Russia from taking advantage of the unique opportunities in the East.

Russia’s policy of economic and political integration in Asia Pacific, once fully realized, could help it exit the Ukraine crisis a winner.

The self-defense forces fighting for their rights in Ukraine should be lauded as heroes in Russia. The hundreds of thousands, or even millions of emigrants from the new Ukraine should be offered jobs and housing in one of the many Russian regions that are short on manpower. Immigrants, especially from a culturally similar country, are a major source of growth for any nation.

This policy would be humane, patriotic and rational.

I’m sure the proposals I’ve sketched out will be criticized. But, as diplomats say, is there a sensible alternative?

And lastly, I will continue to argue that Russian society, the elites and the president must demand from each other a purposeful strategy of socioeconomic development and reform. We must not miss the opportunity created by Crimea’s reunification with Russia. Otherwise we really will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

This article was originally published in russian on

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