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Afghanistan Cloud Looms Over Ukraine for US as well as Russia

by tbhad

By David Brennan

Russia’s war on Ukraine has become a “stalemate,” according to Ukraine’s top commander. The country’s dogged defenders have defeated Moscow’s bid to annihilate the Ukrainian state but appear unable to eject Russian troops from the roughly 20 percent of Ukraine they still hold.

As the 2023 fighting season draws to a close, difficult questions are again being asked of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukrainian officials are seeking to neuter talk of renewed negotiations with President Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin kleptocrats—who show no sign of negotiating in good faith—while boosting flagging Western financial and military aid.

In the U.S., meanwhile, more Americans are asking what exactly “as long as it takes” means. The right wing of the Republican Party is reveling in its Ukraine-skepticism, following former President Donald Trump’s lead in urging an end to American support for Kyiv.

President Joe Biden has tied his term inextricably to Ukraine. With a vicious 2024 re-election battle approaching, the White House is lauding Biden’s role in Ukrainian survival while assuring voters Kyiv can still win.

Success—to date—in Ukraine buoyed Biden’s foreign policy record after the humiliation of Afghanistan, where 2,402 U.S. personnel died in two decades of American state-building. In 2021, the effort collapsed in two weeks of chaos.

Julie Norman, a professor of politics and international relations at University College London, told Newsweek that Biden’s Republican adversaries “will certainly try” to conflate the administration’s failure in Afghanistan with its stalled efforts in Ukraine.

“Afghanistan was probably the biggest foreign policy failure and initially started tanking Biden’s approval rating, which has never really recovered,” Norman said. “If you’re a Republican strategist looking at the area where Biden has arguably led the most ably on foreign policy, you chip away at that.

“If you could make [Ukraine] look like a failure as well and tie it to what is widely considered a failure, that’s going to be your campaign strategy for foreign policy.”

The Atlantic Council’s Andrew Michta wrote this week that without a boost in American assistance, “Ukraine will run out of resources to continue defending itself. In light of how much U.S. credibility has been invested, it’ll amount to failure greater than Afghanistan.”

“This is strategic myopia of the first order,” Michta added, with potentially global consequences. “Beijing is watching,” Michta wrote.

Ukrainian officials are confident of Biden’s political investment in Ukraine, though squirrely about the long-term hopes of high-level bipartisan backing.

“If the U.S. withdraws from the support of Ukraine in a similar fashion as it withdrew from Afghanistan, it will deliver a huge blow to the U.S. credibility in the world, especially on the eve of presidential elections in the U.S.,” Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament representing Zelensky’s party, told Newsweek.

“That’s why I’m sure that American political elites will never do it,” Merezhko—who is also the chair of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee—added.

“The US for 20 years or so spent so much money on the support of Afghanistan. A part of this amount would be enough for Ukraine to defeat Russia.

“There is a difference between Afghanistan and Ukraine: Ukraine doesn’t ask the U.S. to send its troops. All we need to defeat Russia is contemporary weaponry and ammunition in the necessary quantities. As President Biden said, support of Ukraine is the best investment in U.S. security. I’d add that defeat of Russia will help to contain China.”

For some observers, the weakness of the U.S. project in Afghanistan was a prime motivation for the Kremlin’s Ukraine gamble. “It was one of the main arguments, that the United States would not come and would not help Ukraine,” Oleg Ignatov, the International Crisis Group think tank’s senior Russia analyst, told Newsweek. “It was a mistake from the Kremlin’s side.”

Putin and his top officials appear committed for the long haul. Russia has shifted onto a war footing, its economy wounded but not felled by an unprecedented Western sanctions regime. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have been drafted, and many have volunteered.

The war handed Putin another means with which to crush any remaining organized opposition to his autocracy, and hints of dissent from within the country’s elite have not translated into a practical challenge.

Polls—of limited value in a country where free political speech is not tolerated—suggest broad support for Moscow’s war. Putin’s victory in the sham 2024 presidential election is inevitable, but it is unclear whether Russians would dump the dictator out of office even if the vote was free and fair.

Doubling Down

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine is the latest chapter in Russia’s neo-tsarist rebirth. Under Putin—so the narrative goes—a strong Russia has re-emerged from the disaster of the Soviet collapse and decades of humiliation by decadent, but more powerful, Western enemies.

In 2008 in Georgia, 2013 in Syria, 2014 in Crimea and Donbas, and 2022 across Ukraine, Moscow proved it could stare down the “collective West.” As in those conflicts, the Kremlin will wait out its rivals, a combination of military fait accompli and Russian resilience overcoming short-sighted enemies desperate for a “return to normal.”

Putin’s footing arguably looks more secure than did Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev’s when he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. “The Soviet system was degrading, the economic solution was bad,” Ignatov said.

“The attitude of society towards this regime is totally different. Whether we like it or not, the majority supports the regime. And the economic situation is totally different because there is no collapse, there is no downgrading. People think that Russia is still developing.”

The Soviet collapse came on the heels of twin disasters in Afghanistan and Chernobyl. Both events fatally undermined trust in the Soviet authorities and humiliated them in front of the world.

“I wouldn’t say the current regime is losing trust,” Ignatov said. “If you look at the polls—of course, I know nobody likes these polls, there are a lot of doubts about the polls, I also have a lot of doubts, but we have what we have—they say that regime still has great support from society.”

“I don’t see any evidence that Russia is going to withdraw from Ukraine,” Ignatov added. “We don’t have a situation where they are really discussing any possibility of defeat. I would say that they’re discussing the possibility of winning.”

The two wars are incomparable in scale. The Soviet Union lost some 13,000 troops—among them 3,000 Ukrainians—in nine years of low-intensity combat in Afghanistan. Kyiv claims to be killing more Russian soldiers than that each month. The mechanized clashes and withering artillery duels along 600 miles of front line in Ukraine are more akin to Second World War combat than anything from Afghanistan.

“It is impossible to compare at all,” Pavel Luzin, a Russian political analyst and visiting scholar at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told Newsweek. “We are not able to compare a conventional war between two regular armies of two sovereign states, and the asymmetric wars which took place in Afghanistan.”

The comparison is not a common one inside Russia, Ignatov said. “The Afghan war was in the background,” he said. “The Ukrainian war is everywhere. The propaganda is huge, there are a lot of reports…They’ve made this war existential.” The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was seen as a limited if undesirable conflict, Ignatov said, regardless of its ultimately seismic ramifications.

“When Russians are talking about losing this war, they don’t say that it will happen like in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union. They are saying that it could happen like for the Russian Empire in 1917…the propaganda narrative is that if Russia loses this war, Russia will disappear.”

“They don’t remember about this war, or they’re trying to forget,” he added of the power brokers in the Kremlin.

Russian Roulette

The war in Ukraine is not over yet. Brezhnev did not plan a nine-year disaster in 1979. His successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, ended the Soviet experiment in Afghanistan in 1989. Less than three years later, the Soviet Union was history.

Western politicians and analysts have repeatedly made the link between the two conflicts, despite the many differences. “The war ends when Russia realizes it was a mistake, like they did with the war in Afghanistan,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Newsweek in Tallinn in May.

“During that war, around 13,000 Soviet soldiers were killed,” Merezhko said. “As of now, the Russians have already lost around 200,000 soldiers. Thus, there is a chance that these losses on Russia’s side can also bring about collapse of the Putin regime.”

Ukrainian survival seemed an ambitious goal in the opening days of Russia’s February 2022 invasion. The country has survived, inflicted repeated defeats on the Russians, and liberated more than half of all territory initially seized in the 2022 assault.

But Ukrainian leaders have made clear a more ambitious vision of victory. This includes full territorial liberation per the country’s 1991 borders, war reparations, and war crime trials for Russian leaders including Putin. Such a vision looks increasingly unrealistic, though not impossible.

The Kremlin has massaged domestic and international perception of Russian success. It now appears content to retain the Ukrainian territory it holds and bleed Kyiv in a long war. But Russia is still poorer, more isolated, and grappling with a worse demographic imbalance than before the war.

Moscow’s aggression since 2014 has supercharged Kyiv’s Western drift that so rankled Putin and undermined the ultranationalism threaded through his regime. Even in a rump state, Ukraine is lost to the Kremlin.

Relative victory in Ukraine does not necessarily mean strategic success. “Russia put itself into fatal strategic disaster since February 2022,” Luzin said. The consequences will “weaken it for decades,” he added.

Putin is committed to his Ukraine war. It would appear the “siloviki” securocrats and St. Petersburg gangland veterans who surround the president are too, at least while “Papa”—as the late oligarch-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin referred to Putin—rules.

“What will happen after Putin? We can only guess,” Ignatov said.

David Brennan is the Diplomatic Correspondent of the Newsweek

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