From the everlasting fountain of bad ideas that is the Washington establishment now comes another one: turn Ukraine into an Iraq- or Afghanistan-style quagmire for Russia.
This idea has been floating around national security circles for a while. But with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s become explicit. Hillary Clinton pointed to the Soviet quagmire in 1980s Afghanistan, where there were “a lot of countries supplying arms and advice and even some advisors to those who were recruited to fight Russia,” adding that it was “the model that people are now looking toward.” Both experts and the Biden administration and its allies are now predicting this very thing, with Biden having explored and planned for the idea since late last year, and US and European officials now reportedly discussing it. Biden’s somewhat cryptic allusion in his State of the Union address to Russian president Vladimir Putin having to “pay a continuing high price over the long run” hints at such plans.
In other words, it seems more than likely that this — Washington and other NATO governments supporting a long-term Ukrainian insurgency that will do to Russia what twenty years in Afghanistan did to the United States — is shaping up as the most likely endgame for all this. It’s also an unbelievably awful idea.
Let’s think about what this means for the welfare of the Ukrainians themselves. Having to live in a permanent war zone doesn’t tend to promote health and long life. Nearly twenty-thousand Afghan civilians were killed in the last twelve years of that occupation alone, while by one count, a little under 108,000 Iraqi civilians were killed from the year after the invasion to the US withdrawal in 2011. Even after the US exit (which did not end up being permanent), nearly ninety thousand civilians were killed in the years since, thanks to the conditions created by the US war.
And that doesn’t even take into account the health and other impacts that will come with the ongoing destruction of infrastructure and perpetual disruption of life and economic activity in Ukraine, nor what could happen when you saturate one of Europe’s largest arms trafficking markets with weaponry.
Besides this, a forever war would mean increased repression of ordinary Ukrainians on both sides, and, given the country’s various cultural, ethnic, and political divisions, would likely see the mini–civil war that’s engulfed its eastern regions the past eighty years spread across the country, as rival groups vie for power. Perversely, it’s the people most eager to consign the people of Ukraine to years, possibly decades, of this hell who will most loudly tell you how much their hearts bleed for them.
There are also significant risks for the United States and the West. At one point in her MSNBC interview, Hillary Clinton smirked before mentioning “there were other unintended consequences” of Washington’s support for the 1980s anti-Soviet mujahideen that she sees as a model for this war. This is a jarringly flippant way to mention the September 11 attack, the culmination of US support for extremists in Afghanistan decades earlier, and something Clinton seemed to find less funny seven years ago.
Nevertheless, it points to a major danger here. Ever since Ukraine’s east descended into war eight years ago following the 2014 revolution, Ukraine has become a Mecca for far-right extremists around the world, including in the United States, taking inspiration from and even traveling to establish contact with and learn from their Ukrainian counterparts.
Already with this war, the world’s neo-Nazis and other white supremacists are among the thousands of foreign fighters pouring into the country, viewing it as training for violence they plan to carry out back home — including in what they think is the coming “boogaloo,” or second US civil war. This has gone shockingly under-discussed in mainstream reporting, even though battling homegrown white supremacists served as the leading rationale for both Joe Biden’s presidency and the liberal opposition to Trump, and the idea of an armed far-right takeover obsessed much of the US political establishment for the past year.
A dragged out, Afghanistan-style quagmire means more opportunities for combat training for these extremists, who will do God knows what when they come home (and whose violence will then, conveniently, be used to justify God-knows-what expansion of the national security state). It also means a swarm of far-right militias, with access to the Western weapons that have flooded the country and the NATO training provided to those extremists in Ukraine’s armed forces, all hanging out on Europe’s doorstep.
Then there’s the nukes. As awful as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, they didn’t carry nearly the same nuclear risk a prolonged war in Ukraine would, given the involvement — direct and indirect — of governments that control the world’s two largest nuclear stockpiles. Remember, too, that NATO members France and the UK, who’ll presumably be involved in backing the insurgency, hold more than two hundred nuclear warheads each.
There’s always the risk that fighting could spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders and into nearby NATO member countries, which draw the entirety of Western Europe into a conflict with Russia. The last few years have seen US debate over the idea of stationing nukes in neighboring Poland, potentially the location of a Ukrainian government-in-exile led by current president Volodymyr Zelensky.
We’re only twelve days into Moscow’s invasion, and we’ve already had some alarming, nuclear-tinged episodes, from Putin putting his nuclear weapons on high alert partly in response to Western sanctions, to shelling and a fire at the compound that holds Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The longer fighting goes on, the more chance there is for similar potential disasters, which we may not be able to narrowly avoid every single time.
Finally, it would mean extending the profound economic disruption that Putin’s invasion has only made worse. We’re still finding out what exactly happens when you try to cripple and embargo an economy that makes up 3 percent of the world’s GDP, is the world’s third-biggest oil producer, the fourth-largest wheat exporter, and provides 40 percent of the EU’s gas supplies. Already energy prices are rocketing up, sending the price of everything else soaring, with worse predicted to come.
Even if Western governments find a replacement source of energy, and even if they lift sanctions once they embroil Moscow into a never-ending Ukrainian war, turning the former Soviet republic into a permanent war zone will have its own ripple effects, given Ukraine’s status as the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat. We may well look around the world and see more popular anger, more political instability, not to mention more hunger. And if central bank technocrats continue to use the conditions to keep financial conditions tight, it will mean punishment for workers everywhere, and possibly even the return of stagflation.
And that’s not even getting to the issue of climate change, easily the most dire threat to global security, and one that looks to continue being ignored if the world simply splits into competing blocs instead of collaborating to prevent catastrophe.
In short, besides being deeply cynical and heartless, turning Ukraine into Iraq or Afghanistan would mean continuing civilian deaths and suffering, a terrible risk of far-right blowback, permanent heightened nuclear tensions, and an open-ended prolonging and even worsening of these tough economic conditions. That wouldn’t be good for anyone: not for the world’s poor, not for ordinary Russians, not for Europe, not for ordinary Americans, and certainly not for Ukrainians.
There is no military solution to this war that doesn’t make things much, much worse. It may not sound as viscerally satisfying, but the solution to this is the same one that was rejected in the lead-up to this invasion, that numerous leading foreign policy voices urged, and which looks better every day this horrible war goes on: a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement that guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity (and gives Moscow a road back from what at this point looks like a disastrous miscalculation) while addressing Russia’s long-standing security concerns. Ideally that would be followed by aggressive investment in transitioning away from fossil fuels, undermining the ability of all oil and gas–toting autocrats to bully their smaller neighbors and flout international law.
We’re told to “look at US support for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s” to understand why turning Ukraine into Afghanistan is a good idea. But this example should tell us everything about the danger of unintended consequences, and our inability to control the outcomes of reckless adventurism. Western governments have blundered into too many self-inflicted disasters already. Why not, just this once, try learning from our mistakes?