Our rivalry with Russia will define us

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Towards the end of the movie Patton, George C. Scott, who plays the eponymous general, is invited to a banquet organized by the Soviet High Command to celebrate its impending victory over Nazi Germany. When Patton’s Soviet counterpart, General Mikhail Katukov, suggests that he and Patton toast to each other, Patton responds through an interpreter: “My compliments to the General, please inform him that I don’t care to drink with him or any other Russian. Son of a bitch.” The interpreter tells Patton he can’t convey that, but Patton insists. General Katukov responds through the interpreter that he thinks Patton is “a son of a bitch too” Patton laughed. “I’ll drink to that,” he said. “One son of a bitch to another.”

Our rivalries define us — or, at least, our national security strategies. In the 80 years since the armies of Patton and Katukov met in Germany, our two countries have played opposing roles in many conflicts. America has been the counter-insurgent of the Russian insurgent (Vietnam, Laos, Angola) and vice versa (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua). The lessons we learned in war, we often learned from each other.

This tradition continues as we mark the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul and the war in Ukraine enters its sixth month. NATO’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened Vladimir Putin as he considered whether to invade Ukraine, as did his visions of restoring Russia to its borders as they were defined before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a collapse precipitated by its own misadventure in Afghanistan. As the war in Ukraine deepens, the American experience in Afghanistan should remain a priority. This is especially true in three categories: time, alliances, and manpower.

A saying from the war in Afghanistan was that the Americans had the watches, but the Taliban had the time. The point was not necessarily that the Americans should have fought longer, but that we were still publicly looking for a way out. Indeed, in the 20 years of conflict, we were never more than 24 months away from an announced troop withdrawal. Our inability to convince allies and adversaries of our superior resolve allowed the Taliban to outsmart us by convincing the Afghan people that their presence would last far beyond that of NATO and the Afghan government.

Russian strategists, mindful of the US-Taliban dynamic in Afghanistan, understand that the key to outsmarting your opponent in time is convincing him you have more. The first phase of the Russian war plan relied on a lightning-fast advance to push the Ukrainians into surrender. When this advance stopped, the Russians regrouped. They have gone from a war of maneuver to a war of attrition. Unlike the American war machine, the Russian war machine has a habit of grinding its opposition to dust in the attrition wars in Chechnya, Syria and now eastern Ukraine. None of these campaigns lasted until 20 years, but they did not need it.

Maintaining alliances is another area where the American experience in Afghanistan is in conversation with the Russian experience in Ukraine. In Afghanistan, America has too often sidelined NATO member countries. From President Donald Trump’s direct negotiations with the Taliban to President Joe Biden’s uncoordinated withdrawal, US unilateralism has eroded NATO’s credibility in Afghanistan, weakening the alliance. And the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan marked one of NATO’s darkest moments.

In Ukraine, Russia will look for opportunities to precipitate the kind of NATO dysfunction that characterized events in Afghanistan a year ago. The Russians also know that their success in Ukraine will not depend on their ability to cultivate proxies – like Belarus – but on their ability to cultivate partners, particularly China.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s oil imports have hit an all-time high, rising 55% last year. Recent attempts by the United States and other NATO members to curb Russian oil exports, or at least cap the price of Russian oil, have been met with resistance from China. Its Commerce Department has so far pushed back on those efforts, telling US Treasury officials that the price of Russian oil remains a “very complicated issue”.

Economic sanctions against Russia are only as strong as the alliance of nations that agree to implement them – or as weak as the alliance that forms to push them back. Economic difficulties aside, a Russian strategy of attrition will only work if it does not transmute too much pain onto the Russian people. America was able to sustain its protracted war in Afghanistan because it reduced casualties and relied on an all-volunteer force. Russia has neither the advantage of low casualties nor enough volunteers.

According to some estimates, Russia suffered 30,000 dead in the first six months of the war; that’s 10 times the total number killed in the US war in Afghanistan and double the number of Soviets killed there. Last May, faced with a conscription deficit, the Duma widened the age of eligibility for enlistment to those over 40, while making dubious claims that such conscripts would see no action in Ukraine.

Putin’s persistent insistence on classifying Europe’s biggest war since World War II as a “special military operation” shows his political vulnerability to Russia’s excessive bloodshed. The American political class has effectively waged the war in Afghanistan into the recesses of American consciousness. The outcome of the war in Ukraine may well hinge on Putin’s ability to do the same.

The war in Ukraine is another bloody chapter in the US-Russian version of an eternal conflict, in which the two nations fight and learn from each other, sometimes from afar, through a seemingly endless succession of victories and defeats.

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