Biden is making a colossal mistake in thinking he can bleed Russia dry, topple Putin and signal to China to keep its hands off Taiwan...
“The language people speak in the corridors of power,” former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter once observed, “is not economics or politics. It is history.”
In a recent academic article, I showed how true this was after both the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and the “9/15” bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Policy makers used all kinds of historical analogies as they reacted. “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today,” President George W. Bush noted in his diary, late on the night of the attacks, to give just one example, though many other parallels were drawn in the succeeding days, from the Civil War to the Cold War.
Seven years later, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and New York Fed President Tim Geithner were the first members of the Federal Open Market Committee to appreciate that, without drastic measures, they risked re-running the Great Depression.
What kind of history is informing today’s decisions in Washington as the war in Ukraine nears the conclusion of its first month? A few clues have emerged.
“American officials are divided on how much the lessons from Cold War proxy wars, like the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, can be applied to the ongoing war in Ukraine,” David Sanger reported for the New York Times on Saturday.
According to Sanger, who cannot have written his piece without high-level sources, the Biden administration “seeks to help Ukraine lock Russia in a quagmire without inciting a broader conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary or cutting off potential paths to de-escalation … CIA officers are helping to ensure that crates of weapons are delivered into the hands of vetted Ukrainian military units, according to American officials. But as of now, Mr. Biden and his staff do not see the utility of an expansive covert effort to use the spy agency to ferry in arms as the United States did in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union during the 1980s.”
Reading this carefully, I conclude that the U.S. intends to keep this war going. The administration will continue to supply the Ukrainians with anti-aircraft Stingers, antitank Javelins and explosive Switchblade drones. It will keep trying to persuade other North Atlantic Treaty Organization governments to supply heavier defensive weaponry. (The latest U.S. proposal is for Turkey to provide Ukraine with the sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft system, which Ankara purchased from Moscow just a few years ago. I expect it to go the way of the scuttled plan for Polish MiG fighters.) Washington will revert to the Afghanistan-after-1979 playbook of supplying an insurgency only if the Ukrainian government loses the conventional war.
I have evidence from other sources to corroborate this. “The only end game now,” a senior administration official was heard to say at a private event earlier this month, “is the end of Putin regime. Until then, all the time Putin stays, [Russia] will be a pariah state that will never be welcomed back into the community of nations. China has made a huge error in thinking Putin will get away with it. Seeing Russia get cut off will not look like a good vector and they’ll have to re-evaluate the Sino-Russia axis. All this is to say that democracy and the West may well look back on this as a pivotal strengthening moment.”
I gather that senior British figures are talking in similar terms. There is a belief that “the U.K.’s No. 1 option is for the conflict to be extended and thereby bleed Putin.” Again and again, I hear such language. It helps explain, among other things, the lack of any diplomatic effort by the U.S. to secure a cease-fire. It also explains the readiness of President Joe Biden to call Putin a war criminal.
Now, I may be too pessimistic. I would very much like to share Francis Fukuyama’s optimism that “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine.” Here is his bold prediction from March 10 (also here):
The collapse of their position could be sudden and catastrophic, rather than happening slowly through a war of attrition. The army in the field will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize. … Putin will not survive the defeat of his army … A Russian defeat will make possible a “new birth of freedom,” and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.
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