How to avoid second Afganistan
Publisher's Column
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Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


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The Malaysian Boeing crash in Ukraine – a predictable “black swan” regardless of which conflicting party downed the plane – can further worsen the international political crisis around Ukraine, yet it can also act as a spur to a way out.

At this point I can see no easy solution. The reasons are many. The level of mutual mistrust in Russia and the West is going off-scale. Ukraine, ruled and torn to pieces by groups of tycoons, was made into a country of impoverishment  far behind even  Belarus and pushed it into a tragically hopeless situation. Most experts agree it will not be able to arrest its economic downfall, at least in the medium term.

The mounting crisis in Ukraine which has deteriorated into a truly international  because of the killing of nearly 300 Boeing passengers warrants an intermediate conclusion about the clash in and around Ukraine. In this situation I will attempt to offer what I believe would be a rational strategy for Russia.

Russia succeeded in winning the first phase of the crisis by bringing the sluggish information and propaganda war (which the mainstream media are still waging) to the realm of hard power and hard will. It put an end to the military and economic and political expansion of the West to the sphere of Russia’s vital interests, which had been creeping for nearly a quarter of a century. In fact, it put an end to the West’s “velvet-gloved” Versailles policy that evoked humiliation and a wish for revenge in a large part of the country’s elite and population. Bringing Crimea back into Russia was certainly a resounding success, although Russia will have to pay a high price for it.

Having lost part of its territory, Ukraine will be unable to attain NATO membership. By bringing Crimea back to its fold Russia demonstrated to the whole world its resolve to protect and promote its interest, which henceforth have to be reckoned with.

Russia made an important though not yet decisive step from the West’s domination in the international system towards a more equitable and democratic world order.

Crimea’s reunification with Russia came as a good remedy for the Weimar syndrome in a great nation whose dignity and interests had been trampled because of the West’s policy. It also brought about an upsurge of enthusiasm and revived national pride. The president’s popularity ratings soared, offering an opportunity to use the resultant political capital for pulling out of economic stagnation.

But starting from May, I have been increasingly worried that Russia might not take advantage of its victory, that it might “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

The main danger is that the Russian leadership and elite, deliberately obsessed with the crisis and locked in passionate discussions of the economic sanctions, have neither proposed nor implemented any liberal (or anti-liberal) development program while the economic downturn continues. Even those who sympathize with Russia increasingly view it as being deprived of a bright future. Quoting Chinese colleagues, “it has won a tactical victory, but strategically, it may lose.”

The key guidelines of such a program were named repeatedly on pages of this newspaper.

In this situation, the West is trying to drag Russia into a direct military conflict with Ukraine, which would actually be a second Afghanistan for Moscow. You might recall that the first one played a crucial role in the breakup of the USSR.

Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict would be a welcome development for the West, which is obvious from the statements and actions of neo-cons in the U.S. administration, as well as of Poles, Lithuanians and some Swedes. They were behind the bid to expand the West’s influence on Ukraine through the Association Agreement, contrary to Russia’s interests. And the move clearly heralded NATO’s new enlargement.

I have no direct evidence that the U.S. is trying to engineer a second Afghanistan for Russia. However, there is plenty of indirect proof.

The present-day balance of sentiments in the U.S. elite reminds one of the situation in the late 1970s. Humiliated and angered by the setback in Vietnam, the oil crisis, the growing anti-America public discontent and the Soviet Union’s strengthening of its position against this background, Washington skillfully dragged the Soviet gerontocracy into the trap of the Afghan war. Today, the desire to take Russia down a peg or two and defeat it is aimed not only at Russia, but also at the countries standing together with it or behind it – non-Western new economies that are increasingly becoming anti-Western and victorious in world competition, above all China. So the stakes have risen again.

The failures of the United States and the West on the whole after what seemed as a triumph of the 1990s look worse and more painful than the setbacks of the 1970s, adding to their desire to take it out on Russia. And today, the best revenge is to drag Russia into the war in Ukraine. The latter, too, seems to have an objective interest in continued fighting, as keeping a grip on power in a hopeless economic situation will be increasingly difficult. Among the players are not only the Ukrainian business tycoons as was the case before, but also unleashed nationalists.

Insurgents and the Russian forces behind them might be interested in further escalation, too. The Russian party of war urges through the media a massive invasion of Ukraine, staking on a pro-Russian majority in Ukraine’s southeast, apparently without good reason.

After the destruction of Boeing – regardless of who committed this crime – the insurgents and the forces sympathizing with their cause may face the choice: either withdraw or aggravate the conflict, putting the Russian leadership in a worse predicament.

Such a conflict, prone withy with increased flows of refugees and infiltration of saboteurs and terrorists, will directly threaten the regions bordering on Ukraine and Russia’s sovereignty and security. That is, the situation may become even more dangerous than the distant Afghan war.

Taking an interest in the conflict, at least in its sluggish pace, are Americans and European officials who have been irked by Russia’s diplomatic success and bravery which enabled it to play a prominent role in the international area – far greater than its economic potential. On top of that, Russia was demonstratively neglectful of the rules established by the dominating and almost victorious West, which is now rapidly weakening.

U.S. experts and politicians are apprehensive that Russia will begin to fill the voids emerging in the Middle East. These groups, as well as Europe, also fear Russia’s economic turn to the Asia-Pacific region, which can strength its position in economic and political bargain with the West. Most importantly, it would strengthen the position of not only China, but also that of U.S. allies – Japan and South Korea, as they would have more room for maneuver with lesser need for U.S. guarantees.

Preventing Ukraine from joining possible Russia-led economic and political alliances was the key and practically openly declared objective of the West’s operation in Ukraine. It seems the objective has been attained, but I doubted from the very start that Ukraine could ever become a member of such alliances. The Ukrainian elite would make every effort to resist consolidation with more competitive and capable Russian counterparts. Likewise, the corrupted Ukrainian elite – if it survives – will likewise resist unification with Europe because abiding by its rules and norms would be suicidal for it.

The trend for transatlantic rift between Europe and the U.S may slow down or even reverse. This trend could have opened prospects for the establishment of a continental union in Europe – a Union of Europe – with relations between Berlin and Moscow as its core.

It is already pretty obvious that the U.S. and associated forces in Europe have succeeded in moving relations from a brief competition in hard power and hard will, advantageous to Russia, to the domain of economic and informational confrontation where the West has been stronger so far.

At the same time, anti-modernist uncompetitive forces in the Russian elite have gained a more solid footing by playing on patriotism in an attempt to push aside more educated and efficient strata of bureaucracy and bourgeoisie. Such a scenario, or rather its radical version, already did work – after 1917.

Russia’s geopolitical rivals will use the Boeing crash to full advantage, and confrontation and attempts to isolate Russia will continue for some time. But what will happen next?

As of now, four options seem available to Russia.

First. “A wimp out” similar to what happened in 1991, with slogans calling for a “newer political thinking.” Hopefully, this scenario will not be considered.

Second. “A status quo”. Russia can de facto support the simmering conflict in Ukraine. This option implies the opponent takes the initiative (which is already happening now) and the game will be played in his field where he is stronger. This scenario is fraught with a whole flock of “black swans” or slipping into massive military intervention, a sort of Afghanistan-2.

Third. “Afghanistan-2.” Escalation of the conflict and massive invasion in the hope of bringing Kiev to its knees and/or split Ukraine. I believe that this scenario is so dangerous that accepting it is inadmissible.

Fourth. This option, though not easy, is most advantageous. Russia, which has successfully attained its minimum objective, should have its victory firmly proclaimed. NATO will not enlarge, Crimea is now Russia’s and the immediate objective is not to get bogged down in a big war. Moscow should continue to put pressure on Ukraine by economic and political tools, exposing inevitable mass violations of human rights. Ukraine must learn to live on its own money, without subsidies and easy terms. Let us see how Kiev and its current masters will be able to handle it.

Russia can and should take a cautious view of Europe’s digression from many of its traditional values. Yet proclaiming that “Russia is not Europe” would not only discard the key three centuries following  Peter the Great, but actually means that the Horde still triumphed, despite Prince Dmitry Donskoy and his associates’ victory in the Kulikovo field.

Russia, for the sake of preserving its identity and culture, should reiterate its intention to build, over time, an economic and humane Union of Europe with visa-free travel, and an energy union with uniform rules. Perhaps, these efforts should include cooperation with Europe in helping Ukraine survive.

Russia will seek to form a union like that from a new position, leaning on de facto allies’ relations with China, on the expanding and more active Shanghai Cooperation Organization, on the Eurasian Economic Community (even if it has no Ukraine in its ranks), and on a new foreign policy obviously needed in the Asia-Pacific region which is in active motion.

The Russian government and the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East have already brought forward a concept for the development of the eastern regions. The program is quite modern compared with previous plans. It would be impermissible to miss the opportunities opening up in the East – for the first time in Russian history – just because of the crisis engineered in the West.

Moscow’s reiterating and active pursuing its line towards economic and political integration of the Asia-Pacific countries can be a crucial element of successful withdrawal from the apparently blind alley of the Ukrainian crisis.

Russia should welcome as heroes the fearless people who fought for their rights in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who will refuse to live in Ukraine the way it is now must be given shelter and jobs in Russian regions experiencing severe shortages of labor force. These provinces make a majority. Immigrants sharing the same culture are a tremendous asset in the development of any country.

This policy line is humane, patriotic and rational. Of course, the abovesaid is just an outline and will certainly cause a storm of criticism from all sides. But, using diplomatic parlance of the past – Is there a reasonable alternative?

Lastly, I’m never tired of repeating that Russian society, the president and the elites should demand from each other that a decisive strategy of socio-economic development and reform be formulated and implemented. We should not miss the opportunities created by Crimea. Otherwise we will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

| Karaganov.ru