What Ukraine needs to learn from Afghanistan
The greatest enemy of economic development is war. If the world slips further into global conflict, our economic hopes and our survival could go up in flames. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists just moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to a mere 90 seconds to midnight.
The world’s biggest economic loser last year was Ukraine, whose economy collapsed by 35 percent, the IMF reported.
The war in Ukraine might end soon, and economic recovery could begin, but this depends on Ukraine understanding its predicament as a victim of a US-Russia proxy war that broke out in 2014.
The US has been heavily arming and funding Ukraine since 2014 with the goal of expanding NATO and weakening Russia. The US’ proxy wars typically rage for years and even decades, leaving battleground countries such as Ukraine in rubble.
Unless the proxy war ends soon, Ukraine faces a dire future. Ukraine needs to learn from the horrible experience of Afghanistan to avoid becoming a long-term disaster. It could also look to the US proxy wars in Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Libya, Syria and Vietnam.
In 1979, the US armed the mujahidin — Islamist fighters — to harass the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. The US objective was to provoke the Soviet Union to intervene, to trap the Soviet Union in a costly war, former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski later explained.
That Afghanistan would be collateral damage was of no concern to US leaders.
The Soviet military entered Afghanistan in 1979 as the US hoped, and fought through the 1980s. Meanwhile, the US-backed fighters established al-Qaeda in the 1980s, and the Taliban in the early 1990s.
The US “trick” on the Soviet Union had boomeranged. In 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The US war continued for another 20 years, until the US finally left in 2021. Sporadic US military operations in Afghanistan continue.
Afghanistan lies in ruins. While the US wasted more than US$2 trillion on US military outlays, Afghanistan is impoverished, with a 2021 GDP below US$400 per person.
As a parting “gift” to Afghanistan in 2021, the US government seized Afghanistan’s tiny foreign exchange holdings, paralyzing the banking system.
The proxy war in Ukraine began nine years ago when the US government backed the overthrow of then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych’s sin from the US viewpoint was his attempt to maintain Ukraine’s neutrality despite the US desire to expand NATO to include Ukraine — and Georgia. The US’ objective was for NATO countries to encircle Russia in the Black Sea region. To achieve this goal, the US has been massively arming and funding Ukraine since 2014.
The US protagonists remain the same. The US government’s point person on Ukraine in 2014 was then-US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland, who now serves as undersecretary of state for political affairs.
In 2014, Nuland worked closely with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who held the same role when US President Joe Biden was US vice president in 2014.
The US overlooked two harsh political realities in Ukraine.
First, that Ukraine is deeply divided ethnically and politically between Russia-hating nationalists in western Ukraine and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Second, that NATO enlargement to include Ukraine crosses a Russian red line.
Russia would fight to the end, and escalate as necessary, to prevent the US from incorporating Ukraine into NATO.
The US repeatedly asserts that NATO is a defensive alliance.
However, NATO bombed Russia’s ally Serbia for 78 days in 1999 to break Kosovo away from Serbia, after which the US established a giant military base in Kosovo. NATO forces similarly toppled Russian ally Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, setting off a decade of chaos in Libya. Russia would never accept NATO in Ukraine.
At the end of 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin put forward three demands to the US: Ukraine should remain neutral and out of NATO; Crimea should remain part of Russia; and the Donbas should become autonomous in accord with the Minsk II agreement.
The Biden-Sullivan-Nuland team rejected negotiations over NATO enlargement, eight years after the same group backed Yanukovych’s overthrow. With Putin’s negotiating demands flatly rejected by the US, Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.
In March last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy seemed to understand Ukraine’s dire predicament as a victim of a US-Russia proxy war. He declared publicly that Ukraine would become a neutral country, and asked for security guarantees. He also publicly recognized that Crimea and Donbas would need some kind of special treatment.
Then-Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett became involved as a mediator, along with Turkey. Russia and Ukraine came close to reaching an agreement.
However, Bennett recently said that the US “blocked” the peace process.
Since then, the war has escalated. US agents blew up the Nord Stream pipelines in September last year, US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said.
More recently, the US and allies have committed to sending tanks, longer-range missiles and possibly jets to Ukraine.
The basis for peace is clear. Ukraine would be a neutral non-NATO country. Crimea would remain home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet, as it has been since 1783. A practical solution would be found for the Donbas, such as a territorial division, autonomy or an armistice line.
The fighting would stop, Russian troops would leave and Ukraine’s sovereignty would be guaranteed by the UN Security Council and other nations. Such an agreement could have been reached in December 2021 or in March last year.
The Ukrainian government and its people would tell Russia and the US that the nation refuses to be the battleground of a proxy war. In the face of deep internal divisions, Ukrainians on both sides of the ethnic divide would strive for peace, rather than believing that an outside power would spare them the need to compromise.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, is president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The views expressed in this column are his own.
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