The United States’ refusal to enter a direct military confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary raises the question of what actions short of conventional war should be considered to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian domination. We are increasingly hearing calls for the United States to step up its irregular warfare efforts: train and arm Ukrainian guerrillas, increase aid and political support to pro-democracy groups in exile or underground, and sabotage Russia’s post-war plans in Ukraine.
Russia’s reemergence as an American adversary makes it nearly automatic to consider such strategies, which we also relied on during the Cold War. But we should not let the fact that we “won” the Cold War doom us to repeat some of its costliest mistakes. The United States should support Ukrainians and others in their effort to remain independent. But Washington should offer this support with more care, conditions, and long-term commitment. Here, we highlight four mistakes and pitfalls to avoid.
Arming new insurgents at the expense of existing governance
The long-term results of U.S. support for the Afghan Mujahideen are well-known, but the lessons from this period are more nuanced than many assume. In the first stages of the war, after the Soviets invaded in 1979 to prop up the fragile communist government, the United States funded and armed the resistance, which made the Soviet war far longer than it would otherwise have been. The length of this war eroded traditional local governance and social institutions. Prewar elites — like Afghan intellectuals and khans — disappeared or fled; and U.S. military aid created a new class of militarized regional power brokers.
Would aiding Ukrainian and other resistance fighters to Russian occupation produce similar results? The short answer is no. Ukraine’s political institutions and popular support for the existing government are very different from those of Afghanistan in the late 1970s. But the lesson that prolonged war erodes governance capacity and that an influx of aid — military and otherwise — gives rise to new, less predictable warriors and power brokers still holds. For example, while Russia has vastly exaggerated the influence of right-wing extremists in Ukraine’s politics, these groups are now more empowered because of their unity with other Ukrainian nationalists as they defend against Russian control. Ukraine’s challenges with corruption and the role of oligarchs in Ukrainian politics also make unmonitored infusions of money and arms potentially harmful in the long term.
Inflating adversary intentions
It is difficult to judge how Afghanistan might have fared without the U.S. decision to counter the Soviet invasion in the first place. But there was initially a debate within the Carter administration on the intent behind it. Ultimately, Washington acted on the fear that the invasion of Afghanistan was a first step in taking control of Persian Gulf oil. Soviet expansionism was a key concern of cold warriors watching the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran; and also seeing Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua come under Soviet influence.
Soviet goals, as we came to understand, were less grandiose. After the Iranian revolution, they sought to keep Afghanistan from becoming Islamist (and therefore anti-communist), fearing repercussions for Muslim Soviet Republics. They also thought the new leader of Afghanistan’s communist government was going too fast in reforms, losing control, causing instability, and working for the CIA.
In hindsight, it’s clearer that the Soviets were motivated more by their internal security problems rather than expansionism. Diplomatic intervention or neglect, rather than armed opposition, may have been better courses of action for U.S. security in the long run — but were impossible once President Reagan’s re-commitment to confronting Soviet expansionism came to dominate U.S. decision-making.
Are we currently misunderstanding Putin’s intention to violently assert Russian control over nations that have now charted an independent course for decades? Probably not. But his motivations do matter. Today too, some Russia experts emphasize the internal rather than expansionist motivations of Russia’s invasion, but as the war deepens, their perspectives will become less popular. We should take care that our resolve to help the Ukrainian government and people does not cloud our judgment on Russian motivations. Previous eras have shown that voices for restraint or patience get drowned out when threats and perceptions of threat increase.
The unintended consequences of our political support
Politics is unpredictable and there is no way to anticipate every effect of our actions. One important question to consider, however, is about political backlash. U.S. involvement during the Salvadoran civil war is often remembered for its enormous human costs, but we should also recall the backlash created by U.S. political support for El Salvador’s moderates. Toward the beginning of the war, the United States tried to consolidate the power of the moderate ruling faction at the expense of extremists on both the far-right and left wings of Salvadoran politics.
Despite robust resourcing and a ground-level understanding of the various actors, the effort failed because Washington did not anticipate that U.S. interference would produce a political backlash. U.S. involvement and advocacy for economic reforms led to the formation of a far right-wing political faction. Its leadership was ultimately responsible for the grisly way in which the Salvadoran military carried out the war against the left-wing insurgency. The Salvadoran civil war highlights that even when resources and expertise were in place, and even when the United States supported actors with governing capacity and moderate approaches, the U.S. effort to help one faction galvanized the opposition.
A second important question in trying to anticipate consequences is about the motivations of U.S. allies. In Afghanistan, the depth of U.S. reliance on Pakistan to manage the factions within the Mujahideen created harmful consequences. Pakistan’s investment in Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s faction not only undermined the influence of arguably better post-conflict clients, but injected a spoiler effect into the peace accords and formation of a new government. The results may have been in line with Pakistan’s quest for greater strategic depth against India, but they did not support U.S. interests.
Betraying our values and long-term governance goals
Several Western commentaries have rightly identified the inconsistent logic in China’s quiet support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: it betrays China’s values of noninterference and territorial integrity. The Biden administration’s actions so far, by contrast, have been consistent with the best of U.S. values. The administration demonstrated the value of transparency by declassifying evidence of Russian military build-up at Ukraine’s borders and exposing Russia’s fabricated pretexts for war. It also demonstrated the value of U.S. allied relationships by waiting for European partners to sign on to the more far-reaching sanctions on Russia’s financial system.
But if Ukrainians continue a longer-term fight for their independence, operations that may have a strategic payoff but are misaligned with U.S. values will look tempting. In this context, the Cold War is useful for remembering some of the darker history of U.S. statecraft. U.S. clandestine operations during the Cold War were notorious for providing target lists that facilitated regime purges. The lesson sent to friendly regimes was that their U.S. patrons will look the other way at their crimes.
While cold warriors may look back at such actions as regrettable but necessary, the residents of these lands have found them catastrophic. Strategic competition today is in part a contest for legitimacy — the moral right to lead in the international system. The United States cannot afford to squander this legitimacy — already eroded through its Cold War excesses and post-Cold War disasters.
One of the most infamous examples of a moral failure in U.S. foreign policy is the decision to illegally arm the Contras in Nicaragua through covert weapons sales to Iran. The Iran Contra affair shows the perverse incentives of covert operations in democratic societies — secrecy is prioritized even at the expense of checks and balances so that irregular warfare becomes a private enterprise. It showcased to the world that the United States has both a secret and a public foreign policy, challenging our efforts to build trust and confidence with our allies.
Cold War efforts of bolstering friendly political actors and furnishing military aid to insurgents sometimes failed but many were short-term successes. In the longer run, however, they often harmed national and global security. Events did not unfold the way U.S. policy makers expected because wartime politics in particular are difficult to predict. What we can predict is that war changes existing power and governance structures. Distributing arms and interfering deeply in others’ politics creates backlash, and engenders more intractable security problems in the future.
In considering these mistakes and the dire situation in Ukraine, the United States should carefully develop plans to support a government in exile and game out the next stages of guerrilla operations. President Zelensky is an inspirational leader, but what if the worse befalls him or his coalition falters —who will Washington support and how will that change the battlespace? Planners should think through long-term risks and mitigation efforts, and how their strategies will survive changes of U.S. administrations. Ultimately, such planning may save Europe from a long war, affirm the international order, and showcase the legitimacy of U.S. global leadership.
Rameez Abbas is Associate Professor at the National Defense University, where she teaches courses on South Asian politics, statecraft, and the Muslim world. She has also been Lecturer and Program Coordinator at the MA in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Editor and Publications Manager at the Migration Policy Institute. Her research is at the intersection of religion, citizenship, and migration; and has appeared in several publications, including Foreign Affairs and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. She holds a PhD in political science from Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.
Matthew Dearing is an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, in Washington, D.C. He is author of Militia Order in Afghanistan: Guardians or Gangsters? (Routledge 2021). The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.
Ukrainian National Guard during January's Day of Unity in Odessa, 2022. (Shutterstock/VyacheslavOnishchenko)|Image: Mark Time Author via shutterstock.com
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.