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.