Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is being invoked not only as a “paradigm shift” on the scale of 9/11, but also as the end of the 9/11 era. As we watch images of Russian tanks rolling down the streets of Ukrainian cities and see the rubble of apartment buildings, theaters, and malls destroyed by Russian missiles, George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror and the counterinsurgency campaigns that emerged from it now feel like distant history.
At the same time, the experiences and memories of America’s post 9/11 wars have emerged as important touchstones in the current conflict. Especially in the minds of the individuals involved in those wars, the 9/11 era and whatever comes after it are inextricably linked.
In recent weeks, Eliot Cohen has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the public debate about the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For those who may not remember, Cohen co-founded the neoconservative Project for the New American Century in 1997, played a key role in pressing for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and served as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during the final year of the George W. Bush administration.
While seeking to avoid a direct conflict with Russia, Cohen has been urging the United States to increase its military, intelligence, and training assistance to the beleaguered Ukrainians. “The United States and its Western partners must help nourish an insurgency that will cause the occupiers to bitterly regret, and then reverse, their attempt to crush Ukrainian independence,” he wrote in The Atlanticon February 22.
Cohen’s vision of the Ukrainian resistance as an “insurgency” that destroys Russia in a long and grinding counterinsurgency war comes directly from U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing is peppered with “lessons” on America's recent counterinsurgency failures. “As the United States discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how large, technologically advanced, and proficient an army is, motivated insurgents can still inflict casualties in the tens of thousands.”
Disillusioned by their experiences in these wars, many of the thousands of U.S. veterans who have dropped everything to go to Ukraine and join the fight against Russia see the crisis in Ukraine as a moral reckoning with their past. As one veteran involved in coordinating the volunteer efforts put it, “It’s a conflict that has a clear good and bad side, and maybe that stands apart from other recent conflicts.”
Counterinsurgency is back, although this time we get to be on the side of the insurgents, and our own counterinsurgency failures of the past become the basis for imagining Russia’s dark future.
Switching insurgency and counterinsurgency roles with Russia is part of longer American tradition. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, National Security Adviser Zbiginiew Brzezinski penned a memo to President Carter in which he wrote, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”
This vision became part of a broader popular mythology around the war. It is literally the plot of the movie Rambo 3. Released in 1988, the movie is perhaps best known for being one of the most violent and gruesome in the pantheon of Hollywood war films. But on closer inspection, it is also a very therapeutic movie, healing a national psyche wounded by its role as the perpetrator of a brutal counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. When we first meet John Rambo, he is living out his days in a monastery in Thailand. The reluctant warrior soon learns that his friend, Colonel Sam Trautman, has been captured by the Soviets in Afghanistan and agrees to participate in a secret CIA mission there.
The film traces Rambo’s transformation from disillusioned veteran of America’s failed counterinsurgency war in Vietnam into inspired superhero ally in the mujahideen insurgency against the Soviets. The role switch from counterinsurgency to insurgency also entails a moral transformation. Rambo, the guilty agent of imperial violence, becomes Rambo the heroic defender of the Afghan people. In one scene, Soviet helicopters loom overhead while Rambo and his mujahideen friends play “sheep ball” on horseback below. Later, bombarded by these helicopters, Rambo finds his way to the Stinger Missile — notably supplied by the Americans — and successfully shoots down his Russian nemesis from the sky.
Americans are no longer in the helicopters but on the ground with the people on the receiving end of the bombs.
In a climactic scene toward the end, a bare chested and bleeding Rambo evokes the image of a musclebound Jesus on the cross. He musters all his courage, pushes a lodged arrowhead through his torso, and burns his flesh to cauterize the wound. In true American superhero fashion, Rambo saves Trautman against all odds. The disillusioned Vietnam vet has been reborn as the heroic savior. Without having to martyr himself, Rambo nonetheless redeems America of the sins it committed in Vietnam.
When audiences flocked to theaters to watch Rambo 3, the Soviet Union’s counterinsurgency nightmare in Afghanistan had already become reality. The Soviets underestimated the strength of the opposition and overestimated that of the Afghan army to suppress it. The long and protracted war put an economic burden on an already overstretched economy. It also damaged Soviet relations with other nations in the “third world” and undermined efforts at rapprochement with the West.
Most importantly, it provoked opposition from within the Soviet Union. Gorbachev called it “the bleeding wound” and made ending the war a top priority when he came to power in 1985. The effects of the war played a key role in the breakdown and dissolution of the Soviet system.
Of course, U.S. support of the Afghan insurgency would come back to haunt it decades later. When the mujahideen heroes of the Reagan years became the bad “insurgents” of the post- 9/11 era, the U.S. switched roles once again and dusted off the old counterinsurgency playbook.
If a negotiated settlement is not reached soon, the Hollywood version of Russia’s future counterinsurgency nightmare may soon become reality. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a gross miscalculation. He did not anticipate the strength of the Ukrainian resistance or grasp the limits of the Russian military to suppress it. Against all odds, the conflict has reached a stalemate.
Although Russia has not been able to topple the Zelensky regime, the proxy war is escalating, with the US and NATO increasing military support to Ukraine, while still avoiding direct war with Russia. If Putin refrains from using nuclear weapons, but refuses to withdraw from Ukraine, Russia may very well be in for a long and protracted counterinsurgency campaign.
That would be very bad for the Putin regime, demoralizing the Russian military, draining the Russian economy, fueling domestic protest, and deepening the international community’s moral opposition to the occupation. At the same time, Putin’s counterinsurgency nightmare would not necessarily be good for Ukraine or the countries supporting it. Even Cohen admits that fueling a Ukrainian insurgency is a “risky” endeavor that could prolong and escalate the current conflict and perhaps even fuel a future one. It is a calculated risk. There is no way to know for sure what will happen.
Regardless of what the future holds, there is something deeply disturbing about the American reinvention of itself from “bad” counterinsurgency to “good” friend of insurgency. The role-switching amounts to an act of atonement without a real confession. By projecting its guilty past onto Russia, America is freed of its post 9/11 sins without really having to reckon with them.
The impunity of America in Iraq has not been lost upon Vladmir Putin. In his desire to restore Russia’s past imperial glory, some have argued that he saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example to emulate. Transgression of sovereignty. The use of shock and awe tactics. Open pursuit of regime change. Blatant lying about the enemy’s chemical weapons. Putin watched as the United States got away with these things in a country halfway across the world and believed that he could do the same in a region with much closer historical and cultural ties to Russia.
For obvious reasons, Cohen’s projection of America’s past onto Russia’s future doesn’t include these analogies. To mention them in the context of Russia’s current siege of Ukraine is a form of sacrilege in respectable national security circles. Hence, the center-right backlash when the connection is made. It’s a new era. We’re on the “good” side now. But you cynics just can’t get admit it. So you wallow in our “bad” past.
It’s as though we must be innocent in order for Russia to be guilty. In this zero-sum game, the sins of America’s post 9/11 wars must be expiated in order to hold Russia accountable in the present. But our historical and moral imagination need not be so simple or schematic. While depriving America of its innocence, underscoring the enduring legacy of America’s post 9/11 wars doesn’t make Putin any less responsible for the current invasion.
Ultimately, Rambo 3is a fantasy of ablution that is always in the process of undoing itself. As we watch Rambo fight alongside the mujahideen, we are constantly reminded of the very thing the fantasy is asking us to forget — the Vietnam War. That is the enduring truth of the film.
Try as they might, neither America nor Russia can fully launder its war crimes through the other. And as we grapple with tough decisions about how best to counter Putin’s aggression, we should be wise enough to remember our own.
Hannah Gurman teaches U.S. history and American Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She has written and edited several books on the history of U.S. foreign relations, including The Dissent Papers: The Voices of U.S. Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond (2012); Hearts and Minds: A People’s History of Counterinsurgency; and (with Kaeten Mistry) Whistleblowing Nation: The History of U.S. National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy.
Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III in 1988.(screengrab from trailer/you tube/tri star pictures)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.