The year is 1978. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan has ousted the central government in Kabul after a swift coup d’état. Promising a secular liberal democracy, socialist land reforms and an emphasis on high living standards, the PDPA’s rise to power is immediately welcomed by the Soviet Union.
Economic and military aid begins flowing from Moscow to Kabul, giving the PDPA the means to build hospitals, colleges, power plants and schools, and enforce the rule of law against militia groups and insurgents. The PDPA hopes to transform Afghanistan into a bustling, cosmopolitan nation, and soon after, a friendship pact is drawn up with the Soviets. For all intents and purposes, the Soviet Union has just found a new ally in the Middle East, and peace looked like it was finally on the horizon of Afghanistan’s future.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. isn’t happy that the Soviets are making friends. President Carter abandons his emphasis on human rights, and signs a secret directive which approves financial aid to enemies of the PDPA – including the various Islamic Mujahideen groups. Pouring gasoline on the fire, the CIA begins arming the Mujahideen as they try to overthrow the government. When Reagan takes over from Carter, he describes the Mujahideen as “an inspiration to those who love freedom”. Among the Mujahideen is Osama Bin Laden. Oops.
The PDPA urges the Soviets to send in troops, which they finally do, albeit reluctantly. The world condemns “Soviet aggression” in the Middle East, the U.S. acts outraged, and the UN demands the Soviets leave Afghanistan alone. According to then-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the goal was to destabilize Afghanistan’s government to “induce a Soviet military intervention” and bog them down in a conflict they couldn’t win. It worked.
Any attempts to draw a parallel between Afghanistan in the 80’s and Ukraine today would be foolhardy. The players have changed, the politics are different, and Ukraine has much stronger ethnic, cultural and historic ties to Russia. But those who do not learn from history are indeed doomed to repeat it, and the Ukrainian crisis is not totally unlike Afghanistan’s descent into chaos. There are things to be learned from Afghanistan.
For one thing, American-Russian relations are once more very cold, and two new players looking to expand their ideological influence have joined the fray: NATO, a militarized defensive pact that was started to combat communism across Europe, and the EU, an economic union which favours capitalism, central banking, and neoliberalism. If one considers NATO and the EU to be allies with the U.S. (the U.S. is after all a member of NATO), then the Americans’ power has tripled, whilst Russia’s has stagnated at best.
Russia doesn’t have the same influence it did as the central state in the Soviet Union. Take a look at the maps below, and you’ll see that a lot of its former Warsaw Pact allies, satellite states or direct neighbours have fled Eastern influence and joined the U.S-NATO-EU tripartite alliance.
Out of the sixteen nations to join the EU since 1995, nine have been under direct Russian influence.
Out of the twelve nations to join NATO since 1999, ten have been under direct Russian influence.
Whether intentional or not (I think intentional), the U.S-NATO-EU tripartite alliance has drained Russia of its European power. No wonder Putin annexed Crimea in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis – Sevastopol is home to Russia’s black sea fleet and a strategically vital port, and any attempt to ‘Westernize’ Ukraine and bring it closer to the EU would surely be regarded a threat to Russia’s influence over Crimea.
Let’s say you’re the leader of superpower. What’s the best way to poke the Russian bear? First, pull all former communist countries away from Russia, neoliberalize and Westernize them, and allow them to become members of international agreements that Russia perceives as a threat to its interests (NATO and the EU). Expand rival defense pacts right to Russia’s border. Then, surround Russia with military bases all across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Just imagine if Russia put bases in Mexico and Canada.
From Norway to Japan, Canada to Thailand, American military bases across the globe are highlighted in bright red. Russia’s are highlighted in light blue. Countries where both powers have bases are highlighted in purple.
The U.S. has military bases in nineteen European countries – Russia has bases in two.
NATO has twenty-eight members – the CSTO (Russia’s version) has six.
The EU has twenty-eight members – the EEU (Russia’s version) has four.
While conspiratorial claims that the U.S. is supporting neo-Nazis in the Donbass region have failed to gain any credibility, President Obama has openly admitted brokering a U.S-friendly regime change in Ukraine, and its aid agencies have funnelled money to Ukraine to promote democracy (but this is neither sinister nor unique to Ukraine).
Yet again, a Russian leader has fallen for the ever-so-tasty bait left by the U.S. and its cronies, and sent in the troops.
Vladimir Putin is a homophobic, ultraconservative monstrosity with no regard for human rights or free speech. His economic policies have allowed for the emergence of a new oligarchic class, whilst his foreign policy goals have put troops in harms way at least twice during his reign – first in Georgia, then in Ukraine. It’s irredentism in practice, exacerbated by Putin’s fears that his proverbial testicles are about to be cut off.
But his actions are not the spontaneous tantrums of a deranged madman like Stalin. As unjustified as his interventions may be, common sense dictates that the more you shove somebody into a corner, the more likely they are to shove back. The expansion of NATO and the EU to Russia’s door is that first shove, and Putin’s invasions of Crimea (and, to a lesser extent Georgia) are the shove back. Nor should one ignore the infestation of U.S. military bases across the globe, littered near Russia’s contiguous border from Finland to South Korea.
In short, the reasons for the instability in Ukraine cannot be divorced from the expansion of NATO and the EU over the past decade. As John J. Mearsheimer points out in his aptly-named article “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault“:
Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement, and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion. For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president — which he rightly labeled a “coup” — was the final straw […] This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.