Russia has been baited into a repeat of the Afghan Trap: first time as tragedy, second time as sickening farce.
The term ‘bait and bleed’ was defined by International Relations theorist John Mearsheimer in 2001 as a military strategy that “involves causing two rivals to engage in a protracted war, so that they bleed each other white, while the baiter remains on the sideline, its military strength intact.”
The current National Defence Strategy (NDS) of the USA explicitly endorses such a strategy, and it makes no bones about who it is aimed at. The NDS, authored by then Secretary of Defence James Mattis in 2018, describes itself as “a clear road map for the Department of Defense to meet the challenges posed by a re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia,” adding that “interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.” On p.5 of the summary document, under the heading “strategic approach,” the NDS vows that “with our allies and partners, we will challenge competitors by maneuvering them into unfavorable positions, frustrating their efforts, precluding their options while expanding our own, and forcing them to confront conflict under adverse conditions.” There it is, in black and white: it is official US policy to bait Russia into conflict.
The US certainly has form in this regard. Until 1998, the mainstream view of US support for the anti-communist insurgency in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s was that it had been a response to the Russian invasion of December 1979. But in an interview in 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to US President Jimmy Carter, admitted that the truth was the exact opposite. In fact “it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention…The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.’ Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.” Asked whether he regretted the move, which plunged Afghanistan into a conflict which is now into its fifth decade, he replied “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?” Plunging the Afghan people into a half century of devastating war was of no consequence for the likes of Brzezinski. His successors clearly have the same attitude towards Ukraine.
In a widely viewed 2015 lecture on Ukraine, Mearsheimer noted that “If you really want to wreck Russia, what you really want to do is encourage Russia to conquer Ukraine.” The US and the UK – the latter in particular – appear to have been taking this advice very seriously.
NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet ‘sphere of influence,’ beginning with Bill Clinton in 1997, has always been recklessly provocative, as widely noted even way back then. A widely circulated letter by fifty leading academics, diplomats and retired military officers called the move a “policy error of historic proportions” which will “unsettle European stability” and “ultimately diminish the sense of security of those countries which are not included.” Even George Kennan, whose ‘long telegram’ in 1946 is viewed as a founding document of the post-WW2 strategy of Soviet containment, warned that NATO expansion eastwards would result in “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one.” Each round of NATO enlargement deepened Russia’s suspicions, but it was the Bucharest agreement of 2008 that really ratcheted up the tension. The US and UK had been pushing for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO as soon as possible, but France and Germany resisted the move, viewing it as gratuitously provocative. Russia had, after all, been invaded three times via its western border during the previous century, the most recent, well within living memory, costing it an unfathomable 27 million lives. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO – that is, becoming a giant military base for Britain, Germany and the US, the very countries that had built up and unleashed the fascist war machine in the 1930s – was understandably considered a red line, given Ukraine’s 2000km land border with Russia, penetrating deep into its territory. The compromise, if you can call it that, was an agreement that Ukraine (along with Georgia) would not join NATO immediately but definitely would do so in the future. Georgia’s government took this as a green light to make moves against Russian interests there, and got a shock when NATO support was not, after all, forthcoming against Putin’s predictable response. Following that episode, wrote Richard Sakwa, “British foreign secretary David Miliband visited Kiev and pledged Britain’s support, dooming the country to become the next epicentre of the artificially constructed struggle for mastery in Europe.”
Russia’s concerns were allayed for a time during the period 2010-14, during the presidency of Yanokovych, whose mandate was to keep Ukraine neutral – militarily allied to neither Russia nor the west, but with good diplomatic and trade relations with both. Unfortunately this policy was thrown into reverse following the 2014 coup, egged on (and immediately recognised) by the US and UK, and carried out with neo-Nazi paramilitaries as the vanguard force. Following an unsuccessful attempt to impose the writ of the coup regime on the Russian-speaking east of the country, those paramilitaries were, under US prodding, integrated into a new ‘National Guard’ which has been the spearhead of the war effort ever since, at the cost of 14,000 lives. Following the coup, noted Professor Sakwa, and “as if to rub salt into the wounds, NATO staged the Rapid Trident military exercise on Ukrainian territory on 15-16 September” of that year, a war gaming exercise involving fifteen countries “designed to enhance interoperability with allied and partner nations.” Since then, plans for NATO incorporation have proceeded apace. A British government document listing British support for the Ukrainian military outlines these plans in detail. In 2016, NATO outlined its Comprehensive Assistance Package of 16 “capacity building programmes and several trust funds” for military modernisation, whilst “NATO allies also participate in a wide range of military exercises with Ukrainian armed forces through the Military Committee with Ukraine Work Plan.”
But it was in June 2020 that this process was really ramped up, when Ukraine was offered “Enhanced Opportunity Partner status” with NATO. Notes the British document, “this status provides Ukraine with preferential access to NATO’s exercises, training and exchange of information and situational awareness, in order to increase interoperability. In September 2020 Ukraine hosted Exercise Joint Endeavour, with British, US and Canadian troops.” This was “the first exercise conducted under Ukraine’s new enhanced status,” but far from the last, with another ten planned, involving tens of thousands of NATO troops, for 2022 alone.
If Russia was going to enforce its red line, time was fast running out. From spring 2021, it began a counter-provocation of its own, building up a huge armed presence on the Ukrainian border, in what was widely interpreted as a show of strength to scare Ukraine into backing down from this suicidal course. Mearsheimer’s warning in 2015 that “the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and Ukraine is going to get wrecked” looked ever more ominous.
This cycle of provocation and counter-provocation continued throughout the year. In June 2021, Britain sent HMS Defender, part of its Carrier Strike Group’s Indo-Pacific mission, into the Black Sea “in a show of solidarity with Ukraine and regional NATO allies.” This sabre-rattling agitprop was presumably intended to fool Ukraine into thinking this equipment might actually be used in the event of a showdown with Russia, and that they should therefore press on with NATO membership safe in the knowledge that Britain would bring its full force to bear should it trigger a reaction. It was an intentionally misleading and irresponsible message; but, for years now, and as Mearsheimer had noted, “What we’re doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians.”
Even the EU, which, notes the British document, has traditionally left “military reform” as an issue for “NATO and bilateral cooperation,” joined in the Russia-baiting. In December 2021 it announced a new militarist turn, with “a package of measures to help strengthen the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces,” worth €31million. US, UK and the EU were united, it seemed, in sending a clear message to the Russians: ‘we’re gonna build up a massive military force on your doorstep, you losers, and there’s nothing you can do about it’. Such wilful humiliation can only be aimed at one thing: triggering a response.
But the militarisation of Ukraine was only one part of the ‘bait and bleed’ strategy. Alongside the goading to invade came, in November 2021, a more or less open invitation to do so. In a sharp reversal of the message sent by the HMS Defender visit in June – that Britain would ‘have Ukraine’s back’ in the event of war – came the opposite signal – that NATO would not defend their plucky new partner should Russia choose to invade. Reported Bloomberg on the 30th November 2021, “President Vladimir Putin warned the West not to cross the Kremlin’s security “red line” as the U.S. and the U.K. said any Russian incursion into Ukraine would trigger serious diplomatic and economic responses.” Serious diplomatic and economic responses means, of course, zero military consequences. Moscow was being told openly that, should they choose to settle the issue by force, the only response from the west would be “diplomatic and economic,” that is to say – not military. At a stroke, US and UK statements had undermined NATO chief Jans Stolzenberg’s attempts to leave a military option on the table. Whilst NATO had no Article Five obligation to militarily defend Ukraine, Stolzenberg had been attempting to deter a Russian invasion by leaving its potential response ambiguous; when asked by reporters whether he ruled out a military intervention by NATO in the event of Russian incursions, his reply was “We have different options,” referring to “the fact that we have increased our presence here, in the region, both in the Black Sea region and in the Baltic region, in the air, on land and at sea.” That ambiguity was ended by the USUK guarantee that they would not militarily oppose a Russian invasion. Russia was being simultaneously goaded into conducting an invasion and openly invited to do so. The trap was set.
From the moment that invitation was issued, the character of the Russian troop buildup began to change. What started off in spring as a show of strength, designed to coerce Ukraine into respecting its security needs, began to look like something very different. Noted Gustav Gressel at the time, “Compared to the situation in March and April 2021, when it last moved troops close to the Ukrainian border, Russia seems to be making much less effort to ensure the current assembly is visible. This may hint towards a significantly more serious intention than simply a wish to appear threatening.”
Nevertheless, noted strategic analyst and former Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, “The fact that they’re getting ready [for an invasion] does not mean that they will start it.” Rather, he suggested, the objective might still have been to apply pressure for a negotiated settlement that meets Russia’s security needs. Indeed, concurrent with its buildup, Russia continued to push hard on the diplomatic front. Putin began by reminding the world that, as far as the expansion of western military infrastructure into Ukraine goes, “This creation of such threats for us is the red line,” before on 17th December, laying his demands for de-escalating tensions with NATO: the ruling out of NATO membership for Ukraine, NATO forces to return to their 1997 positions, no new NATO members and an end to NATO drills in countries bordering Russia. These were simply dismissed and derided by the US. Putin’s basic error was to attempt to use as leverage the threat of the very thing US planners were attempting to goad him to do in the first place – invading Ukraine.
From that point on, it was a simple matter of calling his bluff. USUK ‘intelligence’ and media playing up of the co-called ‘planned invasion’ only added to the pressure on Putin to follow through, ensuring the world’s attention would be entirely focused on the humiliation of any ‘climbdown.’
Right up to the last minute, despite the west’s ‘warnings’, many were convinced that such a climbdown was on the cards, myself included. The danger it held, of course, was that USUK and the Ukrainian National Guard would take full advantage of this moment of Russian ‘weakness’ to launch a major military escalation in the Donbass, attempting to finally impose the military solution they had been denied for the past eight years, before moving to finalise Ukraine’s integration into NATO in short order. Literally hours before Putin’s announcement of a ‘special military operation’ on February 21st, I posted the following message on a political discussion forum, in a response to a question about whether Russia would invade: “Putin is not gonna do it. He blinked and now NATO and their fascist mercenaries are taking full advantage. This is the beginning of the end for Putin and the start of a devastating war to retake the Donbass.” in hindsight, however, that was simply not an option Putin was willing to accept. He would risk everything – and everybody – rather than accept humiliation and defeat. As Patrick Cockburn put it, “For Putin, having gone as far as he had, the choice was starkly posed between escalation and capitulation. It was at this point that method turned into madness, and the murderous, strategically disastrous Russian land invasion of Ukraine began.” And madness it was – as Richard Sakwa had pointed out in 2016, Putin “was well aware that the US had lured the Soviet Union into the Afghan quagmire, precipitating its collapse” and was “well aware of the dangers of being sucked into a war over Ukraine, which would be unwinnable and disastrous.” The US and UK had achieved what once had seemed impossible – goading Russia into a battlefield on which they could be crucified. They had been baited. Now they would be bled.
The UK, in particular, had been preparing for this war for years. Even whilst Obama had banned lethal military aid to Ukraine (a ban overturned by Trump in 2018), Britain was running a military training programme for Ukraine called “Operation Orbital.” Beginning in 2015 with 75 UK military trainers focussed on “medical, logistics, general infantry skills and intelligence capacity building,” since then it has “been expanded and extended several times.” By 2018, it also involved “training for defensive operations in an urban environment, operational planning, engineering [and] countering attacks from snipers, armoured vehicles and mortars,” and had been expanded to cover “all branches of Ukraine’s armed forces,” including the Ukrainian navy. In October 2020, the UK and Ukraine agreed to proceed with a new Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme, which would involve, amongst other things, “Ukraine’s purchase of two refurbished Royal Navy Sandown-class minehunters…the sale and integration of missiles on new and in-service Ukrainian Navy patrol and airborne platforms, including a training and engineering support package, assistance in building new naval bases in the Black Sea and Azov Sea, the development and joint production of eight fast missile warships, and participation in the Ukrainian project to deliver a modern frigate capability.” In November 2021, the UK released £1.7billion of financing for the project, and had, according to a Downing Street press release, trained a total of 22,000 Ukrainian military personnel by January 2022. The Naval initiative already seems to be paying dividends, with evidence emerging that a Russian warship was destroyed by the Ukrainian navy in early March.
The trick for the US and UK now is to make sure the war lasts as long as possible, to maximise Russian casualties and trigger economic collapse. In other words, having goaded the Russians into starting the war, the aim is now to goad the Ukrainians to keep it going, resisting the temptation to come to terms with the Russians and make peace. This part of the operation was termed by Mearsheimer ‘bloodletting,’ in which “the aim is to make sure that any war between one’s rivals turns into a long and costly conflict that saps their strength.” Senator, later President, Harry Truman had this strategy in mind, Mearsheimer noted, in his infamous reaction to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”
Countering a perceived wobble from Ukrainian President Zelensky, who seemed to imply he would, now he finally understood the Russians were serious, consider returning Ukraine to a non-aligned position, the British government made clear there was to be no such compromise. On the first day of the invasion, February 24th, Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmed told parliament that “we remain committed to the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration in which all NATO allies agreed that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance.” A negotiated settlement is, it seems, unacceptable to the UK, who are willing to fight Russia, as the saying goes, down to the last Ukrainian; their vision was spelt out by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who told Sky News that the conflict could last ‘years’ and the UK needs to be ‘prepared for a very long haul’. Western media, meanwhile, have clearly been instructed to play up the supposed successes of the “Ukrainian resistance” and the chance, therefore, of a total military victory against Russia, to stave off the chances of serious negotiations.
The Ukraine trap is being modelled on the Afghan trap right down to the weapons being sent. Stinger surface-to-air missiles played a crucial role in the CIA-MI6 backed anti-Soviet insurgency in the 1980s; the Times reported on 9th March that Ukraine has now received 17,000 anti-tank and 2000 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, most from Germany, Belgium and Britain, with huge US and British cargo planes full of them being sent every 90 minutes, day and night, from an undisclosed airfield. The US Department of Defence has, since September 2021, provided Ukraine with “Stinger missiles, Javelin missiles, anti-tank rocket systems, grenade launchers, more than 2,000 tons of ammunition, including mortar and artillery rounds, small arms, machine guns,” according to the assistant secretary of Defence, Mara Karlin, with a total of $1billion in military equipment provided over the past year and $2billion over the previous seven. “Taken together, the variety, volume and potency of firepower being rushed into the war zone illustrate the extent to which the United States [and the UK] sought to prepare the Ukrainian military to wage a hybrid war against Russia,” suggests the Washington Post article. An additional $13.6 billion of supplies was approved by Congress, on March 9th, with Britain announcing it will send state-of-the-art laser-guided “Starstreak” anti-missile systems to Ukraine on the same day.
On top of the weapons deliveries, Buzzfeed has reported that a small group of NATO special operations forces have been sent into Ukraine:
“The group, composed of six US citizens, three Brits, and a German, are NATO-trained and experienced in close combat and counterterrorism. Two former American infantry officers are also making plans to come to Ukraine to provide “leadership” for the group.” They are hoped to be the first of many volunteers who will arrive in the country to fight the Russians, in a replay of the ‘international jihad’ that was fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Indeed, NATO member Turkey is already thought to be sending Syrian militants, with combat experience against Russia, to the frontlines in Syria, whilst “groups like the Georgian National Legion,” through whose ranks which “more than 300 Western foreigners have passed” since its formation in 2014, many “from NATO countries and with prior military experience… help pave the way for people to sign official contracts with the Ukrainian military.” The Ukraine war thus already appears to be becoming a magnet for both far right and ‘radical Islamist’ fighters to join the war against Russia, providing the double benefit for US and Britain of bleeding Russia and removing potentially destabilising elements from their territory.
Should the Zelensky government collapse, and be replaced by a pro-Russian administration – presumably propped up by the Russian military – the plan is for a long insurgency, again modelled on 1980s Afghanistan. UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told Forces News that the MoD had been asked by Boris Johnson to “look at and plan for” British assistance to any future resistance movement if Ukraine was captured, whilst according to the Washington Post, “Ukraine’s allies are planning how to help establish and support a government-in-exile, which could direct guerrilla operations against Russian occupiers, according to several U.S. and European officials… As early as last December, some U.S. officials saw signs that the Ukrainian military was preparing for an eventual resistance, even as Zelensky downplayed the threat of invasion. During an official visit, a Ukrainian special operations commander told Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and other lawmakers that they were shifting training and planning to focus on maintaining an armed opposition, relying on insurgent-like tactics.” But key to this outcome is scuppering any moves towards a peaceful settlement: “The number one thing you have to have is people on the ground who want to fight,” said Jack Devine, a retired senior CIA officer who ran the agency’s successful covert campaign to arm Afghan fighters who drove out the Soviet military in the 1980s…. If Russian and Ukrainian negotiators who have been meeting near the border in Belarus reach some settlement, that will likely diminish the momentum for an insurgency and support for it, Devine predicted.”
Again, Washington has form here. The Bosnian war could have been prevented altogether, saving tens
of thousands of lives, had the Carrington–Cutileiro peace plan ever been implemented. The plan had been signed by the leaders of all three sides in the conflict, but fell apart after Bosnian leader Izetbegovic withdrew his signature immediately after a meeting with US ambassador Warren Zimmerman. It is thought Zimmerman had pushed him to fight for a better deal with the promise of lavish US military support. We are likely to see much of this in the months and years to come; watch in particular for announcements of increased military or economic escalations around the time of peace talks taking place. Already, the announcement of $13.6billion additional US aid and UK delivery of the “Starstreak” anti-aircraft system on the very day of the first talks between the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers was unlikely to be a coincidence.
The benefits of this prolonged war to the USUK bourgeois establishment are clear. But this is not only about the ‘bleeding’ of a strategic competitor, whose hampering of regime change in Syria and alliances with Iran and China had made it an increasing thorn in the side of western hegemony. It is aimed not only at Russia, but at Europe, at China, and at Ukraine itself.
The driving of a wedge between Russia and Europe, in order to weaken both, and heighten European dependence on the US, has long been a goal of US foreign policy. Yet Germany and France, in particular, have, for obvious reasons, been unwilling to play ball. That is why, throughout the Russian troop buildup, those countries consistently advocated talks and compromise in direct contrast to the belligerent sabre-rattling of their Atlantic partners. Germany has always had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the economic war against Russia, for the simple reason that that war constitutes an act of serious self-harm for Germany, which, unlike the US, is deeply dependent on Russian energy and markets. It took the downing of the MH17 aircraft to arm-twist them into joining the first round of USUK-led sanctions following the 2014 coup, and it took the Russian invasion of Ukraine for Germany to finally accede to US demands to cancel the NordStream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which had been completed and ready to begin operations since September 2021. As Immanuel Wallerstein wrote back in 2014, “What haunts the Nulands of this world [a reference to the then US ambassador to Ukraine, Victoria Nuland] is not a putative “absorption” of Ukraine by Russia – an eventuality with which she could live. What haunts her and those who share her views is a geopolitical alliance of Germany/France and Russia.” The Ukraine trap has certainly put paid to that prospect – and the collateral damage to Europe from the economic war on Russia is only a benefit to US hegemony. NATO’s raison d’etre in Europe, as described by its first Secretary General Lord Ismay, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” and the war in Ukraine is already well on the way to achieving all three.
Then, of course, there is China. China has condemned the sanctions on Russia as economic warfare against the population, but as the bloodshed mounts, so too will the pressure on China to join in with them, or risk being treated in the same way itself; this war is increasingly being portrayed as a Manichean struggle of good versus evil in which bystanders are not allowed. Of course, the US economy is far more entangled with that of China than it is with that of Russia, making an all out boycott a trickier prospect – but there is little to stop the US simply freezing Chinese dollar assets in the same way as they have done with Russian. The Russian central bank’s $630billion in foreign reserves were frozen almost immediately after the invasion, eliminating at a stroke Russia’s painstakingly built up insurance policy to protect the ruble. Its value has fallen continuously since then and is now worth barely half of what it was a month ago. What is to stop the US doing the same to China, eliminating a quarter of its foreign debt, and greatly pumping up the value of the dollar, into the bargain? This will be the real worry for Beijing right now, and there is every reason to believe that this is the direction in which we are headed. The Ukraine trap has been designed ultimately to ensnare China as well; we may very well be witnessing the start of the ‘final showdown’ aimed at extending US dominance for another fifty years by ending the Russia-China challenge once and for all.
As for Ukraine itself, its ruined economy and infrastructure will leave it utterly dependent on foreign support for reconstruction. If this does turn out to be Russia, the costs to the Russian economy will be crippling, and ongoing with an insurgency to deal with; if the West, Ukrainian policy will be completely under their control, with reparations likely to be forced out of Russia to pay for reconstruction anyway. Either way, the Russian economy and Ukrainian sovereignty are both finished.
Finally, quite apart from all the geopolitical machinations, are the straightforward capitalist economic interests. In times of economic crisis and stagnation, war becomes an ever more tempting prospect for capitalist powers, providing opportunities to capture state markets (eg for weapons), rather than having to rely on stagnating private consumer markets, organise political boycotts of rival producers in areas where you cannot compete economically, and gain from inflated commodity prices affected by the war (eg oil and gas, of which the USA is a net exporter). Michael Hudson has analysed how the three key economic sectors in the USA – that is, the military-industrial complex; the oil, gas and mining industry and the banking and real estate, which between them control the purse strings of virtually every member of Congress – have all had their strategic goals served very well by this war.
If anything, then, the Ukraine trap looks set to be even more beneficial for the US than the Afghan trap – and even more devastating, not only to Ukraine and Russia, but to China and even the EU as well.
But, as Marx told us long ago, when history repeats itself it does so “first time as tragedy, second time as farce.” In Afghanistan, Soviet forces were fighting to defend a genuine popular socialist revolution, which had liberated women and ended feudal oppression, against a vicious sectarian obscurantism that was utterly dependent on MI6, CIA, Pakistani and Saudi largesse. The popularity of Najibullah’s communist government was revealed by the fact that it hung on against this combined terror operation for a further three years after being abandoned by the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
This time around, there is no such emancipatory project to defend, quite the opposite. Putin’s war is a grotesque caricature of the Soviet intervention, little more in fact than a mirror image of the western warmongering he claims to oppose, replete with obviously fraudulent claims put forward to justify the unjustifiable. His ‘denazification’ programme amounts to the replacement of ‘pro-Ukrainian’ fascists with ‘pro-Russian’ fascists, his vision of Ukraine essentially another Syria – a patchwork of dysfunctional ethno-nationalist statelets, each to be used and abused by their own regional power patron, the whole mess overseen by Grand Master [sic] Putin.
The tragedy of Putin’s Russia has been its crippling desperation to be accepted by ‘the west’. Like Israel, Russia is offended that its right to dehumanise and exterminate – the very essence of whiteness – seems to be constantly called into question, as if their very identity as white nations is being denied. Why are you allowed to shit on international law, to invade sovereign states, to starve and beseige, to use thermobarbaric weapons, to bomb hospitals, and we are not? What is this Russophobia, this anti-Semitism? Am I not a white man and a white brother?
Farce indeed. And utterly sickening to watch.