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The New World Economy — what Ukraine needs to learn from Afghanistan about proxy wars

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Jeffrey D Sachs, professor at Columbia University, is director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

America’s proxy wars typically rage for years and even decades, leaving battleground countries like Ukraine in rubble. Unless the proxy war ends soon, Ukraine faces a dire future. Ukraine needs to learn from the horrible experience of Afghanistan to avoid becoming a long-term disaster.

The greatest enemy of economic development is war. If the world slips further into global conflict, our economic hopes and our very survival could go up in flames. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to a mere 90 seconds to midnight.

The world’s biggest economic loser in 2022 was Ukraine, where the economy collapsed by 35% according to the International Monetary Fund. The war in Ukraine could end soon, and economic recovery could begin, but this depends on Ukraine understanding its predicament as victim of a US-Russia proxy war that broke out in 2014.

The US has been heavily arming and funding Ukraine since 2014 with the goal of expanding Nato and weakening Russia. America’s proxy wars typically rage for years and even decades, leaving battleground countries like Ukraine in rubble.

Unless the proxy war ends soon, Ukraine faces a dire future. Ukraine needs to learn from the horrible experience of Afghanistan to avoid becoming a long-term disaster. It could also look to the US proxy wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Starting in 1979, the US armed the mujahideen (Islamist fighters) to harass the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. As president Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski later explained, the US objective was to provoke the Soviet Union to intervene, in order to trap the Soviet Union in a costly war. The fact that Afghanistan would be collateral damage was of no concern to US leaders.

The Soviet military entered Afghanistan in 1979 as the US hoped, and fought through the 1980s. Meanwhile, the US-backed fighters established al-Qaeda in the 1980s, and the Taliban in the early 1990s. The US “trick” on the Soviet Union had boomeranged.

In 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The US war continued for another 20 years until the US finally left in 2021. Sporadic US military operations in Afghanistan continue.

Afghanistan lies in ruins. While the US wasted more than $2-trillion of US military outlays, Afghanistan is impoverished, with a 2021 GDP below $400 per person! As a parting “gift” to Afghanistan in 2021, the US government seized Afghanistan’s tiny foreign exchange holdings, paralysing the banking system.

The proxy war in Ukraine began nine years ago when the US government backed the overthrow of Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych’s sin from the US viewpoint was his attempt to maintain Ukraine’s neutrality despite the US desire to expand Nato to include Ukraine (and Georgia). America’s objective was for Nato countries to encircle Russia in the Black Sea region. To achieve this goal, the US has been massively arming and funding Ukraine since 2014.


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The American protagonists then and now are the same. The US government’s point person on Ukraine in 2014 was Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who today is Undersecretary of State. Back in 2014, Nuland worked closely with Jake Sullivan, president Joe Biden’s national security adviser, who played the same role for vice pesident Biden in 2014.

The US overlooked two harsh political realities in Ukraine. The first is that Ukraine is deeply divided ethnically and politically between Russia-hating nationalists in western Ukraine and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

The second is that Nato enlargement to Ukraine crosses a Russian redline. Russia will fight to the end, and escalate as necessary, to prevent the US from incorporating Ukraine into Nato.

The US repeatedly asserts that Nato is a defensive alliance. Yet Nato bombed Russia’s ally Serbia for 78 days in 1999 in order to break Kosovo away from Serbia, after which the US established a giant military base in Kosovo. Nato forces similarly toppled Russian ally Moammar Qaddafi in 2011, setting off a decade of chaos in Libya. Russia certainly will never accept Nato in Ukraine.  

At the end of 2021, Russian president Vladimir Putin put forward three demands to the US: Ukraine should remain neutral and out of Nato; Crimea should remain part of Russia; and the Donbas should become autonomous in accord with the Minsk II Agreement.

The Biden-Sullivan-Nuland team rejected negotiations over Nato enlargement, eight years after the same group backed Yanukovych’s overthrow. With Putin’s negotiating demands flatly rejected by the US, Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

In March 2022, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to understand Ukraine’s dire predicament as victim of a US-Russia proxy war. He declared publicly that Ukraine would become a neutral country, and asked for security guarantees. He also publicly recognised that Crimea and Donbas would need some kind of special treatment.

Israel’s prime minister at that time, Naftali Bennett, became involved as a mediator, along with Turkey. Russia and Ukraine came close to reaching an agreement. Yet, as Bennett has recently explained, the US “blocked” the peace process.

Since then, the war has escalated. According to US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, US agents blew up the Nord Stream pipelines in September, a claim denied by the White House. More recently, the US and its allies have committed to sending tanks, longer-range missiles, and possibly fighter jets to Ukraine.

The basis for peace is clear. Ukraine would be a neutral non-Nato country. Crimea would remain home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet, as it has been since 1783. A practical solution would be found for the Donbas, such as a territorial division, autonomy, or an armistice line.

Most importantly, the fighting would stop, Russian troops would leave Ukraine, and Ukraine’s sovereignty would be guaranteed by the UN Security Council and other nations. Such an agreement could have been reached in December 2021 or in March 2022.

Above all, the government and people of Ukraine would tell Russia and the US that Ukraine refuses any longer to be the battleground of a proxy war. In the face of deep internal divisions, Ukrainians on both sides of the ethnic divide would strive for peace, rather than believing that an outside power will spare them the need to compromise. DM

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  • Robert Pegg says:

    This article puts the situation into perspective. Americas involvement in countries far away from its own borders has resulted in death and destruction since the end of the second world war. I was in the Far East during the Vietnam war and the saying was “When the going gets tough – Yanks go home”. this has been the same in every conflict since. Politicians mislead their people into believing they are saving the world when in fact they are destroying it.

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    A must read. Not sure I agree entirely, but Sachs provides a provocative counterpoint to the standard message we hear about the conflict.

  • Sam Shu says:

    Great, blame the victim. Ukraine was invaded.

    I dont disagree that the US military-industrial complex does terrible things and certainly benefits from this and the other wars, but to blame the Ukraine and the US for putin’s invasion is irrational.

  • Tim Price says:

    Could you not argue this from the other point? Russia is trying to strengthen its position because its criminal kleptocracy is threatened by the extension of Western style economies in many of the former soviet states like Poland and of course Ukraine. Putin wanted to take the whole of Ukraine and instal a puppet government sympathetic to the Russian political establishment, a system Ukraine has tried hard to get away from. By reducing the conflict to a proxy war, the writer denies Ukrainians their right as actors in determining their destiny, one which does not include domination by an autocratic Russia. The fact that they have chosen a Western style system and want to join the EU, isn’t the fault of the US or Nato, its their choice. The extension of freedom and the rule of law in former Soviet states should be welcomed surely?

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    If nothing else, this article makes you think.

  • Luan Sml says:

    A “fresh” perspective from an excellent source… it’s always good to read opposing opinions, there is much truth in the facts presented… in war, nobody really wins, some just get much richer, most get poorer, if they are lucky to survive 🙁

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Jeffrey Sach provides a perspective that is too dangerous to entertain given our experiences in Southern Africa. We had proxy wars in Angola and Mozambique delaying the dawn of democracy in South Africa, Namibia and in these countries themselves until the Summit in Reykjavik in October 1986. That agreement then opened up the space for negotiations for Namibian independence and South African negotiations. The Afghanistan issue is not properly framed by Sachs and this is the problem we have in Zimbabwe. Now he frames these conflicts as the same as in Ukraine. He fails to provide the historical context of Russian involvement in the 21st Century in Ukraine including the poisoning of Yuschenko and the riots that led to Yuschenko getting into power. He captures the political developments from the fellow who fled to Russia and the Russian and Ukrainian history is not put into perspective. The US would not be involved in a European conflict without the Europeans agreeing because any conflict that involves nuclear weapons they would be the first to be involved. The iterations of
    the Minsk agreements that involved France and Germany that Russia tore up are not properly captured. Neither does he proffer a proper explanation of what are these Russian security concerns and threats to Russia. Putin had put his concerns at the Munich Security Conference in 2008 but these concerns cannot violate the Budapest agreement or sovereignty of Ukraine.

  • David Walker says:

    Prof Sachs is an impressive propagandist for the murderous anti-democratic oligarchs in the Kremlin (his ilk used to be known as ‘useful idiots’). He tries to make the case that the reason that Ukraine is in ruins is entirely the fault of the West, and somehow has nothing to do with the thousands of Russian tanks pouring over the border. Yes, war is hell but does he propose that the Ukrainian people meekly surrender their country?

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Jeffrey, it is time you get your head out of the sand and realise that it it was your hero country the USSR, now Russia, that started all these wars, not the USA or NATO (if you want to make them the scapegoat). Or you can live in denial, but I would not advise that, because it is just going to come back to you some time or another.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    . . . And neither you, nor Russia or Putin, has any right to demand from the USA what is a decision of the Ukrainian government. Shame on you for taking the side of the aggressor! Besides, all these attempts at pretending that the USA is the aggressor are absolute nonsense. The USA does have a lack of understanding of the cultures of world regions outside of the west and it sometimes result in failures , but even in this they are light-years better than Russia. The USA has always respected the sovereignty of other nations. You and Putin obviously don’t.

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