An abandoned tank in Afghanistan
A Soviet made T-62, abandoned in Afghanistan

“It is what we in Afghanistan experienced over 40 years. What Ukraine is experiencing [is that] use and abandonment comes easily there.”

Former Afghanistan President Hamed Karzai, 19 April 2022

Know who your Friends are

While the western powers were introspectively wrestling with Brexit, extending human rights and the political implications of Trump, others have been planning for a different geopolitical and strategic future. I have written before about the ejection of Russia from the G8 not being mirrored by the G20, and that China, Russia, India and others have all become better trading partners and defense collaborators with each other than the G7 had appreciated; . In 2001 China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a permanent inter-governmental body to develop ties in the region. India and Pakistan joined in 2017. It also has four observer countries; Belarus, Iran and Mongolia, and since 2012, Afghanistan. The SCO’s stated goals are as follows (emphasis added):

“strengthening mutual trust and neighbourliness among the member states; promoting their effective cooperation in politics, trade, the economy, research, technology and culture, as well as in education, energy, transport, tourism, environmental protection, and other areas; making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region; and moving towards the establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order.”

Amidst the idealistic rhetoric there is a clear implication that the SCO members feel that the current international political and economic order is neither fair nor rational. It also illustrates a more strategic and longer term vision of developing the world than the West - riven by divisive politics and short election cycles - now tends to engage in.

What is interesting about Afghanistan achieving observer (akin to associate member) status with the SCO, which is fundamentally a group run by China and Russia, is that it was obtained while Afghanistan was being almost entirely bankrolled by the US. It is as if Afghanistan knew even then it would need friends in the region more than friends from thousands of miles away, like the US and its allies.

Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Members of different Clubs: Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2012, Including Presidents Putin and Karzai

Afghanistan, Karzai and Riding Two Horses

Former President of Afghanistan, Hamed Karzai, was interviewed a couple of times last week by the BBC. Amidst some stuttering and coughing he managed to make his view clear, that Ukraine should be wary of the fate of Afghanistan, and make better friends in the region and world - implicitly with a different group than just the US and its allies.

Karzai is a mercurial figure, and has had a complex and not entirely happy relationship with the West, but fairly cordial relations with President Putin. He originally became President of Afghanistan in 2002 with the explicit and enthusiastic backing of the US. By the start of his second (and constitutionally final) term in office in 2009, he had been accused of vote rigging and presiding over corruption in the Afghan government and the US and UK were finding him increasingly frustrating to deal with.

Karzai is a Pashtun, from near Kandahar in the South of Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban, and is a keen horseman (the Afghans look great on horseback, natural riders, even without a saddle and only a length of bailing twine as a halter). Karzai has always seemed to want to leave a door open for the Taliban, calling them “angry brothers” while the civil war against them was at its height; by November last year, after the Coalition’s humiliating withdrawal he was calling them just “brothers”. Bombings against non-Pashtun mosques and schools continue in Afghanistan, committed by Da’ish (IS) according to the Taliban, and by or at least with the complicity of the Taliban according to a young Hazara refugee I discussed this with recently. Just before leaving office in 2014 Karzai supported the Russian annexation of Crimea, with an official release saying “The president said that Afghanistan respects the free will of the people of Crimea to decide about their own future”.

Despite Karzai’s patchy political history, he seemed to foresee that Afghanistan would need more friends than just the US Coalition that had been operating with unclear objectives in his country since 2001. By the time of the precipitous withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan in 2021, Karzai’s view seemed one of great prescience: he is a man open to the idea of riding two horses at once.

The lesson is that in the Western liberal democracies priorities can shift quickly, on the turn of a single election. In particular, President Biden of the US believes in isolating and sanctioning his enemies, not fighting them.

Ukraine and the Nuclear Option

Russia’s objectives in Ukraine have now changed: from swiftly removing what it saw as an unpopular Ukrainian government and dominating the whole country, to seizing the Donbas, Crimea and the littoral of the Sea of Azov than connects them; and potentially denying all of Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea by pushing on to take Odessa. One overarching aspect of Moscow’s aims have not changed, however; it still intends to very damage and neutralize Ukraine as much as it can.

Russia has so far been able to launch an assault on Ukraine, an independent country and member of the United Nations, displace millions of civilians, have allegations of organized murders and retribution killings of civilians made against it, and implicitly threaten the use of nuclear weapons if it is interfered with by foreign threats. No other country has ridden to the rescue of Ukraine with their own forces: yes, many neighbors and global power players have contributed arms and advice, but none dare impose a no-fly zone or put their own troops in direct conflict with Russia’s. And that, very simply, is because Russia has nuclear weapons, and the West finds President Putin’s threats to use them credible.

The conflict in Ukraine has two clear geopolitical implications for the rest of the world looking on:

  • You must have military allies if you expect military help: having loose intentions from others to help defend your country is its hour of need is not enough. Ukraine’s security is supposed to be guaranteed by the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia, the US and UK agreed to recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and defend it from attack in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. It is very clear that Russia has breached its obligations under the Memorandum, but less clear that the US and UK have: their main obligation in the case of an attack on Ukraine is to “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action”, which they did.

  • You need nuclear weapons to deter conventional wars: The unintended consequence of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is that it will inevitably lead to greater nuclear weapons proliferation; all countries that want to have liberty to engage in - or are fearful of - conventional wars will need to be armed with a deterrent to third party involvement. And similarly countries that want to defend their sovereignty also need nuclear weapons (or a very close friend with them) to dissuade a hostile nuclear armed neighbor. North Korea and Japan, Iran, Saudi and Israel, China and Taiwan, and India and Pakistan all spring to mind.

Escalation, Finland and Sweden

The very moment Russian armor rolled over the border in to Ukraine, Finland and Sweden, mindful of the points above, considered joining NATO, who’s members are very clearly obliged to support each other actively against attacks. This is decades of neutrality (centuries in Sweden’s case), overturned by the new realpolitik. If, as expected, Sweden and Finland apply for membership some time this year, that in itself will be an escalation of tensions with Russia.

As the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, not only will it destroy more of Ukraine, it will chew up more of Russia’s conventional military capability. Such are the causalities and destruction of materiel it is suffering, it may take years for the Russian military to rebuild itself, so it seems unlikely that an invasion of the Baltic is imminent. A general mobilization of Russia would provide more capacity, and be a significant escalation of risk, tantamount to a declaration of war. In the meantime, Russia has said repeatedly it will rely on nuclear threat - or escalation - if it feels threatened. And that sense of threat will be dictated by how far Western countries go in actively supporting Ukraine or aggressively expanding NATO.

Both sides know what the other is trying to do, and are explicit about it: on Monday (25 April) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US wanted to see Russia “weakened to the degree that it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”. On the same day Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov said that NATO was “engaged in a war through a proxy” against Russia by supplying arms to Ukraine.

Inflation, Abandonment and Reconstruction

The irony is that escalation is now in the hands of the West. It is probable that Russia will use all the destructive force of its military to flatten as much of Ukraine as it can: Russia’s military has no compunction about causing civilian casualties or destroying cities and farmland. Indeed destruction is very likely now one of its main aims. And it seems that the US and NATO’s main objective is now to destroy as much Russian military capability as possible through its indirect support to Ukraine.

If we cast our minds forward to where this might end - and let’s hope the bloodshed ends sooner than later - Ukraine will be a shattered mess. Russia will not pay to reconstruct any parts of Ukraine it has not annexed. If Ukraine survives it will need to be reconstructed by the West: the IMF already foresees this; however, Ukraine is not a member of the EU, so its economic future would be debt-laden and very uncertain. Other political priorities, such as inflation and the cost of living pressures on voters will increasingly distract Western democracies.

If military confrontation outside Ukraine is avoided a likely outcome is that - notwithstanding its indirect support - the West will stand by and watch the destruction of Ukraine. A bleak thought though it is, strategically that may be an acceptable outcome to NATO if enough of Russia’s military capability is also destroyed in the process.

Further Reading