It’s time to make Mother Russia bleed for her crimes. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.
Many pundits are comparing Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine to Hitler’s aggression in Europe—former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim told The Washington Post that Putin is making the “same exact argument” that Hitler did when he bit off the Sudetenland—but in strategic terms, I compare the war more with the former Soviet Union’s ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.
Working the Afghanistan account at the State Department in the 1980s, I kept a grim running tally on my office wall: the Soviet body count. Every week, we revised the number upward as reports from the field fed us the estimated Russian KIA and wounded. We took little satisfaction in this morbid task. Many of us had served in Vietnam, or lost friends and loved ones there. Behind each casualty was a loved one. By the time the Soviet Union exited Afghanistan in 1989, some 15,000 Soviet troops had been killed and 35,000 wounded. (To our credit, we also intervened with the mujahideen to rescue many Soviet POWs from torture and execution.)
The only way to move Moscow from its disastrous policy, in the 1980s and today, has been to bleed it. Ratchet up the cost to the Russian people, economically, politically, and, yes, in body bags holding Russian troops (not civilians). In addition to sanctions and other measures the Biden administration has enacted, we need to increase the pain to Moscow on the ground by stepping up economic warfare, psychological operations, and robust covert military support to the Ukrainian insurgency.
President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team have been quickly raising the costs to Putin for his war of choice, declaring that the Russian leader’s actions would “end up costing Russia dearly, economically and strategically.” The sanctions regime targets Russia’s economy and military, as well as Putin’s minions. But results won’t come overnight. “No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening. It’s going to take time. We have to show resolve. He knows what is coming,” Biden said.
It took more than a decade from Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan until the Soviet empire unraveled in 1991. Autocratic regimes can be swayed if one hits the right pressure points. Patience and resolve are key to achieving results that might very well take years.
Afghanistan, again, offers insights and lessons. A now-declassified top-secret CIA analysis from 1988 laid out the rising domestic costs over years of Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan. As of that year, according to the report, the war had cost Moscow “12,000 lives, and 15 billion rubles, approximately 3 percent of the Soviet defense budget.” A half-million Soviets had served in Afghanistan, many returning with injuries, mental illness, and alcohol and drug addiction. The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described the war as “bitter and painful.” In the three previous years, public disapproval of the war had increased from 25 percent to 40 percent. Some 48 percent of party and government apparatchiks and 66 percent of the intelligentsia “disapproved of the war.”
The CIA reported that the Afghan war had sparked “at least 15 major demonstrations” in the previous four years. Most touching for me were those by the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, women who courageously protested to the authorities the loss of their sons. One mother wrote, “I used to hate Sasha’s killers … now I hate the State which sent him there.” Another lamented, “The Afghan War is not the Great Patriotic War, such as it was for our fathers. That was a people’s war, everyone understood it. But in this war I didn’t find any logic or commonsense, and so it was doubly hard.”
George F. Kennan, author of the containment doctrine, called for the United States “to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” We must focus our efforts on Moscow’s “center of gravity,” a term used by the 19th-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz signifying the source of your opponent’s power and “the point against which all our energies should be directed.” This is Russia’s economy. While it is relatively small and undiversified, based heavily on petroleum, it is nonetheless essential to sustain the country’s military power.
“Cold War history teaches that economic weakness at some point should force Moscow to the negotiating table,” the Swiss national security scholar Henrik Larsen writes. “The Russian Federation shares some of the key vulnerabilities of its Soviet predecessor, which in the end sought negotiation because it could no longer afford an expensive arms race with the West. Russia is vulnerable to fluctuations in world gas and oil.”
Occupying Ukraine with some 200,000 troops and attendant equipment on an ongoing basis doesn’t come cheap. What the military calls “operations tempo”—the speed and rate of military activity—alone diverts huge financial resources away from needed civilian governmental functions.
In other words, Russia’s invasion—and the world’s response to it—will inflict needless suffering on the Russian people. Over time, that will delegitimize Putin severely in his own country, leading to his diminished power.
With 145 million people, less than half the size of the U.S., Russia has a GDP that ranks only 11th among world economies. It has a declining population along with poor health and life expectancy indicators. Two-thirds of its exports come from petroleum. Polling shows that 48 percent of Russians from 18 to 24 years old and a third of those from 25 to 39 want to emigrate permanently.
With this in mind, we must exploit Russia’s vulnerabilities. The ruble has tanked and the Moscow stock exchange has halted trading since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We must step up covert as well as overt economic warfare to intensify the economic pain for Russians.
Russians and Belarusians receive an unending stream of propaganda from their governments. We therefore need to coordinate with our allies’ enhanced psychological operations to counter the lies coming from official outlets. This includes social media. Attacking fellow Slavs can’t be popular, a sentiment that should be exploited. To the extent feasible, we should also encourage and aid the popular anti-regime movements that have carried out large public protests in recent years. Thousands have already taken to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and more than 50 other cities to protest Putin’s action.
One of the most lethally effective weapons we provided to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s was the Stinger missile, which blunted Soviet air power. In tandem with NATO allies, we must pursue a robust program of covert military assistance to Ukrainian insurgents, including more Stingers as well as Javelin anti-tank weapons.
“Sending as many Russians home in body bags as possible, highlighting the cost of Putin’s folly, and increasing pressure on him from the Russian public and the military to withdraw will be the key measures of effectiveness in such a campaign,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer and currently a nonresident scholar at the Atlantic Council, told me.
He added that support for the insurgency “should include robust classic covert action (via the Intelligence Community) as well as irregular warfare (via U.S. Special Operations Forces), under separate U.S. authorities. We should advise, assist, train, and equip the Ukrainian military and intelligence organs as a main focus of this effort. Think of U.S. assistance to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s as the model.”
“There is no purgatory for war criminals,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said in his moving address before the UN Security Council on Tuesday. “They go straight to hell.”
By violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and starting a war in Europe, Putin has crossed the line. The time has now come to expand Russia’s hell.