The West can win while barely trying
The comparison between the Ukraine and Afghanistan is sub par. There’s so many cultural, historical, and Geo political differences that you really can’t compare. Perhaps if you compare Afghanistan’s resistance to Russia in the 1980s.
Having said that I want to comment on one of the most significant but under reported keys to Ukraine’s military success, or more specifically on Russia failures.
I see a lot of these talking head retired generals insinuating that if they were in charge, Russia would be doing better. Being retired military, I’m used to the hubris of the officer class. But… They are missing out on the real reason.
Russia’s military lacks the same educated competent professional enlisted an NCO core that the US military has, as well as other westernize Nations. All the technology in the world means nothing unless you have 20 something-year-old kids that are capable of fixing it. Combat units are led by listed, not officers. The one TV show that actually gets this right is navy seals. Their main character, liter is a master chief… Which is an NCO.
Even in the Air Force… Officers get shuffled around between post so that they learn a little bit of everything. But they actually don’t know how to do anything. They are managers. They make sure that we take care of computer based training, make sure we are doing our performance reports, and generally a lot of paperwork.
Russia’s military is so underpaid, and does not recruit the best of the best like the United States that there is no chance for them to be successful.
Put a Russian general in charge of American enlisted military verse an American general in charge of Russian enlisted military, The Russian general is going to win every day of the week and twice on Thursday.
There is a much greater difference between the average NCO then there is between a Russian general and an American general.
But it’s just one more case of elitism in American society. Anyway, that’s my rant.
As always, I am dictating this on my phone… So there probably lots of grammatical errors. I will try and fix them when I get to work.
Typo in last para? Expected "strong enough"
"This is just to say that while obviously it would be better for Ukraine — and, frankly, better overall policy — for the West to step up the economic measures against Russia, Russia simply isn’t weak enough to make it genuinely necessary."
But in any case --
1) you're taking a hell of a risk on the claim that "the west can win while barely trying" (or endorsing the risk-taking of our political leaders); and
2) the policy of giving Ukraine just enough to allow it to bleed Russian slowly, while not giving it enough to finish the job quickly, is inhumane to all involved. A twenty-month war will involve some atrocities that would not have occurred in a ten-month war. Those atrocities will be partly attributable to the policies of those governments who deny Ukraine what it needs to win more quickly.
Matt's analysis of Ukraine vs Afghanistan is wrong. In the 1980s Afghanistan fought off the Soviet Union, under a greater imbalance of strength than Ukraine faces today. This shows the issue isn't "Ukraine good, Afghanistan bad". It's "do people support the war?".
Ukraine is resisting foreign invaders who want to change their society. In the 80s, Afghanistan was doing the same. In the 2000s, that wasn't the case. The US was asking Afghans to *support* a foreign invader who wanted to change their society. They didn't and the invasion failed.
Of course state capacity matters. But you need a hell of a lot less capacity to rally the troops to "let's kick out these f*ckers who are killing us and want to order us around" than "let's help the people from the other side of the world and who keep bombing weddings restructure our society"
Zelensky was considered a joke in Ukraine before the invasion. Getting invaded helps your popularity and how people perceive how statesmanlike you are.
With regards the difference between Ukraine and Afghanistan, I think lots of Afghans didn’t think their government was legitimate and they didn’t think the Taliban were malign outsiders. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s 2014 war focused minds. There were clear improvements in Ukraine’s military since then. As an aside, I worry that Taiwan won’t get a second chance if it is invaded by the PRC
So there are lots of differences between Afghanistan and Ukraine. But worth looking back at the simple story Matt has outlines a few times for Ukraine to get richer and become a stronger nation: just do what Poland did. German manufacturing supply chain, etc.
In contrast the ‘simple’ visions for a successful afghan state and economy mostly revolve around linking China and Iran, or Russia and Iran maybe by way of other central Asian states. Things we are not actually very excited to see happen, and which lots of the people living in the country don’t want to see happen either!
I guess there was some talk about us wanting to build some nefarious pipeline through the country, which I guess never made sense, but at least that would have offered some kind of a vision for what the country was supposed to be.
It’s hard to be a good partner to a nation when you don’t really want them to succeed. ‘Have good schools girls can go to and a symphony’ is not a realistic vision for a successful nation on its own. It has a cargo cult aspect to it.
All of which is to say there’s a bit more here than ‘crisis made Ukraine strong but not Afghanistan and we don’t know why’
We are very well aligned with a simple vision for Ukraine’s national economy. And Ukrainians have readily available examples.
I'm sorry to say that your thesis is almost entirely wrong:
"The economic war on Russia is half-assed not because each national leader has independently decided to half-ass it, but because all of our societies are experiencing demosclerosis and simply can’t choose to act decisively on the Russia issue. We lack the capacity."
It has nothing to do with demosclerosis. The problem is that Ukraine is not important enough for most people to be willing to accept sacrifices and the tradeoffs that come with policy that isn't half-assed. Like with many other things, the virtue signaling on Ukraine far outstrips what people are actually willing to accept.
The problem is actually a lack of popularism. Helping Ukraine as long as the domestic cost isn't high is very popular. Potentially sacrificing 3 percent of GDP to help Ukraine is not popular and the reason it is not popular has nothing to do with demosclerosis.
If there's a nugget here it's that political leaders have insufficiently made the case to the public that some sacrifice is worth helping Ukraine. In fact, they are avoiding that argument completely for the most part.
Afghanistan is a country of geographical factions; Ukraine is homogeneous for the most part with the exception of the Russians living in the Donbass region. Ukraine has lots of roads and railways and it's easy to move troops and supplies compared to the rudimentary transportation infrastructure in Afghanistan. The mountainous terrain in the Asian country adds an extra layer of complexity in terms of military activity. This fact alone stymied both the Russians and Americans during the almost 30 years (cumulative) they were involved in Afghanistan.
There are other nuances as well such as will to fight that make it extremely difficult to compare the two regions.
Your complacency is going to look pretty bad after Le Pen wins in France and cuts off the aid tap from the EU, and the Republicans win in the mid-terms and cut off the aid tap from the States. Meanwhile, Scholtz will send a few more helmets to Ukraine, and a billion dollars a day to the Kremlin, rather than risk electoral defeat if the economy shrinks by half a percent in Germany.
Putin has played a long game in creating parties of pro-Russian quislings in all of the major democracies. But the real asymmetry of power here is that an autocrat can force his subjects to endure far more pain than voters in a democracy will tolerate.
I wish I could count on voters in the West to make some sacrifices to keep degrading the Russian war machine. But so far, the efforts have been acceptable to the electorate because they have required zero sacrifice. (You want to seize Putin's yachts? Fine! Who does that hurt, other than Tucker Carlson?) Unless Ukraine triumphs before the mid-terms, it will be abandoned after them.
My hot take is that the US, EU, Britain, Australia, Japan and possibly others should take small steps moving towards a global governmental super-structure. Current global bodies include the UN (which has a seat for every country, which numerically means lots of dictatorships), or pan-continental bodies which sort of make sense and sort of don't (the EU, South America a little bit moving towards their version of the EU called Mercosur, the same thing with Africa and the African Union).
It would make a lot more sense to put what everyone vaguely handwaves as 'the West' into a formal body- picking and choosing your friends based on actual values, and not just who's geographically closeby. You at least see a step towards this with the CANZUK concept (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CANZUK). The new 'Western Nations' alliance could form a free trade pact for starters, then over the decades inch towards other stuff, sort of like what the EU's done. As a reminder, the US + the EU + Britain alone is about 3 times the size of China's economy. Maybe eventually a mutual defense pact over time.
Is this super-unrealistic right now, in this new age of nationalism? Sure- but as the EU proves, these things can work out over a multi-decade time span. We should counter the power of China and Russia with a new global body that's authoritarian-free and proudly elitist, the opposite of the UN- poor countries need not apply
I am very troubled by the fact that the humanitarian cost is barely acknowledged. Just in the past couple of days we got a chilling demonstration of Russian atrocities. The refusal of western nations - Germany most of all- to do what needs to be done to bring this war to a swift and decisive end, simply because it would cost them moderate economic pain, is simply unconscionable. Have the Germans really learned anything and feel true historical contrition if they are now so happy to basically fund massive war crimes in Eastern Europe?? It’s crazy that they aren’t under much more significant public pressure to change course.
I bought into Mancur OIson when I was a libertarian but, over time, I've come to see him as... premature? I'm not really sure what the word should be.
I think Olson, et al underestimate the wisdom of a small-c conservative approach and see an inability to chase every new policy fad as evidence of sclerosis. Decision-making is often seen as purely crisis-driven, at best, and "unresponsive". But what I've concluded over time is that:
1. The marginal value of any of these changes is often much smaller than their proponents (and opponents) claim. For example, the US is largely incapable of getting its transit house in order. While true, doing so is almost meaningless: our house is sprawling Victorian manor where every function is carefully separated from every other, so the transit impact you see in places with dense clusters of people and services just doesn't exist here.
2. A lot of proposals are actually just chasing transient features of the economy or society. During the 1990s and again in the 2000s there were a number of proposals to chase innovative ideas like government-backed investment accounts. Each of these proposals was undone by the bursting of a bubble.
3. Most proposals go nowhere because people aren't even known, not because a quagmire of veto points and interest lobbying has arisen. Nearly all the policy discussion is within elite circles and never really leaves it. At best, it will penetrate down to blog-reading sub-elites like me. (And I, at least, am not a political actor but some jackass trying to look smart at parties.) Maybe 1% of the population is aware enough of the discussion to recall it without prompting.
4. Even when known, no one is being persuaded. Very little work ever goes into persuasion at all and my only real theory about this is that the persuasion happened among the original discussants, who now assume it's as well-known outside as within their subculture of political junkies.
So nothing gets done because there's no real reason for it to rather than because a dense web of decision-making procedures impedes progress. Either the policy is not important enough for anyone to push, it really shouldn't be in the first place, or it simply lacks the kinds of penetration into the public that set politics into action long term.
This is a fine piece, and I agree with it.
However, how can America have a reasonable political discussion where the biggest thing is the ridiculous "Groomers" slur in our discourse?
Would it be fair to say that the latest iteration of Olson's "distributional coalitions" dynamic is the prevalence of the "equity lens" in all public policy discussions? Not that equity doesn't deserve attention, but... I spent decades is the union movement, so I know how righteous one can feel in fighting for "shares." But I also know the limitations of that quest, when one's single lens diverts attention to the need for greater purpose, more "moon shot" projects, more scientific discoveries and innovation, more growth --- and, to Matt's harping on this theme, more immigration, more workers, more jobs.
Just a little deeper dive into the natural gas graph. The "industry feedstock" part (about 1/3) is essentially fertilizers. That's where the cheapest ones come from. Nuclear, solar and wind won't replace that. Right now farmers are scrambling to find other sources, like natural manures, but that will take time. Unlike driving your car fewer miles or turning down the thermostat a notch to stretch other energy sources to go farther, such actions won't help 8 billion people who need to eat today. So, while farmers are already seeing increased fertilizer costs over last year in the 200-300% range, and while we in the US and Europe won't see retail food prices go up that much (because the farm price is a small portion of our value-added retail price), folks in developing countries who rely on basics (as well as Ukrainian wheat to help keep all wheat prices lower) will face real costs. This is a bigger deal than many realize and not easily solvable without immediate replacements for natural gas. So, just a little aside to point out it isn't just about finding other energy substitutes for heating German homes.
Matt compares Ukraine to Afghanistan, but I think a better comparison would be with Croatia in the early 90s. As far as I understand, Croatia began its war in 1991 against a well-equipped state army (JNA) and associated militias. Croatia's own military did not really exist at the time--they resorted to making armored vehicles out of metal pipes and dropping bombs out the doors of old biplanes. Nevertheless, the JNA (which I think was having its own problems by then) was unwilling or unable to completely destroy the Croatian force. The war settled into a trench phase by late 1991, and a ceasefire began in early 1992 which lasted for several years. During this time the Croatian military reformed itself with help from an American firm. In 1995 the Croats launched a massive attack against Serbian militias in the Krajina, which was so successful that some people think that NATO planned it for them.
The Croatian case seems to be quite similar to the Ukrainian one. The two countries both had an established (if slightly corrupt) state administration and a homogeneous population with a common enemy. They therefore didn't have to worry about organizing tax collection, conscription or police at the same time as fighting a war, and didn't have to worry about defections from the military. It was probably also helpful that the two countries each had a low-intensity trench war occupying a small, defined part of their respective territories. They could rotate units through that area to give them combat experience, without worrying about the war spilling out and disrupting government or economic activity in other regions.
So I don't think it's the case that the defeat of the Afghan government was due entirely to poor decisions by it and by its allies, or to the lack of foreign assistance. I imagine that "former communist government suffers near-death experience, fights trench war for a few years and develops surprisingly effective military" may actually be a pretty common outcome.
Afghanistan did successfully kick out the invader (the US) by creating multipolar compromises with the Taliban involving hundreds of factions. It was an example of unification to defeat an outside force.