The Rivalry That Defines America

How the U.S. dealt with Russia in Afghanistan is informing how Russia is dealing with the U.S. in Ukraine.

Illustration showing two men facing each other and trying to pull a long, tangled red rope towards themselves
Owen Gent

Near the end of the film Patton, George C. Scott, who plays the eponymous general, is invited to a banquet hosted by the Soviet high command to celebrate its impending victory over Nazi Germany. When Patton’s Soviet counterpart, General Mikhail Katukov, proposes that he and Patton drink a toast to each other, Patton replies through an interpreter, “My compliments to the general; please inform him that I do not care to drink with him or any other Russian son of a bitch.” The interpreter tells Patton that he cannot possibly relay this, but Patton insists. General Katukov replies through the interpreter that he thinks Patton is “a son of a bitch, too.” Patton laughs. “I’ll drink to that,” he says. “One son of a bitch to another.”

Our rivalries define us—or, at least, our national-security strategies. In the 80 years since Patton and Katukov’s armies met in Germany, our two countries have played opposing roles in many conflicts. America has been the counterinsurgent to Russia’s insurgent (Vietnam, Laos, Angola) and vice versa (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua). The lessons we’ve learned in war, we’ve often learned from each other.

This tradition continues as we mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul and as the war in Ukraine grinds into its sixth month. The botched NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened Vladimir Putin as he weighed whether to invade Ukraine—as did his visions of restoring Russia to its borders as they were defined before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a collapse precipitated by its own misadventure in Afghanistan. As the war in Ukraine deepens, America’s experience in Afghanistan should remain top of mind. This is particularly true in three categories: time, alliances, and manpower.

A saying in the Afghan War was that the Americans had the watches, but the Taliban had the time. The point wasn’t necessarily that Americans should have fought longer, but that we were always publicly looking for an exit. Indeed, in the 20-year conflict, we were never more than 24 months from an announced troop drawdown. Our inability to convince allies and adversaries of our superior resolve allowed the Taliban to outmaneuver us by convincing the Afghan people that their presence would endure far beyond that of NATO and the Afghan government.

Russian strategists, alert to the U.S.-Taliban dynamic in Afghanistan, understand that the key to outmaneuvering your adversary in time is convincing him that you have more of it. The first phase of the Russian war plan relied on a lightning-quick advance to shock Ukrainians into capitulation. When that advance stalled, the Russians regrouped. They pivoted from a war of maneuver to a war of attrition. Unlike the American war machine, the Russian war machine has a track record of grinding its opposition to dust in attritional wars in Chechnya, Syria, and now eastern Ukraine. None of these campaigns have taken as long as 20 years, but they haven’t needed to.

The maintenance of alliances is another area where the American experience in Afghanistan is in conversation with the Russian experience in Ukraine. In Afghanistan, America too often sidelined NATO member nations. From President Donald Trump’s direct negotiations with the Taliban to President Joe Biden’s uncoordinated withdrawal, American unilateralism eroded NATO credibility in Afghanistan, weakening the alliance. And the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan marked one of NATO’s darkest moments.

In Ukraine, Russia will be looking for opportunities to precipitate the type of NATO dysfunctionality that characterized events in Afghanistan one year ago. The Russians also know that their success in Ukraine will not hinge on their ability to cultivate proxies—such as Belarus—but on their ability to cultivate partners, particularly China.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s oil imports have surged to a record high, increasing 55 percent in the past year. Recent attempts by the U.S. and other NATO members to curb Russian oil exports, or to at least place a cap on the price of Russian oil, have met resistance by China. Its commerce ministry has, thus far, rebuffed these efforts, telling U.S. Treasury officials that Russia’s oil price remains a “very complicated issue.”

Economic sanctions against Russia are only as powerful as the alliance of nations that agree to implement them—or as weak as the alliance that forms to rebuff them. Economic difficulties aside, a Russian strategy of attrition will work only if it doesn’t transfer too much pain onto the Russian people. America was able to sustain its protracted war in Afghanistan because it kept casualties low and relied on an all-volunteer force. Russia has neither the benefit of low casualties nor enough volunteers.

By certain estimates, Russia has suffered 30,000 dead in the first six months of the war; this is 10 times the total number killed in the U.S. war in Afghanistan and twice the number of Soviets killed there. This past May, in the face of a conscription shortfall, the Duma expanded the eligible age for enlistment to those over 40, while making dubious claims that those conscripts would not see action in Ukraine.

Putin’s continued insistence on classifying the largest war fought in Europe since the Second World War as a “special military operation” shows his political vulnerability to excessive Russian bloodshed. America’s political class effectively waged the Afghan War within the recesses of America’s consciousness. The outcome of the war in Ukraine may well depend on Putin’s ability to do the same.

The war in Ukraine is yet another bloody chapter in the U.S.-Russia version of a forever conflict, in which both nations fight and learn from each other, sometimes from afar, through a seemingly endless succession of victories and defeats.