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Let Ukraine Learn from Afghanistan

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Jeffrey D. Sachs | Feb 13, 2023 | New World Economy Column

The American economist writes as part of a series debating the wisdom of peace negotiations

The body of a rocket is stuck in a flat on February 24, 2023, following shelling on Kharkiv, Ukraine, by the Russian military
The body of a rocket is stuck in a flat on Feb. 24, following shelling on Kharkiv, Ukraine, by the Russian military

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 Atomic Scientists just 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 per cent, 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 a victim of a US-Russia proxy war that broke out in 2014.

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 adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later explained, the US’s objective was to provoke the Soviet Union to intervene in order to trap it 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.

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

Afghanistan today lies in ruins. While the US wasted more than $2 trillion of military outlay, Afghanistan is impoverished. Its 2021 GDP per capita was below $400!

The proxy war in Ukraine began nine years ago when the US government backed the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych.

President Yanukovych’s sin, from the US viewpoint, was his attempt to maintain Ukraine’s neutrality despite the US desire to expand Nato to include his country (and Georgia). America’s objective was for Nato countries to encircle Russia in the Black Sea region. The US has been massively arming and funding Ukraine since 2014.

Three demands:

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 the west and ethnic Russians in the eastern region and Crimea. The second is that Nato enlargement to Ukraine crosses a Russian red line. Russia will fight to the end, and escalate as necessary, to prevent the US from incorporating Ukraine into Nato.

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.

In March last year, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to understand his country’s dire predicament as a 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. Yet the US blocked the peace process.

The basis for peace today 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.

Above all, the government and people of Ukraine would tell Russia and the US that they refuse to be the battleground of a proxy war any longer.

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.

Prof Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, is president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, among others, and author.



Feb 24, 2023

Jeffrey, every time I read one of your op-eds, I'm distracted by the screams of "Truth!" in my head.


Feb 23, 2023

Thanks, also, for your excellent comments at the UN this week!

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