When the US became involved in both world wars in the 20th century, all sides knew the outcome would be in favor of US allies. However, they had no idea of the length nor could they guess that the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1919 would be the first long-term cause of WWII, any more than anyone could predict that WWII would end with the US dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Similarly, the Russian war outcome is impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy. Yet, the US has based its proxy-war strategy through military and economic aid, combined with sanctions on a neoconservative scenario of the 1980s. This is because Biden, a Cold War/militarist liberal, has always supported the military-industrial complex and the neoconservative strategy of the 1980s. Surrounded by a Clinton-Obama hawkish foreign policy team, with individuals who unfortunately operate under assumptions that the US can repeat the Reagan-era strategy with the same degree of success in Russia, Biden’s mindset has not moved out of the 1980s neoconservative mold.
In the Russian war against Ukraine, the US goal is based on the neoconservative strategy of the Reagan administration which raised defense spending astronomically to the degree that Moscow responded, despite crippling its already weak civilian economy. Debilitating Russia economically by forcing it to spend itself into oblivion for its defense sector, thereby winning the war of attrition, worked for Reagan who raised the US public debt to the highest level since WWII, as though the US had an FDR-style war economy.
At the time, Biden was senator who went along with the neoconservatives of the 1980s, just as he went along with Reagan’s vast defense budget increase as part of the strategy which in fact seemed, at least on the surface, to pay off because Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled the ungovernable USSR collapsing from within owing to structural impediments ranging from falsified economic output statistics to a parasitic bureaucracy. Scholars who have studied postwar Soviet history know very well that internal structural causes, combined with the rapidly rising cost of defense, precipitated the collapse of USSR.
Scenarios for the end of the Russian War:
1. Russia suffers a military defeat. If we are to believe the Pentagon, Russia has already lost and cannot possibly prevail militarily. If we are to accept the State Department version, Russia cannot win militarily because its “war aims” cannot be realized, although the war aims have been a moving target. How realistic is this scenario, considering that the Pentagon map of Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory stretches from Odessa up to Kherson, Mariupol, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and all along the border northwest to Chernobyl; in essence a solid strategic buffer zone that reminds any student of Soviet studies the sort of thing Stalin would do in pursuit of securing a minimal base of operations, if for no other reason, than negotiating leverage. Deliberately oblivious to this reality in part for public relations reasons but also because the US wants a protracted war, and the fact that about 6 million of 44 million Ukrainians are displaced and many cities severely destroyed, the US government insists that Russia is “losing”. Unless losing has some “alternative fact” meaning other than what is in the dictionary, it defies logic to see how Russia is “losing’ and Ukraine is “winning”.
2. Russia scores a resounding victory with the end of the Zelenskyy regime and Moscow placing its own puppet regime in Kyiv. This is as unrealistic as the first scenario because geography determines Russia’s foreign policy, as it does Mexico-US relations, India-China, etc. Russia values the strategic balance of power and does not want a Ukraine as a military and economic Western puppet, but it also values economic integration with the West. Here too the US has an early Cold War goal which is completely contradictory to the neoliberal model of globalization, namely, the creation of East-West economic blocs with an eye on China, not Russia, as the ultimate Western enemy to undermine. “Giving war a chance”, the Biden neo-conservatives have no other card to play against China, but to force Russia into a war, even if Moscow prevails, thereby making it easier to consolidate those blocs and derive the meager short-term benefits of strengthening the US defense and energy sectors, along with derivative industries.
3. A Yalta-style conference (February 1945) where Moscow and the West agree on portioning Ukraine, with provisions for all sorts of Russian limitations regarding future military operations similar to Ukraine, in return for Western guarantees to place geographic limits on NATO expansion so that Russia does not feel the pressure of Cold War containment. Putin and Biden are Cold War militarists who understand this sort of thinking, but it is unlikely to take place, unless Western Europe feels the pain of a declining economy and reverses position to demand a quick settlement. The fact that sanctions cut both ways, deeply and sharply, is hardly anything to celebrate any more for the Europeans than for the Americans, dragging down the rest of the world over a war of imperialism in Ukraine. Macron has both Marine Le Pen and especially Jean-Luc Melenchon after a deal with the Greens, breathing down his neck with the legislative elections of June 2022. Energy is killing the EU economy and it is no secret that the US is charging far higher prices than the Russians.
4. War of attrition scenario as the Biden neo-cons envision would be another way that this could end, although attrition cuts both ways and it would send not just the Russian economy into oblivion, but Ukraine would become another Yemen. Furthermore, the US neo-con position also clashes with the MF, World Bank, Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs warning of a sharp drop in the dollar, lingering stagflation, sharply higher US and EU public debt, and lower living standards for the entire world. If that is not sufficiently scary to business elites and trade unions alike, China would emerge even stronger because of its unique global integration model free of a sanction’s regime.
5. Sharp US-NATO escalation, with hundreds of billions poured into the conflict to the degree that it becomes even more obvious than it is currently that Ukraine is but a pretext for a Russia vs, US-led NATO war. The inevitable conclusion is nuclear winter for the planet. While Putin has been talking about it from a position of weakness/deterrence, and the US has been talking nuclear war down but acting as though it is on the table, the Europeans are very anxious because nuclear war takes them right back to Reagan Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger who had no problem of a “limited nuclear war”, as long as it were confined on European/Eurasian soil. Europe holds a great deal of leverage and the question is when and it if will exercise it.
6. Afghanistan-style insurgency of the 1980s combined with internal pressure on the Kremlin from oligarchs and the masses to end the conflict would be dream come true for the US. However, this is as unlikely as a nuclear war. Neo-con US strategists are salivating over such a scenario but once again realism will sink in when action on the ground does not support the mental constructs. True, in some respects this is already taking place sporadically in cocoons of resistance, but it is hardly a deterrent for the Kremlin’s goals. Contrary to Western wishful thinking, Putin has built an elite and populist-based consensus, enjoying greater popularity than Biden enjoys either among the public or business elites watching their stock portfolios drop sharply in the first four months of 2022.
The scenarios described above may never come to pass, unless some combination of those versions ends the war. A more important question is how will any war-ending scenario shape the post-war peace, as was the case with the dreadful Paris Peace Treaty of 1919 which led right back to another war. Putin is not Tsar Peter the Great, but his is ambitious and wants a place in history by somehow strengthening Russia which was weakened under Yeltsin in the 1990s.
Putin and many in the Kremlin have been watching China’s global ascendancy as the world’s undisputed economic superpower and the relative economic decline of the US. Putin and the Kremlin want to position Russia in a competitive role beyond just exporting energy, minerals and raw materials as though it is a Third World country. Securing a balance of power was a priority against the unapologetic Western advances, but this has meant militarism and alienation of countries surrounding Russia; a calculated risk that Putin was willing to take to affirm Russia’s Great Power status.
The US saw the opportunity to exploit Putin’s imperialist ambition by “giving war a chance”, considering that “empire as a way of life”, as William Appleman Williams argued is part of the political culture and ideological framework. The problem, however, is that in 2022 the US is in a comparable position as Russia in the 1980s, namely a military superpower, playing an increasingly diminishing role in the world economy. Hence, the US is falling back on its remarkable ability to destabilize and slowdown the advances of its rivals, even if this means self-inflicted wounds to its own declining economic status. Regardless of which scenario plays out, short of the nuclear, there are no winners in this conflict, contrary to what the oligarch-led Putin regime assumes or the neo-con Wall Street-led group of delusional enthusiasts living in the neo-con Reagan world of the 1980s.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.