After Afghanistan, will Russia misjudge America?

After Afghanistan, will Russia misjudge America?
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Over the years the U.S. has been humbled abroad more than once but bounced back. Now, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, might Russia see the U.S. as defeated and vulnerable to pressure? This could be an error.

To put this in perspective, consider three past U.S. adversities: the Bay of Pigs and Berlin Wall, Vietnam, and Iran’s seizure of U.S. diplomats and the failed rescue attempt.

In 1961, America faced a triple threat from the Soviet world. In April, the new Kennedy administration botched an amphibious assault at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro’s regime. At a June summit in Vienna with President Kennedy, Premier Nikita Khrushchev found him to be “inexperienced, even immature.” In August, East Germany began constructing a wall in Berlin as the U.S. and its allies watched helplessly. 

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These events could have inclined the Kremlin in 1963 secretly to dispatch nuclear arms to Cuba. Within days, however, the Soviet leadership backed off in the face of a U.S. naval blockade. Easing its decision was Kennedy’s pledge to pull nuclear-armed missiles out of Turkey. Soviet risk-taking in Cuba may have reinforced U.S. resolve to increase its advantage over the USSR by deploying 1,000 new Minuteman missiles.

More than 58,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War, 20 times more than in Afghanistan. After years of bitter public protests and a struggle to achieve “peace with honor,” President Nixon ended America’s combat role in 1973. South Vietnam fell in 1975. 

Perhaps emboldened by the rout, the USSR expanded its international ambitions. It backed a Marxist takeover of Angola in 1975 and Ethiopia in its war against Somalia in 1978. Going for broke, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow doubtless celebrated America’s loss in revolutionary Iran of intelligence assets directed against the USSR.

The U.S. was slow to react, but it did. In 1978 it sidelined the USSR in brokering Camp David accords between Israel and its former ally Egypt. NATO pledged higher defense spending. In 1979, the alliance agreed to put new missiles in Europe to counter Soviet theater-range SS-20s. In 1980, the U.S. began aiding Afghan insurgents resisting Soviet occupiers.

In November 1979 in Iran, militants overran the U.S. embassy and seized hostages. The U.S. reacted modestly by halting imports of oil from Iran and freezing its assets in America. In April 1980, the U.S. mounted a bold but inept rescue attempt, with aircraft crashing in the Iranian desert. After 444 days and within hours of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president on Jan. 20, 1981, Iran released the 52 hostages in exchange for the return of its seized assets.

As in the previous two crises, U.S. recovery took time but was lasting. The Iranian humiliation boosted public support for Reagan’s huge military buildup. Far-reaching defense reforms, reinforced by the historic 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, bolstered joint military capabilities.

The Kremlin might reflect on these examples to gain insight into how the U.S. might respond to its Afghanistan reverse.  

Russian leaders might doubt whether the U.S. will sustain high levels of defense spending despite the heightened U.S. focus on great power competition. But unlike after Vietnam, a bipartisan majority in Congress favors increased expenditures.

The Kremlin might hope the U.S. will dial back its force buildup in NATO’s eastern flank or its military aid to Ukraine. Rather, nudged by NATO’s eastern members, the U.S. and NATO may sustain their robust posture. If Russia’s upcoming Zapad-2021 exercise in western Russia and Belarus is seen as threatening, the U.S. or NATO could do even more.

The Kremlin might be tempted to think the U.S. is exhausted by burdens in the greater Middle East and will turn away from it. Despite some downsizing in the region, America is likely to retain substantial force to address threats from Iran or elsewhere.

Washington is entering a period of deeper reflection and intensified debate over foreign and military policy. As it goes forward, the Kremlin might consider the U.S. record of overcoming previous misfortunes.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He was U.S. ambassador to U.S.-USSR negotiations on implementing the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and to Kazakhstan and Georgia.