Russian forces in Moldova run the risk of being overrun. Image: Russia Ministry of Defense

War plunges its participants into a welter of death and destruction, hardship and cruelty, tragedy and irony. The Ukraine war’s agonies have been widely documented but its overlooked ironies are particularly striking.

The post-1945 US has proven largely unsuccessful as a warrior nation. Russia and its predecessor state, the USSR, have been far more successful – with one standout exception.

One observer thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched his country on potentially its most disastrous military venture since that exception – the USSR’s war in Afghanistan.

The Kremlin’s ongoing “special military operation” grants Washington not only a platform of moral superiority but the opportunity to fight a proxy war that could feasibly bleed Russia white in Ukraine in the same way it did the USSR in Afghanistan.

Multiple regime change campaigns undertaken by US-led Western alliances have ended in disasters – ones that Putin has excoriated, most notably the West’s own Afghan defeat.

Yet Putin, previously an astute and victorious war maker, now appears to have made that very same error with his bid to overthrow Kiev’s Volodymyr Zelensky government.

But even as Russia’s body count climbs, the observer warns that it would be dangerous for the West to hope, or push for, regime change in Moscow.

That observer is Italian Gastone Breccia, a professor of military history at the University of Pavia who has published widely on topics ranging from the Roman art of war to the Korean conflict. He has also conducted live research in war zones including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Gastone Breccia in a file photo. Image: Twitter

His upcoming work, scheduled to be published next month with co-author Andrea Frediani, is Le Guerra Della Russia (The Wars of Russia).  

In an exclusive interview, Breccia discusses Russia’s war of choice in Ukraine, the West’s response, possible outcomes and an overlooked worst-case scenario for Europe.

Asia Times: Were you surprised that Putin launched an invasion?

Gaston Breccia: I was absolutely surprised. I thought that he would not invade, and wrote about that just a few days before he did. I wrote that he could achieve his goals without an invasion. I thought that his goals were to keep Crimea and the smaller Donbas republics under Moscow rule and to keep Ukraine out of NATO.

AT: Some, including the Pope, have suggested that Putin had a reasonable casus belli – the eastward expansion of NATO. Agree?

GB: I do not agree. I think the expansion of NATO was basically an internal movement among eastern bloc countries. It was not the will of NATO to expand, it was that countries like Poland and Hungary wanted to keep themselves safe, under cover of NATO.

I thought NATO would not expand as far as Kiev due to the internal situation of Ukraine – it is a divided country with separatist republics on its supposed territory. When a country is not at peace, or if there is a civil war, it is ineligible for NATO entry.

AT: Clearly, Ukraine is fighting a proxy war for the US. What is your thinking?

GB: They are. This does not diminish their value and their spirit of sacrifice. It does not deny that they have the right, and are demonstrating the free will, to oppose the Russian invasion. Their will, at the moment, coincides with the US strategic interest, which is to make the Russians pay dearly for invading Ukraine.

But I think there is a problem. The US is beginning to think that this proxy war can become something long in duration. That, in the long run, they can defeat Russia through Ukrainian blood. I think this is an over-reach of the strength and potential of the Ukrainian army.

A Ukrainian tank stuck in the mud. Image: CNN / Screengrab / AP

AT: Is Ukraine also fighting a proxy war for Europe?

GB: This is the question. I think Europe has different interests from the USA – different economic and even political interests. We Europeans have to live side by side with Russia. It is not in our best interest to fight a long war with Russia, not just from the economic perspective, or from the gas and oil perspective. It is about what we want in the long run. The building of Europe should include Russia. This is a cultural point.

AT: Is a defeated and humiliated Russia a desirable outcome?

GB: A defeated Russia would mean a defeated Putin – so, regime change in Moscow. I think in Washington, they are thinking this is a possible outcome. This could be in the common interests of Europe and the US. But it is very hard to obtain this goal through a war in Ukraine because before declaring himself defeated and losing power, Putin could really escalate.

AT: In recent history, Western regime change operations have proven disastrous. Has Putin made the same error?

GB: The West has been absolutely unsuccessful at it. But maybe some Americans and Zelensky see the possibility of taking advantage of the error Putin has made. I don’t know if they know something that I don’t about other personalities in Moscow who can do something against Putin. And trying to defeat the Russians in the field will be really difficult. I think the main object is a long war, trying to wear down Putin’s grip on power.

AT: Don’t wars expand leaders’ grips on power?

GB: Unfortunately, this is true. It is an illusion to see Putin tumble after a few months of war.

AT: The Soviets/Russians have – bar Afghanistan – had a pretty successful history of military operations post-1945. The suppression of insurgencies in the Baltics and Ukraine, the suppression of the Hungarian and Czech uprisings, eventual victory in Chechnya, swift victory in Georgia, grabs of Crimea and chunks of Donbas, and successful defense of the interests in Syria. Have these experiences influenced Putin?

GB: They have used very little restraint in small wars against their satellites. The crackdown in Budapest in 1956 was brutal. Twelve years later, the Czechs gave way without really fighting because they knew too well what was coming.

This kind of harsh treatment of satellites was possible during the Cold War, because of the mutually acknowledged balance of power and MAD. (Albeit, the latter is still in being). Afghanistan was the stumbling block. That was their biggest mistake, before Ukraine.

AT: In recent years in particular, Putin’s post-Soviet Russia has won multiple military successes. Has this led to hubris? 

GB: I was confident in Putin before February 24. He seemed very clever. He had a clean sheet of victories – Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Syria. But now? Difficult to say. Maybe he was misled by his intelligence or by his own wishful thinking about the political situation in Kiev. He has woken up to the dire reality and he is now fighting a protracted war.

An adviser talks to Vladimir Putin during a military exercise in 2019. Photo: TASS

AT: Let us turn to America. If you look at the US post-1945 record at direct warfighting, it has been dire. Stalemate in Korea, withdrawal from South Vietnam, then North Vietnamese victory, withdrawal from Somalia, then a failed state, withdrawal from Afghanistan then Taliban victory and an uncertain long-term outcome in Iraq.

The one shining victory was a proxy victory using the Mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. Is this influencing thinking in DC at present?

GB: Exactly. In Washington, they see a second chance to defeat Russia like they defeated the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s. I think they are saying, ‘We have another – and better – proxy than the Mujahedeen. The Ukrainian people seem very willing to fight until the bitter end. So why don’t we take advantage from this?’

AT: The opposite approach is “The quickest way to end a war is to lose it.” Pacifists argue it is best to stop arming Ukraine so as not to prolong the bloodshed. You disagree, insisting that there could be a worse outcome than Russian victory and a Ukrainian collapse. What is your thinking?

GB: We have passed that point [of not arming Ukraine]. I think we have to send arms to Ukraine. This is the shortest way to peace. A real peace will be really difficult in the next few months. Some kind of agreement will be necessary. If we don’t send arms now, it seems too difficult to reach an agreement.

If the Russian army reaches the Dniepr and occupies half the country, we will see a terrible guerilla war – in fact, a divided country and a guerrilla war. What I fear most is that even a partial occupation of Ukraine by the Russians could lead to a long guerilla war which would be really devastating, not only for the Ukrainian people, but for Europe.

AT: Why would it be so bad?

GB: Because a guerrilla involves civilians, and civilians are sometimes crueler than professional fighters. This is hard to say here in Italy, but I think it is true. This kind of war seeds enmity and hatred. For decades. And the Ukrainian Far Right is a fear.

If we see a guerrilla war in Ukraine, I am sure that militias like the Azov Regiment [currently fighting with incredible – indeed, heroic – fortitude in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol] and the Right Sector will lead the war.

They are very motivated, well-trained fighters. But their political goal will be to strengthen the divide between pro-Western and pro-Russian Ukrainians. So they will fight a bitter war, a civil war, not aiming for the gain of peace as soon as possible.

Veterans of the Azov Volunteer Battalion, which took part in the war with Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine, salute during a mass rally called ‘No Surrender’ in Kiev on March 14, 2020. Foreign right-wing extremists were reported to have joined the unit as well as adversary units on the pro-Russian side in the conflict in order to gain military experience. Photo: AFP / Sergei Supinsky

AT: A civil war within a guerrilla war?

GB: Exactly. We experienced something like that in many [occupied parts of Europe] in the Second World War. Here in Italy, there was a very bitter guerrilla war which became a kind of civil war.

A long guerrilla war in Ukraine could destroy the spirit of the EU. Even now, here in Italy, we are beginning to split between so-called pacifists who say, “No arms to Ukraine and peace,” and others who say, “No, we have to back their resistance to the end.’”

AT: So, we are stuck with fueling a large-scale conventional war in order to avoid long-scale guerrilla war – ie, a really bad option among even worse options. But there is another nightmare scenario. Do you think Moscow will go nuclear in response to Western intelligence and arms supplies to Kiev?

GB: I think it will remain a big bluff unless Putin finds himself with his back against the wall. But that will not come unless the Ukrainian army can stage a major counter-offensive and defeat the Russian army. Before seeing his troops fall back, I think Putin would try to escalate with a tactical nuclear weapon.

But not before that. I don’t think he will go nuclear only because NATO is giving Ukraine intelligence or arms. I also don’t think there is the possible outcome of a large Ukrainian counter-offensive against Crimea or Donetsk or Luhansk – against the south or the east.

AT: Can the West continue to walk this narrow, narrow path, supporting Ukraine while managing escalation risk?

GB: I think it is the only feasible policy path. I don’t see any other realistic path from the military point of view. Trying to expel the Russians from all of the Ukrainian territory – Donbas or Crimea – seems very, very difficult. And it seems too risky. Like you say, it is a very narrow path.

We have to reinforce the Ukrainians to contain the Russian offensive. At the same time, we have to open talks with Putin. But I don’t see, now, how they can find an agreement. Zelensky is very clear when he says he can’t think of conceding a square inch of Ukrainian territory to the Russians.

AT: Putin appears to be laying the groundwork for a long war. What does his end game look like?

GB: I think if he can keep Crimea, the southern corridor and Donbas, he can say he won. But I think Ukrainians will not concede victory on his terms, so there could be low-level fighting for years as we work on possible arrangements for these parts of Ukraine. In my opinion, what Putin is thinking is an internal displacement of people from these areas.

I think they are planning to move part of the people – the pro-Ukrainian part – by letting them go west or north. After a few months, they will say, “Let’s do a referendum about what the people want.” I think this will be the most probable outcome.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a global symbol of Ukraine’s brave struggle and the fight for democracy against authoritarianism. Photo: NDTV / Screengrab

AT: That sounds like Stalin’s solution to post-1945 guerilla resistance in the Baltics and Ukraine: deportations. To change the subject, today’s Europeans are not warriors. Why are European capitals not stepping up and pushing for peace?

GB: I think German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz is in a difficult positon because of the energy links, and his people are very worried about a clean break with Russia. So he is not a credible broker for a peace agreement. In Italy, we are a lesser partner of NATO and EU and I don’t think our politicians think of themselves as peace brokers.

And there is French President Emanuel Macron. He is  – how can I say this? – “The inheritor of French grandeur.” So yes, he is trying to create a possible solution. But I think the real power broker is still in Washington.

AT: And Washington is hardly aiming flocks of doves at Moscow. What about Ankara, which made a significant effort early in the conflict?

GB: I think [Turkish] President Recep Erdogan was very worried about a possible expansion of Russian power in the Black Sea – the Turks can’t think of the Black Sea as a “Russian Lake.” Now, they are less worried that this will be the outcome. I was surprised that, after a few weeks, Erdogan disappeared from the scene.

Though, maybe that is because the talks did not have any real outcome.