Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing the high costs of using brute military power to advance Russia’s interests and to expand its sphere of influence. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly right on one issue: If the old Soviet Union still existed in 2003 and remained committed to protecting its Middle Eastern ally Iraq, the United States would probably not have invaded that country and ousted its leader, Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, the fact that the Soviet Union was on its last legs in 1990 may explain why it failed to use its eroding diplomatic and military power to press Baghdad and Washington to reach a deal that could have led to Saddam’s withdrawal from Kuwait and prevent the US armed campaign against Iraq.

Contrary to the American narrative and the rhetoric that depict US military interventions around the world in the post-World War II era as part of an effort to uphold the norms of the liberal international order, its use of armed force in Iraq and elsewhere mostly reflected its ability to advance its global interests cost-effectively. 

To put it another way, the concerns over the costs of a potential nuclear confrontation with Moscow probably would have constrained the ability of the US to take military action against Iraq in 2003, in the same way that notwithstanding all their tough talk, the Americans were not ready to confront the Soviets on the battlefield after they crushed the democratic insurgencies in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), because, you know, those nukes.

It’s true that even when it didn’t face forceful opposition from another great power, rising military and financial costs of US military intervention in Iraq and earlier in Vietnam and eventually in Afghanistan led to a major reassessment of its decisions to go to war in those countries.

Indeed, you don’t have to be a geo-strategic forecaster to make the following statements: In the aftermath of the post-9/11 wars in the Greater Middle East, and recognizing the limits on the use of military power, including the lack of public support, the US is not going to invade any large Muslim country, and it certainly is not going to try to do regime change and democratize any Middle Eastern nations.  

In retrospect, a viable Soviet diplomatic and military response to the US threat to invade Iraq in 2003 would have made it unlikely that then-president George W Bush and his aides would have pursued what turned out to be a failed military adventure in Mesopotamia.

That figures like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the “Vulcans” who were regarded in Washington as the pragmatic masters of the use of power and as devotees of Nixon-like realpolitik foreign policy, ended up drawn into a crusade to bring democracy into the Middle East only makes sense if you conclude that they did so because, without any global checks and balances by another great power – that so-called unipolar moment – they could. Instead of wisely using power, they gave in to hubris. 

As did President Putin when he decided to invade Ukraine instead of continuing to put diplomatic and military pressure on Kiev and its Western allies to ensure that its strategic-back-yard neighbor didn’t join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, operating under the right assumption that its nuclear arsenal protects Russia against direct American military response.

Those who succumb to hubris risk the retribution of nemesis, and in this case, a unified West providing the Ukrainians, who were willing to defend their independence, with the military and diplomatic support to resist the Russian invasion.

In a way, the Ukrainians are in a stronger position than those Iraqis opposing the American “liberation” in 2003, to resist Putin’s plan to do a regime change in Kiev and pursue Russia’s purported mission of fulfilling its Russian Orthodox fantasies in the name of battling Western decadence.

But if Bush II’s imaginary crusade to democratize and the liberalize the Middle East was a cover to protect and sustain American hegemony in the region, Putin’s grand designs for a New Byzantium fighting same-sex marriage and wokism mask his strategic goal of maintaining hegemony in what he considers to be Russia’s sphere of influence.

From that perspective, the goal of the US and its Western allies shouldn’t be regime change in Moscow or, for that matter, defending the supposedly democratic Ukraine against authoritarian Russia.

Instead, the West needs to check Russian power, to demonstrate to Putin the high costs involved in using brute military power to advance Russia’s interests and to expand its sphere of influence, and in the process threaten the delicate balance of power in Europe.

Americans bought into the tall tale of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify the invasion of Iraq, in the same way that many Russians now believe that Ukraine is ruled by a bunch of Nazis. 

But as in the case of Iraq and its WMD, it’s only a question of time before Russians figure out that Adolf Hitler’s successors are not in charge in Kiev and start questioning the need to pay the high military and economic costs of fighting in that country. That is exactly what happened after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

The West needs to ensure that when that happens, and an agreement to end the war between Russia and Ukraine is reached, Putin, very much like Bush II – notwithstanding his “Mission Accomplished” claim – doesn’t emerge either as a winner or a loser, while assuring Putin that Ukraine and NATO will respect his country’s legitimate strategic interests. 

The best-case scenario from the Western perspective is that in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, and recognizing the limits on the use of military power, Russia will not pose a direct threat to its neighbors, try to invade them, or attempt regime change in their capitals. 

Leon Hadar

Leon Hadar is a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst. He is currently a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm. He authored Quagmire: America in the Middle East​ (Cato Institute, 1992) and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). He has a PhD in international relations from American University in Washington, DC, and master's degrees from the schools of journalism and international affairs at Columbia University.