Russia’s War in Ukraine: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Rivalry

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

While the Ukraine conflict has set Russia against the US and its Western allies and partners, Moscow’s actions bear striking similarities to the failed American missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, both in terms of the ideology used to justify invasion and the pursuit and execution of war, writes Dmitry Shlapentokh of Indiana University South Bend.

Russia’s War in Ukraine: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Rivalry

Not according to script: Destroyed Russian tank on display in Lviv, Ukraine, August 12, 2022 (Credit: AlexanderLipko /

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine and, implicitly, between Russia and the West, which stands behind Ukraine, seems to indicate that the West and Russia are absolutely opposite in all perspectives. Still, a closer look at events indicate that Russia is merely imitating Western, especially American, practices. This suggests that the Russian venture in Ukraine could end in the same way as US misadventures in the Middle East.

Weaponizing ideology

US military missions in the Middle East – Iraq twice and Afghanistan – have been justified in many ways. The ideology of the “neocons”, the neoconservatives, has been paramount. Its tribunes believed that the US was unmatched in its power and that this should remove any restraint in the country’s foreign policy. Historian Michael Ledeen argued that the US should ignore international law and define its power by sheer force. "Every now and again, the United States has to pick up a crappy little country and throw it against a wall just to prove we are serious,” Leeden is reported to have said.

Robert Kagan, husband of Victoria Nuland, the current US under secretary of state for political affairs, has made the same point. In an article that he turned into a book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, published in 2003, prior to the US invasion of Iraq, he caused a stir in the policy community by asserting that "Americans are from Mars and Europe is from Venus." Europeans, he argued, were like the naïve Roman goddess of love, clinging to their belief in international and similar trifles, while the US was like the god of war, who understands that it is not laws but brutal force that decides the course of history.

Indeed, in the past, some neocons have advocated “preventive” nuclear war. A Foreign Affairs article published in 2006 asserted that, with the Russian nuclear arsenal degraded and China’s so miniscule, “for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy.” The authors observed that “it will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike.” Such a move would not only remove the US’s major rivals for unchallenged global dominance but it would also promote democracy in the world. Appeals to democratic values or humanitarian principles – say, to save Kosovo’s Muslims from mistreatment by Serbia – gave American use of “shock and awe” force the fig leaf of respectability, even nobility.

Mission not quite accomplished: Ceremony in Baghdad marking the end of the US combat mission in Iraq in 2011 (Credit: Erin A Kirk-Cuomo/ US Department of Defense)

Mission not quite accomplished: Ceremony in Baghdad marking the end of the US combat mission in Iraq in 2011 (Credit: Erin A Kirk-Cuomo/ US Department of Defense)

Protection of the homeland from imminent threats originating in Afghanistan, Iraq or some other Middle Eastern country has been another ideological justification for military strikes, certainly since the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, retaliation for and fear of a repeat of the 2001 catastrophes were the essential elements of the American narrative, justifying its war in Iraq. In February 2003, then-secretary of state Colin Powell famously shook a vial of white powder in a presentation to the UN Security Council and a global audience, claiming that it represented undeniable proof that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was ready to launch an attack against helpless Americans and that only a “preventive” war could stop such a calamity.

All of these ideological constructions were not logically connected. But they aimed to tap the emotions of fear and hatred of a perceived enemy. This was needed to condition American citizens to embrace war as the only possible option.

The beating of the ideological war drums has continued. Contemporary neocons openly regret that the US has not used its military might even more than it already has. HR McMaster, who served as US national security advisor during the administration of Donald Trump and is now senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, argued recently in Foreign Policy that “US restraint has created an unstable and dangerous world”, that “decades of ignoring the menaces posed by Russia and China has led the West to a precipice.”

Russia’s ideological justification of war imitates the West 

The Russian elite, at least those who follow the Kremlin line, has crafted structurally similar ideological lines. On one hand, some of its representatives preach the need to use brazen force. In this context, their belief is that any healthy nation should be expanding and that the war on Ukraine demonstrates that Russia is a state in its prime, and should not be ashamed of following its predatory instincts. Sergey Mardan, a popular Russian commentator, has pushed this narrative.

Another rationale takes the opposite tack, also a carbon copy of the American justification of its wars. In this case, the Russian elite has insisted that it had no choice but to protect fellow Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who were persecuted by Ukrainian nationalists. As with the US ventures in the Middle East, fear of an imminent attack on the homeland has been an essential ideological driver to justify the Russian invasion.

Presidential power: Putin and his generals at the May 9, 2022, parade on Red Square in Moscow commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 (Credit: RIA Novosti)

Presidential power: Putin and his generals at the May 9, 2022, parade on Red Square in Moscow commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 (Credit: RIA Novosti)

Russian officials have faithfully followed the American script. Moscow’s representatives at the UN asserted that the US had set up secret laboratories all over Ukraine, in which the US, together with their Ukrainian puppets, were developing deadly chemical and biological weapons. They alleged that American scientists planned to spread their deadly bacteria all over Russia by infecting birds and bats.

Russian ideology mongers have also picked up on how in the US the power of appeals to protect minorities can be persuasive. They proclaimed Ukraine a Nazi state, implicitly casting the government in Kyiv as anti-Semitic. While Ukrainian authorities replied that this was impossible, pointing out that president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the argument, contending that a Nazi anti-Semitic state could well have a Jewish president. He claimed that Adolf Hitler himself had “Jewish blood” and that “the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews”.

In the US, minorities and women chosen for high office such as Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright were foreign-policy hardliners or hawks. Moscow has followed the pattern, with Jewish TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov and Armenian journalist Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of state-controlled media organizations RT and Rossiya Segodnya, among the Kremlin’s top propagandists and supporters of President Vladimir Putin. Women who have strenuously defended the Russian leader have been dubbed Putin’s “iron dolls”.

Even as Russia has sought sharply to confront the US and the West, it has also imitated its adversaries. Take the use of the letter “Z” to indicate the Russian drive for complete victory. The “Z” stands for the expression “za pobedu”, meaning “for victory”. That Russians have been using a Roman-script letter instead of the Cyrillic seems incongruent with its anti-Western stance. After all, when Kazakhstan’s leaders proposed shifting from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, Moscow jumped on the move as an indication of their southern neighbor’s desire to move closer to the West. Further laying on the irony, while Putin has cast his war in Ukraine to be a “de-Nazification” mission, Ukrainians have likened the “Z” symbol used by Russian forces to a swastika, with the letter standing for the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute.

Imitating the follies of American military planning

The US has adeptly weaponized ideology to prosecute its wars in the Middle East. Russia is now doing the same in Ukraine. In the actual execution of its military operations, Moscow has also mimicked the Americans.

Washington’s military adventurism has been guided by the following principles:

  • The war should be conducted by a comparatively small “mercenary” army.
  • The mass media’s coverage of the war should be limited.
  • The war should be conducted with superior technology.
  • The military campaign should be quick and, after the opposing forces are defeated, the people of the vanquished nation will happily accept the result.

There was also an unwritten and unspoken “principle” – that the war should bring profit to the elite, which would exploit the conquered land’s natural resources and derive other spoils of war and victory.

The army of mercenaries as the major force for the war was a key element in the new military arrangements. The occupants of the White House remembered well that the draft, which sent hundreds of thousands of unwilling Americans to Vietnam’s jungles, not only did not prevent defeat but also led to extreme tensions and divisions in American society. A military made up only of enlisted men and women, those who volunteered to serve and implicitly to fight, were removed from the majority of the American people, which in general calmly accepts the suffering and death of those willing to put themselves in harm’s way. The use of defense and security contractors such as Blackwater further insulated the reality of the US wars from the public. Deaths of the personnel of these companies did not count in the reckoning of military casualties and were ignored.

Another factor in the conduct of the wars in the Middle East as distinct from the Vietnam War was the media coverage. In Vietnam, the press including television broadcasters had easy access to the battlefields, disseminating images of the horrors of war to Americans and the rest of the world. During the conflicts in the Middle East, the US military placed constraints on access, which constrained what was reported, published or shown on TV screens. Embedded reporters could present images of tough, brave and victorious American soldiers, but there was limited circulation of pictures or video of the collateral damage, the hundreds of thousands or possibly even millions of civilians who died. Footage might show a bomb or missile strike but not the resulting devastation on the ground.

The killing of innocents including defenseless women and children were dismissed, as the power elite in Washington argued that, the US having come under attack on 9-11, force was the only way to eliminate the terrorist threats coming from the Middle East. The US – as the sole superpower – was not accountable to anyone. And, as the Rumsfeld Doctrine (espoused by Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary under US president George W Bush) implied, military victory could be achieved because of American technological, weapons and logistic superiority and without the need for a huge number of solders on the ground.

Rallying the troops: The Russian elite has insisted that it has no choice but to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians from persecution by nationalists (Credit: RIA Novosti)

Rallying the troops: The Russian elite has insisted that it has no choice but to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians from persecution by nationalists (Credit: RIA Novosti)

The reality on the ground

But how did US methods and strategies play out?

Some aspects of the plans worked quite well. A good part of the American population accepted that Osama bin Laden and his Afghan protectors were indeed responsible for the 9-11 terrorist attacks and that their elimination would prevent similar incidents in the future. Most of the public seemed also to agree to the allegation that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them, even if doing so surely meant his and his country’s destruction.

Both the Afghan and Iraqi armies indeed collapsed quickly. The American public was also not very disturbed by the war, at least in comparison to the Vietnam War. This war was mostly a problem for a small segment of society – the professional military who had willingly accepted the risks. The death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq was low, under 7,000 service personnel, about a third of the number of homicides in the US in 2021 and about the same as the number of murders in Chicago over the past dozen years.

Why did the US wars in the Middle East end in failure?

There were several reasons. To start with, the US was unable to outsource the maintaining of order to local people, as was planned. This is similar to what happened in Vietnam. The problem lay with the American political and social culture. The sense of gratitude and reciprocity was absent. If a country and its people were deemed not to be useful in the future, the immediate threat to the US having been neutralized, then there was no responsibility to discharge. The relationship with the conquered country became purely mercantile or transaction. This was the attitude of both the elite and the soldiers who followed their orders. No one wanted to die for Washington, and the Afghan and Iraqi armies disintegrated when it became clear that the US was not serious about giving support and rebuilding.

In addition, the wars were launched with the assumption that they would be profitable investments. But the costs of the wars ran up to an estimated US$2 trillion, with the bills for healthcare, disability, burial and other payments for the 4 million or so veterans of the conflicts estimated at another US$2 trillion or more. The spoils of the victor? In Iraq, it was neither the guerillas nor the instability in the country that prevented the exploitation of its oil and gas riches. The problem was the inefficiency of the American military machine. The war enriched the middlemen – the contractors – and local elites but did not make up for the enormous expenditure required to invade and occupy. In Afghanistan, a series of corrupt US-supported governments failed to bring order to the country and, in the end, the US and coalition partners withdrew in a chaotic operation in August last year, allowing the Taliban quickly to return to power in Kabul.

Now “Z” here: Rolling out the symbol of support for what Putin has cast as a “de-Nazification” of Ukraine (Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

Now “Z” here: Rolling out the symbol of support for what Putin has cast as a “de-Nazification” of Ukraine (Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

Russia’s war in Ukraine mimics US strategy 

As with the weaponizing of ideology, in the execution of its war plans in Ukraine, Russia has also mimicked the US in its Middle East ventures. Before Russian forces invaded on February 24, Moscow asserted that the mission could be completed in blitzkrieg fashion, thanks to their technological prowess and well-trained troops. Russians, like Americans when it came to Afghanistan and Iraq, believed that most Ukrainians would greet Putin’s army as liberators, or at least that the Ukrainian military would not put up much of a fight.

This was hardly the case, however. The Ukrainian army offered stubborn resistance to the invading Russians. Still, Moscow succeeded to some extent in recruiting collaborators to whom it could outsource the task of maintaining order in territories over which it took control. And Putin has enlisted “mercenary” soldiers and private suppliers in the same way as the Americans, insulating the Russian public somewhat from the grim news of major setbacks in their Ukraine campaign. Putin’s control of the media and his opposition have contained dissent and shielded citizens from the harsh realities of the conflict, including a mounting casualty count.

Moscow might well encounter the cost issue that did not seem to trouble the American political leadership. Moscow’s coffers may be full for now, thanks to high energy costs and a significant decline in imports. But the economic bonanza could end abruptly if oil and gas prices tumble. Then the sanctions imposed by the US, Europe and partner countries could bite hard, especially in the winter. Yet, even if the masses turn against Putin, creating instability, his position would likely remain secure, given the regime’s machinery of repression.

The nobility of service: The president visits troops at a military hospital in Moscow (Credit: President of Russia)

The nobility of service: The president visits troops at a military hospital in Moscow (Credit: President of Russia)

Imitating disaster? 

The Russia’s war in Ukraine may seem to have launched two opposite narratives. Russian leaders profess that their nation is different from the West and that the action in Ukraine is not at all like the wars that the US and its allies and partners have pursued in Europe and the Middle East. From their perspectives, American and Western leaders agree – their wars were just; Russia’s is a grave violation of the international order.

Still, a closer look indicates that Russia has merely followed the US and Western playbook, not just in its use of ideology to justify its actions but also in its warfare style and strategy. The ideology of invasion, propaganda campaigns and war plans all show structural similarities with similar approaches by the US and the West. There is something almost Freudian about this game of imitation, which after all is, as the saying goes, the best compliment. It may be indeed be the sincerest form of admiring rivalry. For Moscow, however, the ultimate risk is that it repeats not just the methods but also the biggest mistakes of the US and the West in their Middle East misadventures – and that Ukraine turns out to be a catastrophe with lasting negative repercussions for Russia and, collaterally, the world.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Dmitry Shlapentokh

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Indiana University South Bend

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Indiana University South Bend. Born in Ukraine, then part of the USSR, he received his PhD from the University of Chicago. He teaches world and Russian/Soviet and Post-Soviet history. He has been at IU South Bend since 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

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