Ukraine struggle: Did Putin study from Bush’s Iraq horrors? | The Iraq Conflict: 20 years on

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Twenty years in the past, on Might 1, 2003, then-United States President George W Bush introduced the tip of main fight operations in Iraq, a large banner behind him triumphantly screaming, “Mission Completed”. Six weeks earlier, the US had invaded the Center Jap nation illegally.

As US armour was rolling into Iraqi cities, worldwide information networks replayed again and again a scene from April 9 that 12 months that in hindsight appears loaded with dramatic irony.

The toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos sq. — an occasion that turned out to be stage-managed — was meant to symbolise the liberation of Iraqis and the tip of the Ba’ath Celebration’s 35-year-long rule in Iraq. But it was not the grand finale of the US invasion however moderately the prelude to a protracted and bloody revolt and armed rebellion.

The US occupation that lasted eight years created aftershocks of regional instability and left a whole lot of hundreds of Iraqis lifeless — so many who nobody has an actual depend.

Just like the US-led coalition in Iraq again then, the Russian authorities anticipated its unlawful invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to finish with a fast and decisive victory.

Fooled by a way of its personal invincibility, the Russian military entered Ukraine as if on parade, in lengthy columns that grew to become straightforward targets for US-made Javelin missiles. They anticipated to be marching by the streets of Kyiv inside days, however a 12 months later, the Russians stay slowed down in a protracted and bloody struggle.

So did Russian President Vladimir Putin find yourself repeating the errors — and for a lot of, the crimes — of Bush in Iraq 20 years in the past? How a lot do these two epoch-defining invasions have in frequent? What are the variations?

The quick reply: The parallels run deep, from the false pretexts underneath which they had been launched and the failings of the United Nations system that the wars confirmed up, to using non-public army contractors. However key variations exist within the deeper motivations that triggered the wars, mentioned army historians and analysts. And the US army proved simpler at combating a traditional struggle in Iraq than Russia has in Ukraine.

US President George W Bush announces the end of major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. A large banner behind him reads 'Mission Accomplished'.
US President George W Bush declares the tip of main fight operations in Iraq on Might 1, 2003, on board the plane service USS Abraham Lincoln [Larry Downing/REUTERS/FILE]

‘We create our personal actuality’

Each the US-led coalition in Iraq and Russia in Ukraine had been led to struggle by unbridled hubris — that may be a “key component” that these two conflicts have in frequent, mentioned Ibrahim al-Marashi, professor of Iraqi historical past at California State College. Each belligerents assumed it will be straightforward to launch “decapitation” assaults and change the governments of the international locations they had been invading with pleasant regimes that might merely serve their pursuits.

“Within the US case they achieved the decapitation, however they actually misinterpret the Iraqi inhabitants,” says al-Marashi. “The US thought they might be greeted as liberators overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and that didn’t occur. What did Russia assume? That the Ukrainians would additionally welcome them as liberators for overthrowing this so-called ‘fascist regime’.”

The end result was the identical in each instances — a “dogged nationwide resistance that humbled each powers,” he mentioned.

The hubris confirmed up in some ways.

As soon as senior Bush administration officers had made up their minds about invading Iraq, their single-minded dedication to topple the Iraqi regime rendered them oblivious to the unintended penalties of struggle, mentioned analysts.

It additionally blinded them to inconvenient truths — one thing neatly encapsulated in what a White Home official reportedly advised journalist Ron Suskind. “We’re an empire now, and after we act, we create our personal actuality,” the official mentioned.

Creating their “personal actuality” meant ignoring worldwide regulation and the United Nations Constitution that the US and Soviet Union had been unique signatories to. The shortcoming to cease the 2 bellicose powers from attacking sovereign states starkly uncovered the weaknesses of the post-World Conflict II worldwide order.

Each Russia and the US went to struggle off the again of bogus pretexts — alternate realities they created. Within the case of the US and its closest ally within the invasion of Iraq, the UK, doubtful intelligence painted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a harbourer of al-Qaeda, a hoarder of weapons of mass destruction, and an all-around worldwide bogeyman.

Al-Marashi has firsthand expertise of this. A paper he wrote was plagiarised by the UK authorities in a 2003 doc used to make the case for invading Iraq — the so-called “dodgy file”. Al-Marashi mentioned his work was utilized in “establishing the picture of a dictator who needed to be overthrown”.

Russia constructed the picture of a hostile administration in Kyiv that wanted to be overthrown and took that misinform its absurd outer limits, portraying Ukraine’s Jewish president Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a wicked addict presiding over a authorities of neo-Nazis.

“The primary ‘purpose’ for Putin taking Ukraine was that he was saving the Ukrainians from this drug-crazed felony Nazi gang operating the nation,” says Margaret Macmillan, professor of historical past on the College of Oxford. “And when it turned out that a whole lot of Ukrainians had been supporting the drug-crazed felony gang the struggle was now on the Ukrainians themselves, after which there was discuss of re-educating them.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally marking the one-year anniversary of the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, outside the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 18, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally marking the one-year anniversary of the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, outdoors the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Putin described the transfer as geared toward defending ethnic Russians and regaining the nation’s “historic roots” [Maxim Shipenkov/AP Photo/ Pool — FILE)

Different backdrops

As a state where power is concentrated in one man, Russia’s war in Ukraine is Putin’s war — the brutal incarnation of his own imperial designs, said experts.

According to Jade McGlynn, research fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, and author of the book Russia’s War, the invasion of Ukraine “at its heart is a war over identity and conceptions of the [Russian] nation”.

Putin “conflated himself with the facility constructions of Russia,” mentioned McGlynn, and “constructed a post-Soviet Russian identification that could be very depending on Ukraine and the concept of a larger Russia”.

For al-Marashi, who used to show at Ukraine’s Ivan Franko College, Russia’s struggle has an undeniably imperial facet to it that may be traced again to Ukraine’s incorporation into the Russian empire and deliberate insurance policies of “Russification”, which tried to disclaim Ukrainian tradition and identification within the nineteenth century. This “imperial mindset” has a protracted historical past to it, mentioned al-Marashi, from Catherine the Nice’s description of Ukraine as ‘New Russia’ all the best way to Putin. “These are imperial linkages that I don’t assume you may deny,” he mentioned.

The US’s imperial mindset in the direction of international locations it has invaded and occupied can also be onerous to disregard, mentioned consultants. However there’s a key distinction highlighted by the contexts that set the stage for the wars in Iraq and Ukraine.

Russia, mentioned Macmillan, “is the final standing European empire”. However it’s a crumbling empire, and the speeches and revisionist historic treatises that laid Putin’s ideological groundwork for the invasion of Ukraine are sometimes shot by with a way of historic loss. Putin has lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union as a “real tragedy” through which “tens of hundreds of thousands of our fellow residents and countrymen discovered themselves past the fringes of Russian territory”.

His struggle arose out of the perceived lack of Russia’s greatness, its humiliation and betrayal by the hands of the West, and the need to reclaim Russia’s place on the earth, in response to consultants. “Putin was a KGB agent when he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire from East Germany,” mentioned al-Marashi.

Nevertheless it was very completely different for Bush, who “inherited the windfall” of the tip of the Chilly Conflict and was “using the emergence” of the US because the superpower in a unipolar world.

The former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, US President George W Bush, and Vice President Richard Cheney at the farewell honour ceremony at the Pentagon for Rumsfeld in 2006.
Former US Secretary of Protection Donald Rumsfeld, US President George W Bush, and Vice President Richard Cheney (l-r) — key architects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq — at a farewell honour ceremony on the Pentagon for Rumsfeld on December 15, 2006 [AP Photo — FILE]

Unfinished enterprise

In response to al-Marashi, the 2003 invasion of Iraq got here at a “distinctive historic second” for the US, when its hegemony was comparatively unchallenged and it “sought to reshape the world” in its picture.

When Bush ran for president, he was targeted on home affairs, not international intervention, al-Marashi identified. However that modified with the 9/11 assaults, which emboldened the administration’s hawks, who felt that the US had unfinished enterprise in Iraq.

In a lot the identical manner, the Putin regime had unfinished enterprise in Ukraine. Putin, mentioned consultants, felt the necessity for an enduring resolution to the Ukraine query that had plagued Russian nationalists for the reason that Soviet breakup in 1991. That query — particularly, what to do about Ukraine drifting in the direction of the West’s embrace — had grow to be ever extra urgent for the reason that 2014 struggle within the Donbas.

Russia’s “Vietnam” — the disastrous 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and retreat 9 years later — was a cautionary story about underestimating the resistance of an invaded folks. However the reminiscence of that struggle had light, and for Russia’s international coverage hawks, there have been extra encouraging historic examples nearer handy: the brutal suppression of Chechen independence, and more moderen army successes in help of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

For Bush Junior, returning to the Center East was a possibility to complete off what his father began within the First Gulf Conflict. Key officers and ideologues of the second Bush administration had served underneath the elder Bush together with his vice chairman, Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Protection Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and US commerce consultant Robert Zoellick. That they had lengthy advocated for US army intervention overseas.

Wolfowitz, Armitage and Zoellick — three main “neocons” — along with one other key struggle architect, Bush’s Secretary of Protection Donald Rumsfeld, had been signatories of a letter to President Invoice Clinton in 1998 calling for regime change in Iraq.

“The one acceptable technique is one which eliminates the likelihood that Iraq will be capable to use or threaten to make use of weapons of mass destruction,” the letter learn. “Within the close to time period, this implies a willingness to undertake army motion as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long run, it means eradicating Saddam Hussein and his regime from energy.

“In any case, American coverage can’t proceed to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity within the UN Safety Council.”

 In this April 4, 2004 file photo, plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight as Iraqi demonstrators loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr attempt to advance on a facility being defended by US and Spanish soldiers in the Iraqi city of Najaf.
On this April 4, 2004 file photograph, plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA participate in a firefight in opposition to Iraqi demonstrators within the Iraqi metropolis of Najaf. Blackwater fighters had been implicated in civilian killings throughout the struggle [Gervasio Sanchez/AP Photo — FILE)

From Blackwater to Wagner

Security concerns, although they turned out to be highly exaggerated, played into the decisions of the US and Russia to embark on their illegal invasions.

Moscow has pointed to its fears of NATO expansion and the existential threat posed by a hostile Ukraine, describing its neighbour as merely a proxy for the West. It is, in Putin’s view, the latest episode in a long history of Western attempts to cripple Russia.

To some extent, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. European support for NATO is far greater than before the invasion, and Russia is more isolated, more economically vulnerable, and faced with biting sanctions.

Similarly, in the aftermath of 9/11, paranoia crept into the US establishment. The first major attack on the US mainland exposed the vulnerability of the world’s sole superpower and left the US public deeply shocked. Although Iraq had nothing to do with the attack, Americans “were prepared to believe the government if it told them Iraq was responsible,” Macmillan said.

Ultimately, both wars left the countries that started them — and the world at large — less secure than before, and as the costs and casualties began to mount, their citizens became predictably wary. The aftermath of 9/11 saw jingoism reach a fever pitch in the US but also galvanised an anti-war movement. By the end of Bush’s final term, public support for the war had plummeted.

It is much harder to gauge Russian public opinion — criticism of the war has been banned and early shows of public disapproval were ruthlessly stamped out — but the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing abroad to avoid the draft gives some indication of the public mood.

When the war in Donbas started in 2014, “there was a nationalist revival”, said McGlynn, “you saw people volunteering to go off to Donbas.

“In 2022 it was different, people were anxious”.

Yet again, Putin appears to have followed Bush’s example.

The US did not rely on conscription to fight its war in Iraq, but was nevertheless wary that a steady stream of body bags for regular troops would take a major toll on public opinion. Its widespread reliance on private military contractors in Iraq, however, helped solve that problem.

The war in Iraq presented a boon for security firms like Blackwater, whose mercenaries were implicated in civilian killings. Russia has followed suit in Ukraine, outsourcing its war to private companies like the notorious Wagner Group that has recruited widely from prison populations.

Newly recruited, poorly trained prisoners have been pressed into service with the promise of freedom, and have reportedly been used as cannon fodder in some of the most intense fighting in Ukraine. Wagner’s fighters have also been implicated in some of the worst atrocities in the ongoing war.

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, painted by former US President George W Bush, is displayed at "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy" exhibit at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas April 4, 2014.
A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, painted by former US President George W Bush,  at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas, April 4, 2014. Unlike Putin, who has an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court, Bush has never faced any serious consequences from the Iraq war [Brandon Wade/REUTERS — File]

Who received, and who misplaced

The US didn’t have a sound exit technique in Iraq and so received trapped in a grinding battle, mentioned Macmillan, including that Russia has made the identical mistake.

But the outcomes of the Russian and US invasions have been felt most acutely by the invaded populations — Iraqi society was “shattered” by the US’s “shock and awe” offensive, mentioned Macmillan, whereas the prices of reconstruction for Ukraine will seemingly be greater than in Iraq.

Nonetheless, there are variations within the penalties that the US confronted and that Russia will seemingly confront for years to come back.

Whereas the US was caught in a quagmire of its personal creation for almost a decade, there have been no important financial hardships skilled by its inhabitants. The US financial system didn’t undergo a war-induced shock, it confronted no sanctions and diplomatic isolation, and its army was not humiliated in the best way Russia’s has been.

Condemnations of US actions had been in the end inconsequential. The US was just too safe in its function as world hegemon to be handled like a pariah state, and the prospect of an Worldwide Felony Courtroom arrest warrant for Bush or some other senior US authorities official, as has been issued for Putin, was inconceivable.

For Russia, it’s completely different. Russia shouldn’t be the Soviet Union — it’s a rump state with a struggling financial system overly depending on hydrocarbon exports. Its army, as soon as seen as among the many world’s most refined, more and more appears to be like like a Potemkin military when put to the check.

The implications for the world at giant may additionally be extra extreme this time.

Conflict in Ukraine threatens to feed into world insecurity. In Iraq, aside from oil provide instability, the spillover from struggle was largely contained to the Center East. Ukraine, alternatively, is extra built-in into the worldwide financial system and is a breadbasket that sustains world meals markets, whereas sanctions on Russia have destabilised world power provides.

The battle additionally comes at a time when the guardrails of an interconnected world order that disincentivised wars between main economies are falling aside. “Globalisation is unwinding,” mentioned Macmillan.

World attitudes to flashpoint points like Taiwan are hardening, because the US and China inch in the direction of open battle — their strategic selections seemingly knowledgeable partly by each transfer on the Ukraine chessboard.

The world, in brief, is a extra harmful place than it was 20 years in the past. A significant nuclear energy is engaged in a struggle that’s sucking in NATO powers. And even superpowers can’t create an alternate actuality.

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