Rostislav Ishchenko: Zbigniew Brzezinski and the End of an Era

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


In the US at the age of 89 the most devoted enemy of the USSR and Russia Zbigniew Brzezinski died. A talented person. The plans of political operations made by him are so original, unique, and deadly to the opponent, like Suvorov’s plan for the Italian campaign, the Schlieffen Plan (which Helmuth von Moltke the Younger didn’t manage to realize adequately) or the plan of an offensive in the West developed in 1940 by Erich von Manstein.

In the last quarter of the 20th century Brzezinski played the same role for the US that Putin played for Russia in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Brzezinski became the adviser for national security under president Carter in January, 1977. In the first half of the 70’s, the US endured a series of severe external and internal political crises, which seriously undermined their international authority and possibilities of carrying out an active policy.

The US President Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski in Washington. December 6th, 1978

1973 — the oil crisis connected with the embargo imposed on the Arab countries of OPEC, and also Egypt and Syria on the supply of oil to the countries of the West, which supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The price of oil flew up fourfold (from 3 to 12 dollars per barrel). The economy of the West endured a shock and was on the verge of a catastrophe.

The US President Nixon officially announced a regime of austerity for Americans.

1974 — Nixon’s impeachment as a result of the Watergate scandal. The largest internal political crisis in the US since the beginning of the 20th century is superimposed on the economic crisis.

1975 — forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam take Hanoi. The last Americans who are in the country and a number of their South Korean partners escape by helicopters, which took off from the roof of the US Embassy. It is the largest military defeat in the history of the US. A superpower, despite the tension between all forces, lost a war to half of a third world country, which didn’t have even a tenth of the US’ military power that was concentrated in Vietnam.

People waiting for the helicopters, which flew up from the roof of the U.S. Embassy during the siege of the city of Hanoi. 1975

The coming to power of the Carter administration didn’t stop this series of foreign policy defeats. After mass demonstrations in 1978, the Shah’s regime in Iran – the US’ closest ally in the Middle East – collapsed in January, 1979. Carter’s administration couldn’t either give it support nor build constructive relations with the new Islamic leadership of Iran.

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America’s strength was undermined by almost a whole decade of catastrophes. The country needed a respite. But it was impossible to conclude a truce with the USSR at the price of geopolitical concessions — it would become the last straw: the position of the US as the leader of the western “free world” would be called into question. Allies would start looking for a new patron no worse than it was done by the former allies of the USSR in the late 80’s-beginning of the 90’s. It was necessary to achieve a respite by linking the forces and resources of the main opponent, the USSR, in a secondary direction.

And Brzezinski did it. It is no coincidence that until his death, he proudly recalls that the operation on the involvement of the USSR in the Afghan war was arranged by him. This was a classical scheme of a choice from two evils. The USSR could ignore the American activity in Afghanistan and receive an abscess on its southern borders, endangering the stability of the Central Asian Republics of the Union. The USSR could send troops into a guerrilla war, which Afghans got used to conducting against foreign military contingents.

Actually it is the same scheme that Brzezinski’s successors offered Russia in Ukraine. In 2014 the Russian government was able to find a third way and give an effective asymmetric effect to the challenge. As a result for three years the Ukrainian crisis became a problem not for Russia, but the West. In 1979 the Soviet leadership couldn’t find a third way, and actually they didn’t especially look for one.

But against the background of the previous foreign policy victories of the USSR and its allies, the Afghan crisis seemed like a mere trifle — another “national liberation war” of enslaved people against colonizers conducted by a Marxist party orientated towards the USSR. By 1979 the USSR was victorious in more than ten such conflicts against the US. Why in Afghanistan should it have been any different?

Soldiers of the limited contingent of Armed Forces of the USSR who came back from Afghanistan

Non-ideological, cold-blooded Brzezinski, who strived to take all factors into account, understood why. The fragile Afghan State, uniting different ethnic groups (Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara) and religious (Shia and Sunni) tribes, held to account, historically-speaking, any foreign military presence that violated the developed internal political balance.

The entrance into Afghanistan of any (not necessarily Soviet) troops automatically initiated there a civil war and (as its element) a guerrilla movement directed against the invaders and their local allies. The British, before the USSR, and the Americans (who ceased to be guided by the wise recommendations of Brzezinski) only after became acquainted with this factor.

When in December, 1979, the limited contingent of Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, the main task of Brzezinski was fulfilled. The USSR received a conflict that was supposed to devour beyond all bounds its resources, and the expenses of the US for the maintenance and expansion of the resistance were minimal — and even then most of it was generally passed on to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Moreover, even Iran – hostile to the USA in this situation – objectively played on the side of Washington, supporting the resistance of the Afghan Shia Hazaras against the atheistic Kabul regime orientated towards the USSR.

Soviet troops at the airport of Kabul. December 30, 1979

The Americans tied down the USSR in a secondary direction, and made others pay the bill. The beauty and efficiency of the political strategy offered by Brzezinski also lied in this.

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However, Brzezinski wouldn’t have been a great strategist if always and everywhere he applied the same template, if he never departed from earlier sounded concepts in the process of their obsolescence. Brzezinski initially insisted that the American political elite in 2009 conduct a sharp turn of political policy and form with Russia an equal partnership. Then the Obama’s administration defeated the Clinton demagogue-globalists, who understood very little of what they were doing, and were incapable of counting more than two steps ahead.

They decided that the old man had lost his mind, and the method he used in Afghanistan — forcing the opponent to choose between two bad choices — can be realized successfully and without the author. They were mistaken. The wise old man saw what they didn’t want to see.

Brzezinski saw how in 2008 the “Afghan strategy” suffered a defeat in Georgia. Russia reacted promptly, but not as expected. Moscow didn’t keep silent in response to aggression, but also didn’t begin to eliminate the bankrupt regime of Saakashvili, giving the West the pseudo-pleasure of up to now to fool around with this “great democrat” who it is impossible to attach any affair to: he will spoil everything.

Brzezinski, being a truly great strategist, understood that if the Russian government once found the antidote, destroying the scheme, they will also find the second — an even more effective one. For him it wasn’t a secret that the use of standard decisions in politics is as disastrous as it is in war.

He understood that America once again needs a respite. By implementing the power of being the planet’s hegemon, she was overstrained already by the beginning of the current century. The US convulsively needed to redistribute the load on its resource base. At the beginning of 2000 they still could conclude a truce with Russia, acting from a position of strength, retaining many geopolitical benefits received after the collapse of the USSR.

The longer America tried, straining all its forces, to break Russia, the weaker it became — and the stronger Moscow became. This political paradox is characteristic for any empire trying, at the dawn of its power, with its resources stretched across a huge zone of responsibility, and its vassal allies long ago became corrupt, to resist the resilient and flexible opponent who can’t be physically destroyed. it was impossible to destroy Russia — the nuclear shield guaranteed defence against “humanitarian aggression”.

Brzezinski proposed the strategy of Trump long before Trump, when it wasn’t too late, when the political elite of the US wasn’t yet split and was capable of acting in a united front. Today the US can’t conclude a truce from a position of strength any more. They need at least the Syrian crisis to play with Russia in a draw. As of now they still continue to sacrifice other territories (including the EU), hoping to sort it out later, in circumstances more favourable for them.

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But will this “later” come for a country that is ten years late with the necessary foreign policy steps? For a country whose President is constantly distracted by the fight against internal political opponents, who dream of discharging him from power and aren’t ashamed of how its done, even showing a readiness to risk even civil war in the US.

For a country that has no Brzezinski any more, a man who understood that in politics nothing is forever, that there are no hopeless positions in politics, but there are positions that you didn’t find a way out from, that the USA and Russia will never be able to win over each other militarily, but are doomed to a continuous political and financial and economic competition, and therefore it is impossible to rest on ones laurels: after each victory (and all of them are temporary) it is necessary to immediately prepare new operations against the old opponent.

With Brzezinski a whole era has gone — an era of US hegemony. He managed to see the beginning of the decline of the global empire created on his efforts. He managed to warn the American elite that old templates don’t work any more — it is necessary to look for new ways for victory. He wasn’t heard. Thanks to this we received ten years more time than we otherwise would have if Brzezinski directed American foreign policy.

He was a very flexible and talented enemy. He was an enemy who was able to look at a situation through the eyes of the opponent (a rare quality, which provides half of the success). The art of politics lost a lot because after Afghanistan Brzezinski wasn’t given the chance to conduct any strategic operation, and his imitators understood the depth of strategic development of the late Pole much worse, than Moltke the Younger was gifted in respect to the Schlieffen plan. The national interests of Russia won infinitely because of the fact that in the US there was no politician capable of understanding and estimating the depth and flexibility of strategic development of the now deceased, and therefore harmless Brzezinski.

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