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The Afghanistan Syndrome and U.S.–Ukraine Relations

Mykhailo Minakov

American politicians and experts are divided in their assessments of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. It has been called chaotic, “an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions,” a sign of the “American empire’s death”—and an “extraordinary success.”

The Afghanistan government’s inability to govern and control the country without the support of its Western allies and the Taliban’s easy takeover were both unexpected by the Western powers. Those two developments have left their mark on the self-perception—and self-esteem—of the United States, the UK, and other NATO member states participating in the Afghanistan campaign.

The rapid political change in the center of Eurasia has also had a strong and direct impact on the security and political perspectives of China, India, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the Central Asian nations, and has altered their understanding of the West’s decreasing global presence. “Westlessness”—a sense of unease arising from what the Munich Security Report 2020 describes as “increasing uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West”—seems to be coloring many nations’ global reorientations.

This new perception of the United States’ and NATO’s role and their relations with non-Western allies has many different manifestations in international and national, political, and mass media dimensions, all of which can be summed up in a common term, the Afghanistan syndrome. Combining opinion, emotion, and imagery, the term conveys a loss of trust in the military and in political leaders, especially war hawks, and a feeling that the war had no just basis. When applied to the United States, the term implies a loss of confidence in the country as an ally and the suspicion of an inefficient U.S. army. “Afghanistan syndrome” thus subsumes a number of attitudes and emotions arising from previous historical events, whether connected to the U.S. past (such as the fall of Saigon) or part of the Afghan resistance to yet another foreign intervention (such as Britain’s or the USSR’s) on national soil, and is now a factor in the global political imagination, influencing the behavior of political elites in every nation and region of the world.

Effect of Afghanistan Syndrome on Ukraine
The syndrome’s influence is readily seen in Ukraine, a country whose survival and development, in the face of Russia’s aggression in Crimea and ongoing conflict with the secessionists in Donbas, depend on U.S., EU, and NATO support.

Since the winter of 2020–21, the presidential team’s political agenda has been strongly oriented toward cooperation with the United States and NATO. Fast integration into NATO and the EU, the return of the Crimea issue to the center of international attention, and the fight against the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipeline project have been at the heart of this agenda. Membership in NATO and the EU was regarded as a guarantee of, respectively, the security and economic development of Ukraine. Participation in the Crimean Platform Summit on August 23, 2021, was designed to garner the West’s active support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and to start a new track of coordinated international pressure on Russia to deoccupy the Crimean Peninsula. And halting the NS2 pipeline was sought as a first step in underscoring the seriousness of U.S. and EU support for Ukraine’s interests.

By the beginning of September 2021, however, all three major agenda items appeared not to be moving forward. At the June 14, 2021, NATO summit, Ukraine did not advance from NATO aspiring member status, accorded in 2018, to participation in the “open-door policy.” Later in September, at the YES Brainstorming event, President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid expressed an informed opinion that Ukraine was still far from meeting the standards for EU membership and that without more work on reforms—a point also made earlier by U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price with regard to NATO membership—meaningful negotiations of EU accession would be impossible. Even though the Crimean Platform Summit managed to bring together a respectable group of participants, the major Western countries—the United States, France, Germany, and the UK—were represented by high level officials but not by presidents or heads of government as official Kyiv had expected. Simultaneously, the United States and Germany agreed to continue the NS2 pipeline project, underscoring that Germany’s economic interests are more important than Ukraine’s.

In this context, the Afghanistan syndrome was on full display in the responses of the Ukrainian elites—both the ruling group and opposition—to the news of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

President Zelensky’s team is obviously frustrated, but tries to resist the potentially grim message. In his recent interview with CNN, Zelensky mentioned the Afghanistan issue several times. His major message to Ukrainian citizens and Western elites was that Ukraine’s case is completely different from Afghanistan’s. In his opinion, Ukraine is less dependent on the West than Kabul was, yet Russia poses a much greater threat to Ukraine and the West than the Taliban ever did. Finally, President Zelensky stated: “I really believe that in four or five or seven days, you can't take such a big country geographically as Ukraine with such a big population and simply occupy it like that.”

Indeed, Ukraine is more important for the security of Europe than Afghanistan, and Russia’s military strength is undeniably greater than the Taliban’s. But the strongest emotion that came through in this interview was frustration, accompanied by a poorly disguised distrust of Ukraine’s Western partners that were avoiding becoming allies. This frustration was probably a result of the formally successful White House meeting of Presidents Biden and Zelensky on September 1, 2021, but it increased under the influence of the Afghanistan syndrome.

President Zelensky again expressed frustration at the Yalta European Summit on September 10, 2021: “Everyone unanimously sympathizes with Afghanistan or Ukraine, against which Russia is waging a war. But this is virtual reality. And for seven years in a row, the Yalta European Strategy Forum has been held in Kyiv. Therefore, Yalta is still far from Europe, it is occupied, and we do not know whether the world has a strategy to change this and restore respect for international law.”

The same frustration has recently been expressed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba. In his interview with Western media, Mr. Kuleba said that the United States was in the midst of a “leadership crisis.” However, he expressed the hope that Ukraine’s security “was one issue where the United States could demonstrate how serious it was again.” Fighting to repress his own feelings, the minister pointed to bipartisan support for Ukraine in the U.S. Congress and to President Biden’s personal connection to Ukraine, despite past scandals. In the end, the minister laid bare his frustration, saying that Ukraine “has learned a number of bitter lessons that Western promises are likely [to be] unfulfilled.… We do not believe in promises.”

While sharing the idea that the West’s failure in Afghanistan is a threat to trusting relations among Ukraine, the United States, and NATO, diverse domestic opposition groups use it in their struggle with the authorities. Pro-Western groups around Petro Poroshenko demand more radical reforms (which they themselves had failed to inaugurate during the Poroshenko presidency in 2014–19). Russia-leaning groups demand reconsideration of Kyiv’s strategy based on European and Euro-Atlantic integration. They also recall the “more successful” Soviet troop withdrawal in 1989, in which many of today’s Ukrainians personally participated. And the isolationists declare that the Afghanistan case proves that Ukraine must rely only on its own army and resources; all hopes for foreign support are wrongheaded.

The Afghanistan syndrome is here in its fullest expression. Emotionally, it increases distrust among partners. Rationally, it leads to questions about how such military and state-building operations conducted under the aegis of the strongest world power and its allies could have failed. And the media keep alive images of bodies falling from U.S. planes over Kabul.

Among many other steps toward repairing the United States’ reputation, a speech by Victoria Nuland, under secretary of the U.S. State Department, directed to Ukraine’s elites at the last Yalta European Summit on September 10, 2021, stands out. In her statement (at 6:05–6:30 minutes), she used the concerns of Ukrainian politicians and the Afghan case as an argument in favor of closer U.S.-Ukraine cooperation: in her (and the administration’s) view, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan freed up bandwidth so that the United States could pay more attention to Ukraine and its security.

Judging from subsequent debates at the Yalta European Summit, this message was heard, but was not sufficient. The U.S. government has a long road ahead to reassure its allies and partners of its commitment to a common security regime.

And in Ukraine, trust in the alliance with the United States and the West at large is significantly damaged. The Afghanistan syndrome has weakened the position of the current administration and is a direct challenge to a political agenda aimed at European and Euro-Atlantic integration. How the current agenda’s deficit will be responded to by the Ukrainian elites remains to be seen.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more