Is Ukraine a "proxy war"?
Critics of America’s policy toward Ukraine have accused it of waging a “proxy war” against Russia. Such critics include various Western commentators, as well as Russia itself. In April, the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed, “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy”.
Yet when a reporter put this accusation to Joe Biden, he said it’s “not true”. What’s more, the Ukrainian government compiled a list of individuals who “promote narratives consonant with Russian propaganda”, and specified that such narratives include: “A proxy war between NATO and Russia is taking place on the territory of Ukraine”.
One problem with the line taken by Biden and the Ukrainian government is that it isn’t just critics of US policy that have used the term “proxy war”.
In an article claiming that “many Russian soldiers have to flee, surrender, or die” and “the more and faster the better”, the political scientist Eliot Cohen stated, “The United States and its NATO allies are engaged in a proxy war with Russia.”
Likewise, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Philip Breedlove – who has called for boots on the ground in Ukraine – stated, “I think we are in a proxy war with Russia. We are using the Ukrainians as our proxy forces.”
And in an interview calling for the US to provide “as much aid as necessary” to Ukraine, former CIA Director Leon Panetta stated, “We are engaged in a conflict here. It’s a proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not.”
Okay, you might say, but those individuals were using “proxy war” in a purely technical sense. Although the US is not an active participant in the conflict, it is arming one of the participants. So calling the conflict a “proxy war” is just a statement of fact (even if it might technically qualify as spreading Russian propaganda).
When critics accuse the US of waging a “proxy war” what they really mean is that the US is using Ukraine to weaken Russia, regardless of whether this serves the interests of Ukrainians (or Europeans for that matter). For example, perhaps Ukrainians would be better off if the US had engaged in diplomacy with Russia before the war.
It’s certainly not a stretch to imagine the US would wage a “proxy war” of this kind. The Reagan Doctrine was all about building up the US military and arming anti-communist guerrillas in order to overwhelm the Soviet Union and, ultimately, win the Cold War. This included arming both religious and political extremists.
But we don’t have to go back to the eighties. In 2019, the RAND corporation published a report on strategies to “overextend and unbalance” Russia. The report identified “providing lethal aid to Ukraine” as one that would “exploit Russia’s greatest point of external vulnerability”. (Interestingly, it concluded that any increase in aid would need to be “carefully calibrated” to avoid provoking “a much wider” conflict.)
RAND is almost entirely funded by the US Government, which appears first on its list of clients. So the fact that it would publish a report like this indicates that, even before Russia’s invasion, US decision-makers were interested in using Ukraine to weaken their geopolitical adversary.
As Senator Adam Schiff explained in 2020, “The United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here.”
Since Russia’s invasion, various other commentators have hinted – or in some cases explicitly stated – that America has goals other than securing Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Here’s Thomas Friedman’s account of what a “retired senior European statesman” told him:
The goal of Ukraine is to win, he said. The goal of the European Union is a bit different. It is to have peace … The U.S. is far away, and for the U.S., he added, it is not the worst thing to keep the war going to weaken Russia and make certain it doesn’t have the energy for any other adventures.
Two months into the war, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked how he would define America’s goals in the conflict. He began by saying what you’d expect him to say: “We want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country”. He then went slightly off-script: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
According to the New York Times, some officials “cringed” and Biden called Austin to “remonstrate” him for the comment. “But officials acknowledged that was indeed the long-term strategy”.
A couple of weeks later, the political scientist Hal Brands really let the cat out of the bag – in a piece titled ‘Russia Is Right: The U.S. Is Waging a Proxy War in Ukraine’. He wrote:
The war in Ukraine isn’t just a conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently declared. It is a “proxy war” in which the world’s most powerful military alliance … is using Ukraine as a battering ram against the Russian state … Lavrov is one of the most reliable mouthpieces for President Vladimir Putin’s baseless propaganda, but in this case he’s not wrong. Russia is the target of one of the most ruthlessly effectively proxy wars in modern history.
“The key,” Brands noted, “is to find a committed local partner — a proxy willing to do the killing and dying”. You then “load it up with” arms so that it can inflict “shattering blows” on your adversary. “That’s just what Washington and its allies are doing to Russia today.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by Congressman Seth Moulton in an interview with Fox News. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to realise we’re at war,” Moulton stated. “And we’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians. We’re fundamentally at war – although somewhat through a proxy – with Russia. And it’s important that we win.”
Likewise, when Congressman Dan Crenshaw came under fire from “America First” conservatives over his support for Ukraine, he tweeted: “Yeah, because investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military, without losing a single American troop, strikes me as a good idea. You should feel the same.”
Crenshaw didn’t bother paying lip-service to high-minded concepts like democracy, sovereignty or territorial integrity. He just came out and said we’re “investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military”.
Critics have consistently disparaged US policy as “fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian”. But in July, Senator Lindsey Graham – a long-time Russia hawk – said almost exactly that. “I like the structural path were on here," Graham explained. “As long as we help Ukraine with the weapons they need and the economic support, they will fight to the last person.”
Critics found further justification for their cynicism in a recent Washington Post article, which revealed the following. “Privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table.”
You might say that using Ukraine to weaken Russia is something worth doing, as Dan Crenshaw evidently believes. But at this point, it can scarcely be denied that America is engaged in a proxy war.
Image: Dima Sergiyenko, Architectural details on the House with Chimaeras, 2007
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