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Ukraine is not a proxy war

It is Kyiv – not the West – which has set Ukraine’s war aims.

By Lawrence Freedman

Germany’s baffling reluctance to authorise the transfer of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine has highlighted Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s confusion over what is at stake in this war, but also Ukraine’s dependence on this sort of decision-making. This has been a difficult couple of weeks for Ukraine, with many civilian deaths and its hold on Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk, weakening. President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that only with a major package of support can Russian forces, apparently indifferent to casualties, be overcome as they seek to consolidate their occupation of Ukrainian territory.

The tank issue dominated reporting of the Ukraine Contact Group’s meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where 50 countries, including all 30 members of Nato, met to discuss future levels of support for Ukraine. Lloyd Austin, the US secretary of defence, urged the members to “dig deeper” and, leaving aside the tank issue, by and large they did.

The package of support measures announced is impressive. The US package, worth some $2.5bn, included 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 90 Stryker Armoured Personnel Carriers, air defence systems and tens of thousands of rockets and artillery rounds. On 19 January, nine of Ukraine’s more robust supporters, including the UK, announced a raft of new measures with lots of ammunition, training and anti-aircraft guns, as well as 600 Brimstone missiles from the UK, 19 French-made Caesar howitzers from Denmark, and Sweden’s Archer artillery system. The Poles are waiting for German permission before donating a company of Leopard 2 tanks with 1,000 pieces of ammunition. The statement from the nine explained: “We recognise that equipping Ukraine to push Russia out of its territory is as important as equipping them to defend what they already have. Together we will continue supporting Ukraine to move from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil. By bringing together Allies and partners, we are ensuring the surge of global military support is as strategic and coordinated as possible. The new level of required combat power is only achieved by combinations of main battle tank squadrons, beneath air and missile defence, operating alongside divisional artillery groups, and further deep precision fires enabling targeting of Russian logistics and command nodes in occupied territory.”

Meanwhile known support from other countries for Russia amounts to Shahed loitering munitions and the Mohajer-6 drones from Iran, and tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and trucks from Belarus. So Russia remains largely dependent upon its own defence industry to make up the losses of the past year and equip the new units being formed from mobilised troops, while Ukraine can look forward to a boost from fresh supplies of better equipment.

[See also: Germany has become the roadblock at the heart of Europe]

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Russia’s rhetoric

While the official Russian line is insouciant, insisting that this new weaponry will make little difference, there are also signs of anxiety. One reason for this is that it represents the complete failure of Moscow’s efforts to coerce and cajole Western (and especially European) countries into abandoning their support, or at least a hope that they would tire of the war and forget the moral and geopolitical imperatives that led them to commit to Ukraine.

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The increasingly erratic former president Dmitry Medvedev has warned that the “defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war”. This reveals not so much a new position – he has said similar things many times before – but that a possible Russian defeat is being contemplated. The thought was echoed in a sermon by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who was praying to “the Lord that he bring the madmen to reason and help them understand that any desire to destroy Russia will mean the end of the world”. Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, pulled together all the clichés after the report that the US would send Bradley fighting vehicles to Ukraine, observing that: “It is finally becoming clear to the whole international community that in 2014 the US unleashed a real proxy war against Russia by supporting Nazi criminals in Kyiv. Any talk about a ‘defensive nature’ of weapons supplied to Ukraine has long become absurd.

“Nobody should still have doubts who bears responsibility for prolonging this conflict. All the actions by the administration indicate a lack of any desire for a political settlement.… All this means that Washington is committed to fighting with us ‘to the last Ukrainian’, while the destiny of the people of Ukraine means nothing to the US.”

Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, observed that the US had assembled a coalition that used Ukraine as a proxy. He compared this effort against Russia with Hitler’s against the Jews. They are “waging war against our country with the same task: the ‘final solution’ of the Russian question”, he said, adding that “they clearly say Russia must suffer a strategic defeat”. This comparison is as odious as it is ludicrous. Russia is not the victim in this war.

This rhetoric should leave ordinary Russians perplexed about the future. It hints that defeat is on the cards, warns that it might be necessary to blow up the world, while promising a never-ending struggle with Nato, an alliance of states self-evidently far stronger in the aggregate, which, if it really did want to destroy Russia, would have the capacity to do so.

Nor is the rhetoric consistent. Moscow appears unsure who is the puppet and puppeteer. Is Kyiv playing Western states as unwitting saps, getting them to neglect their economic interests in favour of a disgraceful, Russophobic cause, or has Ukraine been so beguiled by promises of membership of the European Union or even Nato that it is prepared to sacrifice lives and infrastructure to help the US and its allies subvert and weaken Russia? For the moment Nato takes precedence in the Kremlin’s demonology. Perhaps it is more credible to be struggling against a mighty alliance than against a supposedly artificial neighbouring state with an illegitimate government.

Much of this can be dismissed as noise, possibly relevant to reassuring the Russian people that the sacrifices now being asked of them are worthwhile and that the consequences of abandoning the war would be much worse. What it does not do is make any difference to Western governments and their policies. They face constraints, but these are more of capacity and caution than any caused by the impact of Moscow’s torrent of fake news.

If Russia wanted to cause splits in the Western alliance and encourage disagreements with Kyiv it is going the wrong way about it. One reason why even the more lukewarm members of Nato have felt that they have no choice but to back Ukraine is because Putin has offered nothing to suggest that he is interested in a diplomatic solution to the conflict except on his own maximalist and predatory terms. Yet a combination of strong hints from Putin of concessions to come and a balance of military power tilting in Russia’s favour could lead to some awkward conversations between Ukraine and its main sponsors. This is a scenario that bothers many in Kyiv, but it has yet to transpire because Moscow shows no interest in compromise and there is still confidence in Ukraine’s military prowess. Nonetheless, it points to an important dynamic in this conflict that could yet become important.

[See also: Qin Gang: Who is China’s new foreign minister?]

Proxy wars

With a less absurd framing, Lavrov’s reference to a “proxy war” might have been one way to encourage a wedge between Ukraine and its supporters. The term is heard quite frequently in Western discussions of the war. It is not a new idea and has been employed regularly in recent years. Unfortunately for those who like their strategic concepts to be as precise as the best modern weaponry, “proxy wars” lacks an agreed meaning and is used in different ways.

The basic idea is that you get someone else to do your fighting for you. The term has been most used in recent times in conflicts in which the US and its allies were reluctant to commit ground forces to a conflict, for fear of casualties turning public opinion against the commitment. The formula therefore was to provide air power and perhaps some other specialist capabilities, while indigenous forces provided the infantry. One example came in the early stages of the Afghanistan war in 2001 when the Northern Alliance was already fighting the Taliban, and the US was able to provide it with a boost. Another was the battle for Mosul against Isis in which most of the work on the ground was conducted by Kurds and the Iraqi army while the US and allies provided air support.

The US was in command of these operations, managing the key intelligence and communications systems and controlling the air assets. No objectives were going to be pursued that had not been approved by Washington. Hence the idea that the indigenous forces were “proxies” for the Americans. But the term was misleading because the indigenous forces always had their own objectives and were quite capable of hanging back when they felt they were being used unnecessarily. And in the end it would be their war aims that mattered most: armies are better placed than air forces to influence local political developments, and if they are on home ground they expect to stay around long after their outside partners have left.

This highlighted the problem with the proxy concept: it implies a simple hierarchy and so misses the elements of bargaining that are evident in all war-time coalitions. The challenge facing the different parties is always to get their core interests into alignment.

In the case of Ukraine there is no military coalition. The Ukrainian government sets the objectives and Ukrainian commanders are in charge of the operations. So if this is a proxy war it must be an extreme case because it assumes that somehow Ukraine, despite taking all the pain and claiming all the gain, is somehow under another country’s control.

One difficulty now is that the idea that proxy wars are good things for the US, precisely because somebody else does the fighting, is so ingrained that the term has been embraced by some former US officials, although not by President Joe Biden. Thus the former supreme allied commander of Nato General Philip Breedlove stated in an interview last April: “I think we are in a proxy war with Russia. We are using the Ukrainians as our proxy forces.” The former CIA director Leon Panetta declared, when arguing that as much military aid as possible should be given to Ukraine: “We are engaged in a conflict here. It’s a proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not.” All of these statements have been seized upon by critics of the war in the West as revealing the true intentions of the West.

[See also: Jacinda Ardern’s resignation is both a shock and entirely unsurprising]

Blaming Nato

For the critics, who rarely go so far as to endorse the Russian invasion, the best course for the West is to work to bring the war to a quick conclusion through a negotiated peace. Instead the Ukrainian war machine is being fed. Kyiv is encouraged to keep fighting, despite the high costs and possible hopelessness of its struggle given Russia’s immense resources and firepower. A soft version of this argument explains this decision as naivety, as if a natural desire to support the underdog led to a suspension of strategic judgement. It would have been better if Western countries had confined themselves to economic sanctions and strong words.

In the hard version, which is close to the more alarmist rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin, this is not naivety but a conscious strategic judgement. Here we get to the question of proxy wars. The allegation is that the West’s aim is to reduce the long-term challenge Russia is able to pose to Nato by maximising its losses in men and equipment. If pushed hard enough the Russian Federation might even break up as the Soviet Union did just over 30 years ago and a great power threat would be removed forever. On this reading Ukraine has been exploited to change the geopolitical landscape. This fits naturally with the familiar accusation that “Nato is fighting to the last Ukrainian”, which accepts that Ukrainians are the victims in this war, but of Nato as much as Russia.

Yet despite the assumption in this critique that Nato’s interests in this war are offensive, in practice they are defensive. It has an interest in an act of blatant aggression being thwarted. If Ukraine had been occupied and Russian forces moved to its borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania this would have led to continual and dangerous tension, especially if these countries were acting as sanctuaries for Ukrainians engaged in irregular warfare against the occupiers. Alternatively, a ceasefire line, with some of Ukraine occupied while the rest remained free would also have been a recipe for continued instability. To sustain any sort of deterrence the West would have had to boost its defence spending (the first reaction to the Russian invasion last February) while working out how to support Ukraine resistance to the occupation over the long term.

The most serious objection to this critique is that it denies Ukraine agency, which is the basic problem with all talk of a “proxy war”. It suggests that the Ukrainians are only fighting because Nato put them up to it rather than because of the more obvious reason that they have been subjected to a vicious invasion, with those in occupied territories treated brutally. Ukraine has set its war aims as getting Russians out of its country but not as destroying Russia as a great power.

It is the case that the outcome of this war will leave Russia much diminished. Its economy has taken a downward turn, and it has lost markets for its energy exports even as prices start to revert back to pre-war levels. Its armed forces have suffered heavy losses. Although Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, has been announcing ambitious plans for the military’s future expansion and reorganisation it is hard to see that much can be achieved with a weakened economy for some time – perhaps a decade. Even if Moscow clings to its aggressive stance Nato countries will have time to strengthen their forces and replenish their depleted arsenals.

Russia has been severely weakened by this war and that potentially helps the West. This is the respect in which Western supporters of the war have been happy to talk of this being a proxy war. This was explained clearly by Hal Brands in May: “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, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 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 effective proxy wars in modern history. And the less US officials say about it, the better.

“Proxy wars are longstanding tools of great-power rivalry because they allow one side to bleed the other without a direct clash of arms. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union bled the US by supporting communist proxies in Korea and Vietnam.”

The same thought might be behind Austin’s suggestion last April that the US wants “Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”.

But this is not why Western countries came to Ukraine’s aid and will not be the measure of their success, which is getting Russian forces out of Ukraine. Nobody suggests that Ukraine will be encouraged to carry on fighting once this has happened just to weaken Russia more. Clearly the effect of the war on Russia’s ability to do more mischief to neighbouring countries is a bonus for Nato but that is not why the war is being fought. That muddles cause and effect. The impact on Russia is a measure of Moscow’s folly and not Nato’s intent. If it wanted to stay strong it should not have embarked on this reckless war.

Furthermore, beyond welcoming a Russia that is less able to throw its weight around and bully others, few in the West relish the prospect of Russia falling apart, for that would simply unleash yet more unruly forces. Again, it is possible that there might be instability in Russia after this war, but that will not be because the US and its allies have willed it but because Putin set events in motion that he was unable to control.

[See also: The backlash against Vladimir Putin’s war strategy begins]

Ukraine and its suppliers

There is another use of the proxy war concept that is more neutral. It is evident that Ukraine is only able to sustain its military effort and have any prospect of victory because of the West’s support. In practice, this gives the US, which is by far the most important supplier, important leverage over Ukraine’s war aims and how they are pursued. From this comes an argument, often heard in Washington, that this should be more of a proxy war, in that Washington must ensure that its interests are fully taken into account by Kyiv, and in particular the need to avoid a nuclear war and ensure that they do not empty their own weapons inventories to the point where they cannot defend security interests away from Europe, to consideration of post-war relations with Russia.

These critics warn that Washington has been unwise to allow Kyiv to set the alliance’s war aims, for these may be unrealistic, and to play down the possibilities of a serious negotiation and the likelihood that at some point to end the war some Ukrainian territory might have to be conceded. They worry, for example, that a Ukrainian move to try to take Crimea might be the one that could lead to a Russian nuclear response. From this perspective it is the US and its allies that have become the proxies, drawn further into Ukraine’s fight than is really wise. To redress the balance they must be more prepared to use their leverage to either rein Ukraine in or push it towards negotiations.

From this perspective, proxy war is not an accusation or an allegation but a description of a relationship that could become difficult and unbalanced at some point. The term is still unhelpful but there is a real issue here. There are great commonalities of interest between Ukraine and its suppliers but they are not complete. This was evident early on in the war when the Biden administration rejected Kyiv’s calls for a no-fly zone to protect Ukraine’s cities against air raids, as this would have led to direct confrontations between Nato and Russian forces, or the reluctance to supply Ukraine systems that would enable it to hit targets well into Russian territory (which of course we might have expected to be pressed on Ukraine if the real aim was to damage Russia as much as possible). As the tank issue demonstrates, this type of issue has not gone away.

The relationship between Ukraine and its supporters is not always smooth. A frustrated Kyiv regularly complains that Western dithering leaves their forces at the front suffering heavy losses because they lack vital equipment. For their part Western governments have wanted to be sure that Ukraine is getting equipment it truly needs and that the demands of training and maintenance are fully taken into account, as well as the wider political impact. It is not that one is the puppet and the other the puppeteer but that there is a natural back and forth, reflecting the distinctive interests and perspectives. The boundaries set on arms deliveries have been progressively eroded over time, with the early preferences for solely “defensive” capabilities giving way to an appreciation of the need to send capabilities suitable for offensives. Much of this has been the result of Western capitals coming to terms with the logic of the conflict, accepting that there was no point willing the ends of Ukrainian survival and possible victory without willing the means. So one big decision after another has been taken – in Washington from Himars in May, Harm anti-air defence missiles in July, Patriot air defences in December, and now infantry fighting vehicles.

The scale of the supplies confirmed at the Ramstein meeting is impressive. It represents a hardening of Western attitudes. They recognise that the war is now reaching a critical moment as both sides prepare for their spring offensives and that there is no current prospect of negotiations. Ukraine is now being given a better chance of prevailing in these coming battles. But the scale of the support also adds to the stakes. Will it be possible to maintain these levels if Ukraine is unable to make another military breakthrough? Might the prospect of a prolonged stalemate encourage those in the West who worry about open-ended support for Kyiv start to call again for negotiations?

For now Western governments trust the Ukrainians to use their growing capabilities wisely and professionally. They can think of no other way to move the war to a satisfactory conclusion. If there are no military breakthroughs then the overall picture does not change but the way forward becomes harder to discern. Ukraine will not suddenly be abandoned but we can expect future support to be less substantial and more geared to keeping Ukraine viable and less geared to victory. The test of the new package is not whether it can add to Russian losses but whether it can make it possible for Ukraine to win.

[See also: Ukraine’s problematic nationalist heroes]

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