In my opinion, is the term ‘proxy war’ is applicable to what is happening in Ukraine? In short, no. While it does fit Putin’s role in provoking an insurgency in the Donbas and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), it fails to properly describe the inter-state war that is currently raging. More damning still, it denies the Ukrainians their own agency and belittles their own right to self-defence.
What is a proxy war?
One of the problems with studies of proxy warfare is that there is no agreed definition. That includes any consensus on whether a proxy war relationship can only involve states (sponsors) supporting non-state proxies, or whether state actors can themselves be proxies of other states or non-state groups.
It also includes disagreement on how much support is needed to qualify as a ‘proxy war’ – can it be purely financial or logistical, or does there need to be some degree of covert paramilitary involvement? Is proxy warfare an act of external policy or internal warfare, namely one in which governments employ militias or auxiliaries against insurgencies, potentially with external backing (as is the case with US and allied support for the Iraqis against Daesh since 2014)? And finally, there is now a debate as to whether ‘surrogate’ war can now include the use of drones, AI and other advanced technologies in addition to human warriors, or whether non-state groups can themselves engage others as proxies.
Rondeaux and David Sterman’s definition of ‘proxy war’ is useful for this article. It outlines ‘the direct or indirect sponsorship of third-party conventional or irregular forces that lie outside of the constitutional order of states engaged in armed conflict’. The author argues that the strategic objectives of sponsors involve a combination of coercion, disruption (weakening an enemy), and/or transformation (engineering a fundamental political transition in the target state).
There are some points of agreement for scholars of proxy warfare. The first is sponsors subcontracts the use of force as an alternative to direct military intervention in a conflict (which runs the risk of escalation into major war), domestic opposition to the involvement the armed forces, or geographical constraints such as distance from the war zone concerned.
Secondly, sponsors and proxies have a common enemy in the form of a target state and that, as was the case with the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s, proxies can have more than one sponsor backing them.
Thirdly, the sponsor-proxy relationship is usually a clandestine and undeclared one, although these links may well be ‘implausibly deniable’.
Fourthly, states subject to internal destabilisation may be quick to claim they are the victims of subversion (sometimes on spurious grounds), while proxies and their backers may seek to deny their relationship because foreign support could stigmatise them as puppet actors.
Fifthly, although proxy warfare contains superficially appealing benefits for all parties, there are several potentially negative implications for all involved, ranging from abandonment and faction-fighting for proxies, to exposure and escalation for the sponsors.
Russia, Ukraine and the Donbas (2014-2022)
Putin has never regarded Ukraine as a truly sovereign state, shown by his July 2021 essay ‘On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians’, and his earlier statement to President George W Bush that ‘Ukraine is not even a country’. Up until February 2014, Moscow exerted control over its neighbour by covertly manipulating Kyiv’s political elites, but this method fell apart after the revolution against Viktor Yanukovych – itself provoked by Russian pressure to force Ukraine’s then-President to cancel a trade pact with the European Union. Putin’s response was to order the takeover and annexation of Crimea. This was a a largely military operation conducted by Russia’s armed forces, although some locally-enlisted auxiliaries (including the peninsula’s gangsters) were involved. However, the outbreak of the Donbas war in the spring-summer of 2014 represented a clearer use of proxy warfare by Moscow.
Conditions in the economically-depressed Donbas region were sufficient to generate some insurgent activity, but the emergence of the two separatists republics was encouraged by Russia’s intelligence and security services, and reinforced by the involvement of ‘volunteers’ such as Igor Girkin. However, the poor battlefield performance of the DNR and LNR ‘armies’ against the Ukrainian armed forces led to overt Russian military intervention with the battles of Ilovaisk (August 2014) and Debaltseve (January-February 2015).
Russia’s aim was to coerce Ukraine into weakening its ties with the West, and also abandoning its aspirations to join NATO and the EU. However, Moscow’s use of proxy war against Ukraine backfired. The destruction of Flight MH-17 by a Buk missile launcher loaned to the separatists exposed Russia’s meddling and caused international outrage. The civilian and military leaderships of the two ‘people’s republics’ also degenerated into warlord-style criminality, hence the assassinations of separatist figures such as Aleksei Mozgovoi and Aleksandr Zakharchenko, and also the putsch in Luhansk in late November 2017. The failure of coercion in all likelihood contributed to Putin’s eventual decision to try to conquer Ukraine and overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as part of a transformative policy of installing a puppet regime in Kyiv.
Is Ukraine a ‘proxy’?
The official Russian government line, as well as some academic critics, makes much of the apparent threat of Ukraine joining NATO. But in reality Western military involvement prior to February 2022 was minimal. The USA, Britain, Canada, and other Atlantic Alliance countries did provide training missions to the Ukrainian armed forces, but military aid was generally kept at a low level. In the run-up to the Russian invasion, the British government did supply short-range Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAWs) to Ukraine, but other Western powers were unwilling to offer military aid, either because this was considered provocative, or because they deemed Ukrainian prospects for defence against Russian attack to be futile.
It is also difficult to believe that any NATO government eagerly contemplated the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine and starting the largest land war in Europe since 1945 – not just because each faced its own pressing internal problems, but because the common assumption was that such a scenario would end with an outright Russian victory. The declassification of US and British intelligence assessments in the winter of 2021-2022 on a likely invasion were therefore intended as much to deter the possibility of Putin ordering such an onslaught, as they were of warning both the Ukrainians and their European allies that the threat was not pure bluff.
Following the Russian attack, the NATO powers and other Western arms donors have boosted their military assistance, providing heavy weapons systems like the US’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The Ukrainian armed forces are also receiving intelligence assistance to aid their planning and targeting.
The motivations of individual donors vary. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are particularly hawkish, as they have a clear security interest in ensuring Ukraine’s survival and victory. Germany, in contrast, is still making a painful transition in its relationship with Russia. Overall, however objectives of Ukraine’s allies are all post-facto, and the key determinant in their decision to aid Ukrainian military resistance (and to offer humanitarian assistance to its civilian population) is in response to Russian aggression. The invasion of Ukraine is a direct challenge to international law, and if unpunished it has grave implications for European security. Western motivations are also shaped not only by disgust at Russian military atrocities such as the Bucha massacre, and the levelling of Mariupol, but also a realisation that the Ukrainians will use aid efficiently to fight back against the invaders, and also roll them back.
This leads us to three final points about the invalidity of the term ‘proxy war’. The first is that there are frictions between Ukraine and its allies over Ukraine’s requests for arms which may give it an offensive capability against Russia. The second is that Western backing would be of little use if the Ukrainians were not ready to fight. The willingness of Ukraine’s armed forces and civilian population to resist Russia is an indigenous response, and it patronises them to imply otherwise. Zelenskyy’s reported statement during the first hours of the invasion that ‘I need ammunition, not a ride’ was also unprompted by any external ally, which would in all likelihood have been prepared to host an exile government if needed. Western arms may have helped Ukraine to fight back, but were no substitute for the willpower of a nation at arms.
Finally, Ukraine is a sovereign and independent state recognised by the international community which has the right under Article 51 of the UN Charter to self-defence. While there is a genuine academic debate to be had about the implications of aid to Kyiv, claims that Western powers are ‘fighting to the last Ukrainian’ are ultimately insulting to a nation that seven months ago looked as though it could be wiped off the map.
From a Russian perspective, however, the language of ‘proxy war’ offers a way of saving face over defeat. It is easier for Putin and his government to claim that Russia has been beaten by an international coalition marshalled by a superpower, rather than admitting that its once-celebrated armed forces have been humiliated by its former imperial subjects.