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The Difficulties of Proxy Warfare


From the Cold War to Ukraine

The casualties speak for themselves. Russia’s winter offensive is producing mixed results.

Digging up the bodies. Bucha, March 2022.

No longer under-manned as it had been before Putin’s winter mobilisations, the Russian army has still failed to prevail against Ukrainian forces.

Facing Western-trained troops defending their home ground, using superior equipment supplied by the US and NATO, Kyiv’s efforts to modernise its military are starting to pay off.

Casualty estimates vary considerably. Estimates range from 200,000 for Russia, including 50,000 deaths, to 120,00 for Ukraine, with 13,000 killed.

Moscow’s last count, in September 2022, admitted to 6000 fatalities.

The Russian number (whatever it actually is) must be far larger now, given that troops have been assaulting fixed Ukrainian positions for months to little or no avail.

Nothing has been decided by this carnage. What has become clear is the novel state of proxy war in the multipolar global system.

In the halcyon days of the Cold War, proxy war was one point on a continuum of political and military options whose parameters would be reasonably and clearly determined.

The reality of multipolarity is that the level of complexity is so much greater as to make the distinction one of quality rather than quantity.

The modern world system comprises a number of political-military nodes, including both states and supra-state entities such as the EU, NATO, and other regional groupings.

With large accumulations of wealth, financial centres map across these nodes, some more firmly connected to individual states, others more loosely.

This is not news to anyone who pays attention to current affairs. However, it illustrates the difference between the current geopolitical environment and the one that held sway between the end of the Second World War and 1989.

In the earlier period, at least at the top level, the number of nodes was smaller.

More importantly, pools of capital tended to gravitate toward one (centred on the United States) and away from the other (centred on the USSR).

This was, in a sense, the defining feature of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. They were conflicts defined by a bipolar international system.

Korea was fundamentally similar to the world war that preceded it. It was a struggle between industrial powers, carried out by the militaries of the states that controlled them.

Like the Russian war in Afghanistan two decades later, Vietnam was an asymmetric conflict, pitting the soldiers and industrial base of one side against proxies of the other.

The proxy conflicts of the later Cold War were brutal but, in a sense, more stable and predictable conflicts than in Korea. In the earlier case, the outlines of the geopolitical struggle were still in the process of coming into focus.

What began as a proxy conflict soon developed into a direct confrontation between Washington and Beijing because it brought US forces within proximity of China.

By the time of conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the Cold War system had become established. Beijing, Moscow and Washington all had nuclear weapons, so their clashes could be contained at a less catastrophic level in more peripheral places.

The struggle that has broken out in Ukraine has more of the character of a civil war between competing economic powers than an ideological struggle over capitalism.

In this respect, it implies greater instability and risk because it is difficult to predict exactly who will line up on which side.

Moreover, the war in Ukraine has an open-ended quality that makes it systemically dangerous.

What began as a struggle between the United States and the EU and Russia is now facing the possibility China may either back Moscow or leverage the Ukraine conflict to reclaim Taiwan.

For the last year, the United States and its allies have been content to see the war in Ukraine progress since it helped Washington reclaim its Cold War leadership role in the West.

A glance at the state of the Russian military says it all. From the failures of the ground forces to their massive losses of troops and gear, the ex-Red Army is a shadow of its former self.

While the economic impact of sanctions has been less than the US and European Union would ideally like, the longer the conflict lasts, the worse their consequences will be.

Russia’s Cold War image as a defender of the post-colonial Global South has taken an enormous hit, underlining the crass imperialism driving its war. It’s as far from socialism as it gets.

Moscow’s missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, killing of civilians, and admission it absconded thousands of children ultimately undermine its claims that it is waging war against fascism.

All of the failings of the Kremlin’s war effort may yet be thrown into a cocked hat if China decides to take a more active role on the Russian side.

Though no hard evidence exists that Beijing is providing military aid, China is the fourth-largest arms exporter in the world and licenses a lot of Russian equipment Moscow might need.

Until now, this gap has been filled by Iran and North Korea, though neither has the industrial capacity to step up to the plate quite like Beijing can. That’s the American concern.

The face of the war has changed in the last few months from a manageable conflict to one with the prospect of spiralling outward. Any additional players would make it worse.

In its early phases, the Ukraine War was attractive to the White House.

Coming on the heels of the humiliating Afghan withdrawal, it offered an opportunity to restore US deterrence without having to put American troops on the ground.

It was equally attractive for economic reasons.

Europe’s biggest natural gas supplier until the war, US energy companies could dethrone Russia, and the Pentagon could replace Ukraine’s Soviet weaponry with American kit.

But warfare in a multipolar system is unlike that in a bipolar environment.

The political complexities the war created for the European Union’s 27 member states broadened the geopolitical reach and impact of the Ukraine War tenfold.

This is the opposite of what happened in Vietnam. The war had the effect of concentrating systemic conflict, keeping its stakeholders focused on it for two decades.

Contrary to the situation in the late Cold War, proxy war in the era of multipolarity seems more likely to metastasise rather than concentrate.

There is no central issue, such as the ideological conflict between communism and capitalism, to focus the conflict.

This is a war between two among a variety of pools of capital, and it creates an unstable mixture, which may result in other states deciding to take advantage of the opportunity for their own ends.

Most jarringly, the multipolar system’s complexity means there is no obvious way for the war in Ukraine to be resolved.

In the case of the Vietnam War, the communists prevailed upon their proxies in South Vietnam to negotiate, reasoning correctly that the Nixon Administration wanted to declare victory and leave.

In the case of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was on its last legs by the end of the conflict. The war was won by Moscow’s exhaustion: political in the first case, economic in the second.

The structure of the Russian state is such that it is unlikely that any such exhaustion will cause it to give up the fight.

Putin has created a system which he dominates and gives no sign of the instability that might bring about either his downfall or a change of policy.

Having identified Ukraine as a matter of central political, cultural, and economic import to Russia, Putin can’t back down and needn’t do so while his resources last.

What is in prospect now is a war with no obvious ending because none of the parties to the conflict have any impetus to end it and because the balance of forces is such that a bloody stalemate is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Unlike proxy wars in the Cold War, this conflict makes the world more unstable the longer it continues, and because none of the alternatives seems any better.

Photograph courtesy of Jeroen Akkermans. Published under a Creative Commons license.