“Red line”: Overshadowed by Gaza, Ukraine drifts beyond proxy war

Oct 25, 2023
An ATACMS missile being launched from an M270 MLRS

The news that Ukraine has begun to use US-supplied long range ATACMS missiles against Russian forces has been overshadowed by the Palestine-Israel crisis, but it is an escalation that has profoundly dangerous implications.

To understand why this is so we must situate it within the historical development of US strategy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the current situation on the battlefield, and the wider geopolitical context.

The Soviet collapse left Russia devastated – economically, politically and socially – but still standing. The transfer of power from Yeltsin to Putin began a process of recovery and regeneration which was unwelcome in Washington. It seemed that history had not ended, as Fukuyama had proclaimed, but merely paused and was now on the move again, threatening US hegemony. The response to this ending of the unipolar moment was best articulated by Zbigniew Brzezinski, inspired by the British geostrategist Halford Mackinder. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1997 he argued:

A wider Europe and an enlarged NATO will serve the short-term and longer-term interests of U.S. policy. A larger Europe will expand the range of American influence without simultaneously creating a Europe so politically integrated that it could challenge the United States on matters of geopolitical importance, particularly in the Middle East. A politically defined Europe is also essential to Russia’s assimilation into a system of global cooperation.

He elaborated further in his famous book of the same year, ‘The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives’. Brzezinski saw Ukraine as the ‘geopolitical pivot’ of western Eurasia whose alignment was crucial to Russia’s resistance to American primacy.

The Russians agreed and made it clear that Ukraine joining NATO, and thus coming under US domination, was an existential threat they would not tolerate. As William Burns, then US ambassador to Russia (and now CIA Director) put it in a 2008 cable back to the State Department in Washington that this was a red line on which they would not budge: Nyet means Nyet .

There were three possible scenarios to this expansion of NATO, with Ukraine as its centrepiece. Firstly a peaceful implosion and collapse of the Russian state, with the removal of people like Putin and his replacement with people like Yeltsin, and if things went to plan, the fragmentation of the Russian Federation into statelets that could be more easily controlled and that would be unable to prevent the plunder of resources by US corporations. If this didn’t work then violence in one of two forms. The least desirable was direct war between Russia and the US and its allies. America would prevail, it was assumed, but Russian nuclear weapons were a worrying consideration. Although a Congressional committee has recently happily advocated the US going to war against China and Russia simultaneously, there are saner heads in Washington, and their preference has been the middle scenario – a proxy war. The US, and its allies would provide money and weapons, the Ukrainians would do the fighting and dying. And that, so far, has been what has happened.

Biden has made it clear that he wants this to be a proxy war, with no direct US involvement:

We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia. As much as I disagree with Mr. Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow. So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.

There is a lot of falsehood in this statement but the desire for a limited, proxy war rings true. Although some balk at the term, proxy wars are an increasingly common form of conflict, combining both inter-state and intra-state dimensions. They provide the participants with a set of advantages, and disadvantages, too complex to explore in depth here, but two aspects are relevant. They deploy what the sponsor, here the US, regards as its main assets – money and materiel – to inflict damage on the enemy in a low-risk setting. If Ukraine fails, led down the primrose path to getting ‘wrecked’ as John Mearsheimer accurately predicted in 2015, then so be it. Objectives not achieved, prestige damaged, but no American casualties; America can walk away to fight elsewhere.

For the proxy, failure means that it is abandoned by its sponsor and left to its fate. From the Hmong in Indochina to the Kurds in the Middle East there is a trail of discarded proxies. It follows from this that it is imperative for the proxy to try to get the sponsor embedded deeply and directly in the war. That is no guarantee against being abandoned, as the Hmong illustrate, but it does lessen the risk.

This is why long-range missiles, such as ATACMS, are so important. They offer the best opportunity for the Zelensky administration to engineer a crisis which will force the US into direct involvement, especially with NATO accession having been ruled out at the Vilnius summit. With ‘Ukraine fatigue’ setting in, the counteroffensive a disaster, and the US attention turning to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Zelensky’s predicament is worsening.

The Biden administration seems well aware of the danger and the batch of ATACMS just delivered were both limited in number – just 12 – and in range, 165kms against the 300km+ of other versions. However Zelensky, in desperation, will continue to press for longer-range missiles and Biden, also in some desperation, may give way, as he has done with other weapons systems.

The limited number of ATACMS that the US has available are unlikely to have any significant military effect but the Ukrainians may ‘get lucky’ and hit something which produces a major catastrophe, with great embarrassment and casualties. Public opinion in Russia might force Putin to retaliate, which might propel Biden into escalation. That is the real danger of ATACMS.

The proxy war will then be subsumed into a direct US/NATO-Russia war with unpredictable, but in all likelihood calamitous, consequences.

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