Ukraine: Putin’s war or proxy war?

Jul 19, 2023
Comic image of Russia and the USSR. Propaganda cliche.

The claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a proxy war is not borne out by recent history, nor supported by Russian democrats, Ukrainians of all stripes nor most Western Russia specialists. They mostly see its roots in an authoritarian Russian state and the revanchist views of Putin and his acolytes.

Several recent articles in Pearls and Irritations embrace the notion that the conflict in Ukraine is a “proxy war” by the United States and its allies.

This is clearly not the mainstream view in Western public opinion nor even globally: one hundred and forty-one countries have condemned the Russian invasion as illegal and unjustified in three successive UN General Assembly resolutions since February 2022. Insofar as P and I features challenging and valuable articles on a range of subjects, from AUKUS submarines and Palestine to indigenous rights and public administration, this alternative perspective on Ukraine deserves serious scrutiny.

In a proxy war, defined simply, one or both of the warring sides act at the behest of, or on behalf of, other parties that are not directly involved in the hostilities.

Those defining Ukraine as a proxy war usually claim that it is the direct result of the US pursuing policies aimed at weakening or even destroying Russia. In their view, the US pursued NATO enlargement and provoked Russia into the war to this end, and sabotaged efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement. They usually accuse the US and NATO of prolonging the war to weaken Russia further and/or feed the arms industry.

Some proxy war adherents, like Jeffrey Sachs, Chris Hedges, Andrew Bacevich, Geoffrey Roberts and Tim Beal, give some explanation for the proxy war label. For others such as Ramesh Thakur, Richard Bronoiwski, Scott Burchill, Colin MacKerras, Alex Lo, Patrick Lawrence, Mike Lyons, Mike Gilligan and Medea Benjamin the idea seems to be an article of faith needing little explanation.

Former DFAT China hand John Lander goes so far as to claim that the U.S. has openly admitted it is conducting military hostilities against Russia by proxy (which only makes sense if you equate saying the goal is to make it harder for Russia to conquer Ukraine and commit war crimes with wanting to weaken or fight Russia in a broader sense).

Some thorny questions

For many who are deeply suspicious of US foreign policy and military interventions, from the Vietnam War to Iraq, the proxy war hypothesis might well seem attractive when simply shown a map of NATO’s borders moving eastward, with the theoretical possibility of Ukraine being added.

There are some obvious questions that spring to mind, however. Is there any actual evidence that US and NATO leaders formulated such a goal? What was the point of weakening or threatening Russia in this way – to launch an invasion more easily? Were they preoccupied with Russia at all, rather than the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the “war on terror” or, more recently, China?

Or was Russia more of an occasional nuisance, with which the West also sought closer cooperation through: economic assistance in the 1990s; major business investment; the Budapest Memorandum handing nukes in Ukraine back to Russia; cooperation on Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear deal; Russian membership of the G8, G20, WTO and the NATO-Russia Council; and the Obama Administration’s 2009 “reset” with Russia?

If there was a coherent pattern of pushing Ukraine as a proxy, why did the US do so little to arm it prior to 2014 – the real starting point of Russia’s invasion? Why was the Obama Administration so hesitant about taking tough measures and arming Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its proxy war (yes!) in the Donbas? Why has Joe Biden put the brakes on efforts to give Ukraine a clearer path to NATO membership, as advocated by East European states that were former Russian colonies?

For most Ukrainians, the idea that the US and NATO are aggressively fuelling the war seems tragically laughable: the alliance has moved with extreme caution to supply weapons with greater firepower or capacity to reach Russian territory, such as tanks, longer-range missiles and fighter jets – while Russia meanwhile rains down missiles and drone strikes (many supplied by Iran) on Ukrainian residential areas.

Such reluctance to “escalate” by putting Ukraine on a more even footing gives some clue why claims about NATO wanting to threaten or destroy Russia are a bit silly: if you’re worried that giving tanks to Ukraine might lead to nuclear escalation with a country holding 6,000 nuclear warheads, you sure ain’t going to be mounting a land invasion.

Remember that the three Baltic States, which are about the same distance from Moscow as Ukraine and much closer to St Petersburg, joined NATO in 2004 without huge fuss. NATO committed not to deploy nuclear weapons or significant forces in such new members, and didn’t. (And, at the time of the 2022 full-scale invasion there was zero prospect of a partly occupied Ukraine joining NATO.)

Moreover, since the 2004 enlargement the only additional new members were small states in the Western Balkans, well away from Russia: Croatia, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. That is, until long-neutral Finland and Sweden rushed to join after the 2022 invasion. Of course, long-time members Norway and Turkey were already on or close to Russia’s borders. Perhaps it’s more about Ukraine than NATO?

One is also reminded of the words on a banner behind Joseph Goebbels at a Nazi party rally in 1942: “Never forget that England forced the war on us.”

Perhaps we could listen to Ukrainians? or Crimean Tatars?

As for egging on and “fuelling” the war, what would happen if arms supplies to Ukraine were halted? Would Russia simply down arms and not pursue further conquest? Proxy war adherents seem to think it would be desirable for the Ukrainian government just to give up and sue for peace, leaving large chunks of the country under Russian control – or even ceding them permanently, which would be a first for the international community since Hitler and Stalin, as I have argued elsewhere.

But this highlights why the idea Ukrainians are only fighting because the West is egging them on is so misplaced. Five hundred days of war have filled Ukrainians with a determination to resist and a bitterness towards Russia that won’t wane quickly. Opinion polls have consistently shown 80-85 percent of Ukrainians opposed to making territorial concessions to end the war. Another survey showed that 63 percent of Ukrainians in areas outside Russian control having had close relatives or friends who had been killed in the Russian invasion. On average, each one of this 63 percent knew three people in their circle who had died.

Looking at the conduct of Russian military and security forces in occupied areas, it’s not hard to understand why capitulating or handing over territory is repugnant to most Ukrainians. The UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has documented widespread evidence of war crimes: attacks on civilians and infrastructure, wilful killings, torture, rape, deportations of children, plus the seizure of thousands of Ukrainian businesses.

The Danish Institute against Torture documented myriad cases where prisons and police stations in Russian-occupied territories were used as torture centres against civilians, employing a variety of methods – electric shocks, beatings, suffocation, deprivation of sleep, food or sanitary facilities, mock executions, threats and humiliation. AP journalists located ten torture sites in the town of Izyum alone after the Russian army withdrew. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Australian international lawyer Alice Edwards, recently voiced alarm at reports of consistent use of severe torture.

The treatment of minority groups should also be a canary in the coalmine in considering whether it makes much difference whether Ukraine or Russia controls southern and eastern Ukraine. A prime example is the Crimean Tatars, recognised as an indigenous people of Ukraine, who suffered dispossession and exile under the Tsars and genocide under Stalin (as recognised by the Russian parliament in 1991): somewhere between 20-40 percent perished as a result of their 1944 mass deportation to Central Asia.

Only able to return in any numbers after 1991, the Crimean Tatars became staunch supporters of Ukraine’s fledgling democracy. However, the bad old days came back after the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation: the UN and others have documented widespread arbitrary detentions, torture, expulsions and harassment of Tatar activists or protesters. There is no question which state the Crimean Tatars believe should have sovereignty over their only homeland. Meanwhile, Russia has brought several hundred thousand settlers into Crimea, a gross violation of international law.

If you oppose illegal Israeli settlements and abuses against Palestinians or support a Voice for and recognition of dispossession against indigenous Australians, spare a thought for the Crimean Tatars. Do ponder whether their interests should again be cast aside in the interests of realpolitik.

Boris the Warmonger?

Some proxy war proponents place great store on claims that the West stymied peace negotiations with Russia early in the war, specifically during a visit to Kyiv by Boris Johnson in April 2022. This notion – which again dismisses the agency of Ukraine – has been thoroughly debunked by knowledgeable Ukrainians and Russians, including members of the Ukrainian left such as Taras Bilous, Volodymyr Artiukh and Taras Fedirko.

The peace talks were a smokescreen by the Kremlin. Then the recent unearthing of major war crimes in Bucha and other towns near Kyiv after the Russian army retreated in April 2022 made it impossible for the Zelensky government to entertain concessions. Every serious Ukrainian activist or analyst of every political stripe dismisses another favourite canard of the proxy war school, that the 2014 Maidan “Revolution of Dignity” was a US-backed coup.

If you don’t believe me, what about Russian democrats and Russia experts?

The “proxy war” school seems to see the world as shaped by the US as virtually the sole malevolent force in the world. Russia is almost purely reactive, pushed around by the big bad bully until, Peter Finch-like, it just couldn’t take it anymore. We don’t hear much more about Russia itself. Is that a reflection of the fact that nearly all of the “proxy war” adherents have little or no Russia expertise? The only one on the list above who does is Geoffrey Roberts; the rest are Asia specialists or generalist foreign policy people, economists, journalists or pundits.

Their view of the war is shared by very few academics, ex-diplomats or journalists who specialise on Russia and Ukraine. A minority may see NATO enlargement as unwise (“don’t poke the bear!”), hubristic or one of several legitimate grievances for Russia, but seldom see it as a proximate cause of, or justification for, the invasion.

More pertinently, independent and democratic Russians overwhelmingly see the war as driven almost exclusively by the Putin regime and the nature of Russia’s political system. They include figures like Aleksei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, imprisoned survivors of poisoning, and Nobel Peace Prize winners editor Dmitry Muratov and Oleg Orlov of the outstanding human rights group Memorial (closed down in 2021 for nonsensical charges, including supporting terrorism and extremism).

Exiled former government figures like Yeltsin’s Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev or Vladimir Milov and virtually all independent media, now driven from Russia, share this view. Most would side with Navalny in blaming the war on Russia’s “endless cycle of imperial authoritarianism”. Or see Putin’s and the Kremlin’s fear of “democratic contagion” from the Slavic ex-Soviet states Ukraine and Belarus as the root cause (recalling that Moscow helped the Lukashenko regime suppress mass protests against the fraudulent 2020 elections in Belarus).

In the same camp are a wide array of Russian and Belarusian intellectuals, artists and writers working abroad, such as Boris Akunin, Vladimir Sorokin, Mikhail Zygar, Alexander Etkind, Boris Grebenshchikov, Yevgenia Albats, Garry Kasparov, Sergei Guriev, and Nobel Literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

Alexander Etkind’s book Russia Against Modernity, which I reviewed recently, contains many insights into the political economy of Putin’s Russia and how it has led to war: a kleptocratic petrostate with a massive security and military apparatus – close to half the federal budget – and rampant inequality has stoked resentment over loss of empire and conflict with the West to bolster its legitimacy.

For Etkind, the invasion is just one front in a wider war against progressive values of all kinds, promoting climate denialism, right wing politicians, homophobia and misogyny. The latest example – on the heels of decriminalising domestic violence in 2017, anti-“gay propaganda” laws, repression and extrajudicial murders of LGBTQ people – is an anti-transgender law banning reassignment surgery and hormone treatments.

Imperial dreams, genocidal thoughts and a crusade against “gay parades”

If you think the war is about NATO I would recommend getting a taste of the bile and vitriol that politicians, propagandists and pundits pour out on the main Russian TV channels nightly, making Sky after Dark look like a Greens branch meeting. They regularly make genocidal claims in line with Putin’s belief (observed as early as 1992) that Ukraine isn’t a real country deserving an independent existence.

They clamour for use of nuclear weapons, celebrate killing of Ukrainian civilians, deny that the Ukrainian language exists, and say “denazification” should mean killing all Ukrainians who resist. Such examples can be repeated endlessly, along with various Orthodox priests up to Patriarch Kirill blessing the invasion as a holy war against a Satanic West that supports gay pride events.

For an anecdote that puts another nail in the proxy war claim, go no further than War and Punishment, by exiled Russian journalist Mykhail Zygar, who has excellent sources among Kremlin insiders. As Zygar tells it, Putin and his billionaire crony and bagman Yuri Kovalchuk cooked up the invasion during the Covid pandemic, when Putin spent lots of time pondering on how to retrieve Russia’s imperial glory.

Or listen to what silver-tongued Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a bemused oligarch who buttonholed him in the Kremlin asking why Putin had decided to invade and who was advising him: “He has three advisers,” Lavrov replied. “Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.”

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