The United States and European countries continue to pledge their support to Ukraine as Russia’s invasion drags on into its ninth month – and have backed their alliance with recurrent deliveries of advanced weaponry and money.
But despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to Western powers of nuclear strikes, neither the U.S. nor any Western European country, unified under the military coalition NATO, has actually declared it is part of the war.
The U.S. has provided US$17.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia first invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But it can be difficult to track foreign aid and to distinguish between money that governments have promised and actually delivered. Some unofficial estimates place U.S. commitments to Ukraine made in 2022 much higher, at $40 billion.
European countries, meanwhile, have collectively donated an estimated 29 billion euros – or more than $28.3 billion – in security, financial and humanitarian aid in 2022 – not including additional aid to Ukrainian refugees.
This support has made it possible for Ukraine to fend off a Russian conquest of the country. Without Western aid, equipment and training, Ukraine would likely have already suffered defeat to the Russian incursion.
As a scholar of war and military interventions, I think the situation in Ukraine represents a classic case of a proxy war, in which outsiders give allies money, weapons and other kinds of support – but not at the risk of their own soldiers’ or civilians’ lives.
A better understanding of what proxy wars actually are, and what purpose they serve, provides useful context for the the U.S. and NATO’s current unofficial involvement in the Ukraine war.
What proxy wars are
Proxy wars are armed conflicts in which one nation sends resources other than its own military personnel – like weapons, trainers, advisers, surveillance drones, money or even mercenaries – to support another country fighting in a war. This is often done to achieve a political objective, like regime change in another country.
Most proxy wars feature a government trying to determine an outcome in another country’s war. The U.S., for example, supported France with aircraft, vehicles, and weapons in France’s effort to reestablish control of what was then known as Indochina from 1946 to 1954. The Vietnam War started just one year after, in 1955.
Proxy wars allow governments to hurt an adversary without actually declaring war and sending in troops.
Of course, not every government has an equal capacity to financially support other wars. This is why relatively powerful governments with global reach, like the U.S. and the United Kingdom, tend to sponsor proxy wars.
Why proxy wars are taken on
Proxy wars became especially useful for the U.S. and other major powers after World War II, because the 1945 United Nations charter outlawed war except in cases of self-defense.
They also gained prominence because the U.S. and the Soviet Union each possessed nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
That meant any direct clash came with a very large risk of escalating from conventional fighting to a species-ending nuclear war.
Both the U.S. and Soviet Union sponsored proxy wars in places like Angola, where communism and oil were both factors, and El Salvador, where the rise of communism was also a concern for the U.S., during the 1970s and 1980s. This involvement was a way for each government to hurt the other’s interests without significantly risking further military escalation.
Proxy wars may also help establish a foreign government’s legitimacy. If the U.S. directly supports one side in a smaller country’s civil war, it may look like a bully. But if the U.S. defends its engagement by saying it is trying to oppose major foreign adversaries like the Soviet Union or China, then meddling in a third country’s affairs can look necessary and vital.
After his initial February 2022 assault of Ukraine faltered in March, Putin increased his attacks on Western countries, saying that economic sanctions Western countries approved shortly after the invasion were like a declaration of war.
Putin says that Russia is fighting the West and the U.S. – this could help justify Russia’s losses and maintain domestic support for the war.
Other kinds of proxy wars
There are two other main kinds of proxy wars, both intended to accomplish political goals without risking a country’s own people.
The first kind is government support of terrorist groups that attack other governments. Iran’s financial and political support of Hezbollah – a Muslim political party and militant group in Lebanon that seeks Israel’s destruction – is an example.
But while Iran’s use of Hezbollah to attack Israel is by proxy, this wouldn’t exactly count as proxy war. Although terrorism involves lethal armed violence, it doesn’t rise to the level of war, in terms of loss of life and control of territory, for example.
The second form involves supporting an internationally recognized government engaged an international war. This is a rare occurrence, mainly because wars between different countries are more rare than internal conflicts.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine in 2022 is an international war, but NATO cannot easily risk a direct attack on Russia, since Russia has nuclear weapons and is also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Russia is also unlikely to withdraw from Ukraine short of defeat on the battlefield, making Ukraine an ideal proxy client – or, at least, ideal for NATO, but very costly in terms of human life for Ukraine and Russia.
If NATO succeeds in helping Ukraine defeat Russia, powerful governments are likely to see proxy wars as a useful tool. But if Russia escalates to attacking NATO countries directly, or uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, proxy wars may be replaced by direct confrontation and, by extension, a third world war. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
This article has been updated to correct the conversion of euros to dollars.
This piece is written by Monica Duffy Toft, Professor of International Politics and Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy from the Tufts University. Want to feature your story? Reach out to us at [email protected]