Proxy wars are as old as the ancient powers themselves – the Byzantine Empire famously engaged in a proxy war with the Sasanian Empire. Nations often engage in proxy wars if they think the cost of directly engaging their adversaries outweighs the benefits
Russia has accused the United States of engaging it in a ‘proxy war’.
The comments come in the backdrop of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit and Washington announcing it would send Ukraine its Patriot missile systems.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commenting on Zelenskyy’s visit, said there had been no signs of readiness for peace talks and that the US was fighting a proxy war with Russia “to the last Ukrainian”.
This is hardly the first time Moscow has levelled such an accusation – either at the US or the West.
But what is a proxy war exactly? Let’s take a closer look:
What is it?
Oxford Dictionary defines it as a conflict instigated by a major power which does not itself become involved.
Cambridge Dictionary describes it as a war fought between groups or smaller countries that each represent the interests of other larger powers, and may have help and support from these.
Proxy wars are not a new phenomenon.
They are as old as the ancient powers themselves – the Byzantine Empire famously engaged in a proxy war with the Sasanian Empire.
As a piece in the Daily Sabah noted, the Byzantine Empire was so good at this practice that it gave rise to the term “Byzantine politics”
The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union also witnessed a slew of proxy wars.
There were 60 proxy wars prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and more than a dozen since, as per the Daily Sabah.
The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War, and the Soviet -Afghanistan War, are some high-profile examples of proxy wars.
China has supported proxies in North Korea and Vietnam, while Russia has done so in Ukraine and Syria.
Iran has used Houthi rebels in Yemen against Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Shiite militias in Iraq, while the US has armed the Kurdish “People’s Protection Unit” against the Islamic State in Syria as well as groups in Libya.
Why do states engage in proxy wars?
For many reasons.
Nations often engage in proxy battles if they think the cost of directly engaging their adversaries outweighs the benefits
As this piece in Brookings notes, “For the United States, the issue is often cost: Locals fight, and die, so Americans do not have to.”
The piece notes that proxies, being usually local, are more likely to be accepted by those impacted by the war.
“Therefore, they can better gain intelligence from those communities and are less likely to promote the sort of nationalistic backlash that so often accompany foreign interventions. If the proxy is a guerrilla force, they often know the terrain better and can blend in with the population in a way that foreigners never can,” the piece notes.
But it isn’t always that simple.
“Some of Iran’s proxies, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, are ideological soulmates, and advancing them helps advance Iran’s broader revolutionary agenda,” the piece notes.
The piece also pointed out instances of Arab governments propping up Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders who they despised to curry favour with domestic actors.
But there are also downsides.
As per the Borgen Project, a big downside is a risk of prolonging conflict in the long term.
Providing a country weapons, money, or planning and assessment can actually be a burden on finances and also incur political costs.
Then there’s accountability – or lack thereof.
“After the transfer of weapons, funding or assessment help, the country or nonstate actor has those resources. Additionally, it makes the final call as to how those resources are used and allocated. This creates a problem with corruption where the original intent a country has in giving aid may not be fulfilled by the receiver of this aid,” the website notes.
Weapons could also fall in the wrong hands – or be used to attack civilians, the website adds.
Proxy wars set to continue
Regardless, experts say proxy wars are only likely to continue in the years to come.
“Events of the last decade suggest the increasing salience of such conflicts, and the additional factors discussed above increase the likelihood of strategic competition waged through indirect but violent approaches,” a piece in War on the rocks notes.
The piece adds that all the states that the United States sees as competitors have strategic cultures and past histories in which indirect approaches, including proxy wars, have played a prominent role.
“This bears detailed study and updated US doctrine that reflects lessons gleaned from historical cases, including Syria. Proxy conflicts are, after all, the ultimate indirect approach,” the piece notes.
With inputs from agencies
This article originally appeared on https://www.firstpost.com/ and was reproduced here with permission