This IS a proxy war the "West" is having with Russia, and Ukraine is the pawn. That said, everything must be done to see Ukraine prevail.
With the anniversary of the Ukraine-Russia War looming next month, the war is at perhaps its most attritional, most horrific, most heart-breaking. The loss of life there need never have happened. Assuming he survives this war, Vladimir Putin will one day have a lot to answer for.
In a court. In The Hague.
Russian propagandists often accuse the West, NATO, the US of being involved in a proxy war. A broken clock is right twice a day, and here, the Russian narrative rings true.
The West, NATO, the EU, the US are indeed involved in a proxy war. But let’s first establish some basics. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “proxy war” 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.” I wager the Ukraine-Russia War fulfills this definition quite easily.
NATO says the following of its own existence:
Formed in 1949 with the signing of the Washington Treaty, NATO is a security alliance of 30 countries from North America and Europe. NATO’s fundamental goal is to safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means. NATO remains the principal security instrument of the transatlantic community and expression of its common democratic values. It is the practical means through which the security of North America and Europe are permanently tied together. NATO enlargement has furthered the U.S. goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.
This war falls in line with NATO’s fundamental goals, given that Ukraine desires to be a part of the organization and that neighboring countries are members. This war has always threatened to spill westwards. It is vital that Ukraine prevail for NATO’s continued existence and for it to fulfill the above criteria. The same could be said for the EU.
The proxy nature of this war can be seen by point of fact that allied nations, including but not restricted to NATO countries, are giving almost everything to Ukraine that might be involved in wars, bar one thing: frontline soldiers.
The nations involved are providing tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and every other sort of armored vehicle, howitzers, munitions, rocket launchers, guided missiles, every type of gun and grenade launcher, ammunition, helicopters, almost certainly soon jet fighters, bridge-laying equipment, mines, and any number of other pieces of materiel. In fact, there have been factories set to work overtime in producing more munitions or upgrading existing tanks, with plans to build more factories being suggested.
But the help doesn’t stop there: Not by a long shot. Allies are also providing telecommunication equipment (such as the much-vaunted Starlink kit), access to satellite imagery, real-time intelligence and other shared intelligence information, mapping, hi-tech equipment, and suchlike.
And there’s more. NATO forces and others are providing training for the Ukrainian military as well as helping to develop military strategy, operational maneuvers, and battlefield tactics. The Ukrainian army has been on a long journey to move from old Soviet military doctrine to move to a more fluid NATO model. There are almost certainly allied special forces operating within Ukraine.
Political assistance is being provided, along with financial and humanitarian aid to the tune of many billions of dollars from a host of countries.
In every single conceivable way, NATO countries, the West, the EU, allies—however you want to slice and dice the assistance being given—are fighting in a proxy war. It’s only really frontline soldiers that are lacking in the help that is being strategically delivered to the beleaguered nation.
Of course, this is a perfect scenario for those opposed to the political ideology and present authoritarian manifestation of the Soviet Union. If one strips away the humanity of war, and the emotional dimension, this situation presents a chance for NATO to defeat Russia once and for all without losing a single NATO soldier. This could be the first war fought between two forces where one side doesn’t lose a single casualty. That will certainly be something for the history books.
One could add in some ancillary benefits: This war is the ideal testbed to observe and evaluate the performance of weaponry, to improve future designs, to tinker with strategy in order to adapt doctrine and theory. NATO can wargame where the potential losses from incorrect moves are third-party soldiers and civilians. This sounds horrible, but from NATO or the US’s point of view, this is as good as it gets in warfare.
If NATO “is the practical means through which the security of North America and Europe are permanently tied together,” then this war is the manner with which this can be achieved on a lasting basis. There will never again be a better opportunity to degrade the threat of the Russian military machine to a point where it is perhaps terminally broken.
And with the growing realization that the nuclear threat is an empty one, this opportunity is now being seen as too good to waste. The floodgates are open and the nations allied to Ukraine are starting to throw increasingly bold amounts and types of equipment at the Ukrainians.
Where Russian doctrine, or maybe capability, appears to be “throw increasing numbers of humans at the problem” in light of sanctions and a decimated military-industrial complex, the West is “throwing increasing numbers and types of hardware at the problem.” There is no new or better materiel that Russia can presently access, so we see them putting a new lick of paint on tanks mothballed for half a century.
This is an attritional war at the moment, and Ukraine will never win this in terms of attrition of soldiers. Russia has deep reserves of personnel and they have shown scant regard through history for them. They see Pyrrhic victory as a suitable way of inducing sacrifices at the alter of overlord Putin.
There are two ways that Ukraine can effect a victory in needing to avoid attrition of their own forces and manpower. First, they can use a technical equipment and strategic advantage to outmaneuver the Russian forces, leading to a swift regaining of territory and an efficient and asymmetrical depletion of the Russin army. Second, they can win an attritional war, but not the one mentioned above. Instead, they could opt for a war of economic attrition.
Russia has deep personnel pockets but arguably not deep economic pockets. Yes, it holds the keys to a massive reserve of hydrocarbons, but with an effective price cap on crude oil and a looming price cap on other refined output, and with sanctions being increased with every passing month, they could be in trouble. Their budget for 2023 assumed Ural crude oil at $70 a barrel, but they are receiving around $30-40 instead. They ran a deficit budget last year (at nearly $50 billion) for the first time in a long while, and this year is looking fiscally disastrous. Some estimates pose that, with the February price cap of diesel and other products, they might increase their price cap losses from €160 million to €280 per day. That’s a big budgetary shortfall.
How long can those losses be sustained? That’s a question that can be asked in terms of human lives and money on a balance sheet. In this context, the war could be lost in a treasury boardroom.
For NATO, the EU, the US, and Ukraine’s allies (there’s a lot of overlap there), it must be about covering both bases. We must throw as much equipment, and military assistance as we can, as quickly as we can, and for as long as it takes. (It might sound counter-intuitive, but sending more of such weaponry will lead to fewer people dying in the long run.) At the same time, we must up the ante in terms of economic sanctions, pressuring Russia’s own allies (or nations sitting on the geopolitical fence, unconcerned with wars far away).
Because the alternative is too dangerous to consider—where the bully wins, and an axis to threaten the present global status quo is a morally dark and pernicious entity. That’s not to say that the present world order is the paragon of virtue. Far from it. But changing it should not be brought about by might-makes-right, by invading a sovereign nation and committing a plague of war crimes.
This is not to be a war hawk; this is to be a morality hawk.