Waging war is dangerous, so it’s great if someone else will do it for you. That’s what makes proxy wars. When enemies are reluctant to fight directly, they use proxies: local forces that serve their interest and weaken their enemy. It’s war on the cheap.
Proxy wars have been fought since the days of antiquity. Several are raging today. The most intense is being fought in Ukraine. Western leaders are pouring weaponry into Ukraine mainly because Ukraine is wounding Russia, our geopolitical rival. Facing a common enemy, we make a grim bargain. The United States and Europe provide money and weapons, while Ukraine provides the soldiers who fight and die. This deal is part of every proxy war.
“The Russian army is being chewed up by the Ukrainians,” Senator Mark Warner observed recently. “We’re having the Ukrainians do that right now — in a sense, for us.”
Another proxy war is devastating Yemen. For seven years, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen with weapons provided by the United States. Yet neither country cares much about Yemen. We’re at war against a faction supported by Iran. Not wanting to risk full-scale conflict with Iran itself, the United States and Saudi Arabia bomb Iran’s allies instead.
The world’s most complex proxy war is raging in Syria. Its government is allied with Iran and Russia. That makes it an irresistible target for an American proxy war. By attacking or weakening Syria, we strike an indirect blow against two of our main rivals. That’s why the United States has used proxy forces, including Kurdish militias, to seize and occupy one third of Syria. To complicate matters further, neighboring Turkey has also grabbed a slice of Syria, controlling it through its own local proxies. Syrians suffer and die while outsiders joust for advantage on their soil.
The Cold War was a golden age for proxy wars. Both superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, recognized that direct confrontation could result in nuclear holocaust. Instead, they fed wars in various parts of the world, sending guns to the people who live there to do the fighting and dying.
One of the most intense was in Angola. The Soviet Union and Cuba sponsored one side, the United States and South Africa sponsored the other. Fighting began in 1975. By the time it ended a quarter-century later, more than half a million Angolans had died.
During the 1980s, I covered an iconic proxy war in Nicaragua. America’s Cold War rivals, Cuba and the Soviet Union, armed the Sandinista government. Unwilling to tolerate this incursion, the United States armed a rebel force, the Contras. Civil war raged for six years and took tens of thousands of lives. After it ended, amazingly, the two sides reconciled. The main Contra leader, Adolfo Calero, moved back into his formerly confiscated house and became a congressman.
Nicaragua’s war was fomented by outside powers, he told me when I visited him there, and when those powers made peace, they called it off.
“The Sandinistas took up the banner of the moment, which was Marxism,” Calero said.
“We aligned ourselves with the West. They got money and guns from the Soviet Union; we got ours from the United States. But now what divided us has disappeared. . . . What happened? The Cold War ended.”
Ukraine embodies all that is appealing — and all that is appalling — about proxy war.
Countries that want to fight Russia can do so without sending their own soldiers, so there is little public backlash. We applaud the Ukrainians’ willingness to die, but we don’t share it. Ahead may lie the other great danger of proxy wars: It’s hard to end them. They can become “frozen conflicts” or, even worse, “forever wars.”
Afghanistan was for decades such a proxy battleground. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had much interest in the country. Nonetheless they devastated it to score geopolitical points. When the outsiders finally departed, they left behind a ruined nation and millions of suffering war victims. The same happened in Nicaragua and Angola. Today’s wars in Syria and Yemen seem endless, destroying nations one day at a time. That may also be Ukraine’s fate.
Some are already using the term “meat grinder” to describe the slogging battles in Ukraine. It is a terrible phrase but tragically apt. Battle lines shift slowly, as in World War I, when soldiers spent months dug into positions without moving more than a few hundred yards forward or back. No one expects a decisive breakthrough for either side.
Soon after President Biden took office, he ended the long proxy war in Afghanistan by withdrawing US troops. The proxy wars now destroying Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine are different in many ways, but like the one in Afghanistan, they will rage until big powers tire of them. In the meantime, blood will drench those countries’ soil and their sons and daughters will continue dying.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.