What counts as being at war in this day and age? The question has become exceedingly complex over the past four months as the United States, NATO, and other countries have engaged in a classic proxy war against Russia on behalf of Ukraine. The US and others have supplied Ukraine with military equipment and (in some cases) operational intelligence in support of Ukrainian forces.

A terminology has developed over the past two decades (hybrid war, gray zone operations) to describe military activity that does not involve direct, high-intensity conflict between two conventionally organized military forces. This terminology has not really defined anything new; in most cases, the term “proxy war” is more than sufficient to describe battlefield phenomena.

The American Bar Association Center for Human Rights’ Expert Working Group “defined proxy warfare to include situations in which state actors support armed third parties whether state or non-state actors—to engage in hostilities as a means to achieve the supporting state’s objectives.”

Thus, proxy war requires at least three partners- the proxy fighters, the target state, and the supporting state- but can include more. In the Russia-Ukraine War, these roles would be played by Ukraine, Russia, and the West.

Here we will examine some of the historical and legal issues associated with proxy wars, leaving practical issues of cost and escalation to a second column.

History of Proxy Wars

There’s certainly nothing new about proxy war.

Confining ourselves just to the twentieth century, the first shots of World War II (in the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War) were arguably fired as part of proxy conflicts, with the Sino-Japanese War eventually escalating into the Pacific War.

The US and the USSR, of course, waged proxy wars against one another during the Cold War in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

In Korea, the USSR supplied the DPRK and eventually the PRC with nearly all of their relevant military equipment, while during the Viet Nam wars China and the Soviet Union supplied the Hanoi government with over $9 billion in military equipment.

The greater portion of the nearly 4000 aircraft lost in Vietnam, not to mention the nearly 90000 American military personnel killed in both Vietnam and Korea, can be chalked up to Moscow’s decision to wage a proxy war against the United States.

Washington repaid the favor during the Soviet-Afghan War, eventually forcing the USSR to withdraw albeit at considerably lower costs to both sides than in Vietnam.

More recent conflicts have by and large not devolved into great power proxy wars, as neither Russia nor China expressed much interest in supporting the Iraqi or Taliban insurgencies during the Wars on Terror (notwithstanding some accusation of Russian bounties on US troops in the final years in Afghanistan).

The United States did not make any noticeable effort to support the Chechens in their wars against Russia.

However, Pakistan and Iran each waged proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, with the former supporting anti-US insurgents while receiving economic and military support from Washington.

Legal Regulation

There is precious little legal regulation of proxy war, either at the international or domestic level. This is largely by design. Governments sometimes wage proxy wars because they lack domestic and international legal authority to fight a direct conflict. They also tend to limit their commitments and actions in order to avoid triggering legal red lines both at home and abroad.

Most law on both the international and domestic side relates to the jus in bello behavior of the proxy rather than the legality of armed hostilities in the first place. This thus has limited application to illuminating the fight in Ukraine, as few credible allegations of Ukrainian human rights abuses have emerged. This potentially could loom larger if Ukraine liberates territory with pro-Russian populations, but at this point that’s far down the road. In fact, sponsors often have limited influence over the behavior of their proxies.

It’s wrong to assume, for example, that Russia could have told Hanoi to cut it out or that the US could force Ukraine to surrender. International law reflects this, as supporting states have limited legal liability for the actions of their proxies.

Domestically, Congress has often seen proxy war as a way for the President to make international military commitments while avoiding legislative scrutiny. The War Powers Resolution and various arms export, restrictions have been designed to limit Presidential latitude with some limited success.

In the case of Ukraine Congress has resolutely supported (and at times even get out in front of) the President on the supply of weapons and intelligence, meaning that there have been no notable domestic political complications. This contrasts with Congress’s more active role regarding support of Saudi Arabia against Houthis in Yemen.

Proxy Wars: A Very Real War 

We must remember that proxy wars are very real for the countries in which they are waged. In the Cold War Koreans, Vietnamese, and Afghans became (from a certain point of view) pawns in superpower conflict while at the same time (from another point of view) fighting the good fight against the domination of a superpower.

Today, Ukrainians are fighting to maintain their integrity and independence, and have asked for foreign support in order to fight the best fight. The motives of the patron shouldn’t obscure the sacrifices being made by the people fighting on the front lines.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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