There are many ways for a state to project power and weaken adversaries, but proxy wars are one of the most cynical. Proxy wars devour the countries they purport to defend. They entice nations or insurgents to fight for geopolitical goals that are ultimately not in their interest. The war in Ukraine has little to do with Ukrainian freedom and a lot to do with degrading the Russian military and weakening Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. And when Ukraine looks headed for defeat, or the war reaches a stalemate, Ukraine will be sacrificed like many other states, in what one of the founding members of the CIA, Miles Copeland Jr., referred to as the “Game of Nations” and “the amorality of power politics.”
I covered proxy wars in my two decades as a foreign correspondent, including in Central America where the U.S. armed the military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and Contra insurgents attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. I reported on the insurgency in the Punjab, a proxy war fomented by Pakistan. I covered the Kurds in northern Iraq, backed and then betrayed more than once by Iran and Washington. During my time in the Middle East, Iraq provided weapons and support to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) to destabilize Iran. Belgrade, when I was in the former Yugoslavia, thought by arming Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, it could absorb Bosnia and parts of Croatia into a greater Serbia.
Proxy wars are notoriously hard to control, especially when the aspirations of those doing the fighting and those sending the weapons diverge. They also have a bad habit of luring sponsors of proxy wars, as happened to the U.S. in Vietnam and Israel in Lebanon, directly into the conflict. Proxy armies are given weaponry with little accountability, significant amounts of which end up on the black market or in the hands of warlords or terrorists. CBS News reported last year that around 30 percent of the weapons sent to Ukraine make it to the front lines, a report it chose to partially retract under heavy pressure from Kyiv and Washington. The widespread diversion of donated military and medical equipment to the black market in Ukraine was also documented by U.S. journalist Lindsey Snell. Weapons in war zones are lucrative commodities. There were always large quantities for sale in the wars I covered.
Warlords, gangsters and thugs — Ukraine has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in Europe — are transformed by sponsor states into heroic freedom fighters. Support for those fighting these proxy wars is a celebration of our supposed national virtue, especially seductive after two decades of military fiascos in the Middle East. Joe Biden, with dismal poll numbers, intends to run for a second term as a “wartime” president who stands with Ukraine, to which the U.S. has already committed $113 billion in military, economic and humanitarian assistance.
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