They were the “hot wars” of the “Cold War”.
For just over four decades, the Soviet Union and the United States have aggressively competed for spheres of influence around the world without ever facing each other in armed conflict. This does not mean that during this nearly half century there were no wars between them – but they took place, with all their cruelty and destruction, in other places and through other actors.
These were the so-called “proxy wars” or proxy wars.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the Western military alliance, of waging such a war against Moscow.
Lavrov warned that the advanced weapons the West is providing the Ukrainian government will be a legitimate target for Russian forces carrying out “special military operation”, Moscow’s term for the invasion of Ukraine.
“Warehouses in western Ukraine were attacked more than once [por forças russas]. How could it be otherwise? NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a (third party) proxy and is arming that proxy. War is war,” the Russian chancellor said in an interview with TV stations.
But what exactly is a “proxy war” and what does it mean when Russia accuses NATO of waging it?
“A proxy war occurs when one state fights another state, but instead of using its own military forces, it uses the forces of another – which could be another state, a militia or warlords,” Daniel Byman, professor of foreign policy at Georgetown University in Washington, USA, and senior Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institute, told BBC News Mundo, the BBC Spanish news service.
Lavrov warned that Western arms shipments arriving in Ukraine are legitimate targets for Russian forces.
It is worth remembering that these types of conflicts were very frequent between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War when, for example, each superpower supported opposing forces in a civil war in places like Somalia or Ethiopia, in order to compete by influence through these third parties.
These conflicts were also fought in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, as was the case in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Vladimir Rauta, professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom, points out that these interventions can be carried out in different ways.
“This support can materialize through weapons transfers, intelligence information or funding. The most common form of support is to provide safe havens, safe territorial havens,” he tells BBC News Mundo.
“A proxy war implies some or all of these forms of support, but never the sending of troops, because when a state contributes troops it already becomes a direct military intervention”, points out Rauta.
Lavrov’s claim that NATO is involved in Ukraine in such a conflict against Russia was previously made by Leon Panetta, who was US Secretary of Defense and head of the CIA (American intelligence agency) during the Obama administration.
“This is a proxy war with Russia, whether we like it or not,” he told Bloomberg financial news agency in mid-March.
In an interview with BBC News Mundo, Panetta again defended his position, highlighting the unity of the United States and its NATO allies in their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“They (US and allies) are working to ensure that Russia pays a price for this invasion. They have implemented severe economic sanctions against Russia. They are supplying Ukrainians with weapons to help them fight the Russian invasion and strengthening NATO countries to make it clear that they will resist any further invasion from Russia,” he says.
“To the extent that the United States and our allies are doing everything they can to support Ukraine in its war against Russia, we can say that this is the equivalent of a proxy war,” he adds.
Panetta also highlights recent statements by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who last week said that one of the goals of this war is to see Russia weakened.
Austin’s remarks came during an interview with journalists in Poland, during which he was asked if he would now define Washington’s objectives differently than when the invasion began.
In the months before the invasion, as Russia mobilized its troops near the border with Ukraine, NATO countries began sending weapons to Kiev — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
“We want Ukraine to remain a sovereign country, a democratic country capable of protecting its sovereign territory. We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do the kind of thing it did in invading Ukraine,” Austin replied.
After the start of the invasion of Ukraine, the Congress of U.S approved aid to that country of around US$ 3.5 billion (R$ 17.6 billion) which, according to the White House, is almost sold out.
Therefore, at the end of April, the Biden administration requested additional resources on the order of US$ 33 billion (R$ 166 billion) to help Ukraine.
Washington has delivered munitions and weapons of all types, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems, helicopters, drones and grenade launchers, to the government of Volodymyr Zelensky.
According to the Norwegian Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance as a whole has already allocated more than US$ 8 billion (R$ 40 billion) in military aid to Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden has rejected the idea that his country or NATO is participating in a proxy war against Russia.
“It’s not true and that worries me because it shows the despair that Russia feels for its miserable failure to not be able to do what it initially said it would do. I think it doesn’t reflect the truth, but their failure,” he said. Biden.
“Instead of saying that the Ukrainians (…) are doing this, they (Russians) are telling their people that the United States and all of NATO are involved in the elimination of Russian troops and tanks, etc.” .
Byman of Georgetown University maintains that Lavrov’s accusation is actually part of a propaganda effort by Moscow.
“He [Lavrov] is trying to change the narrative. Instead of admitting that Russia – which has invaded a neighbor – is the aggressor, he is trying to make believe that Russia is on the defensive, is being attacked. And that the enemy is not Ukraine, but that NATO and the United States are aiming for Russia. He is simply trying to find a new enemy because of the failures of Russian policy so far,” says the expert.
Rauta, from the University of Reading, points out that the fact that the United States and NATO support Ukraine does not amount to a proxy war, as these are states that are helping a country that is being attacked.
“Lavrov is completely wrong. The United States and the European Union are giving military and economic support to the legitimate government of Ukraine. This is something totally legal. They are allies and partners that help each other”, he points out.
“Russia started this war and NATO is just helping Ukraine to defend itself. So it’s not like NATO wants to fight Moscow. It’s actually a war that Russia started,” he says.
But he cautions that “it is possible that the US or other countries have other goals than simply defending Ukraine,” referring to comments by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Despite this, according to the expert, “the primary nature of this conflict is not that of a proxy war, but that of an invasion by Russia of another country that is defending itself with the help of other countries”, he adds.
Both Byman and Rauta agreed that, paradoxically, a classic example of proxy warfare is the role Moscow has played in Ukraine in recent years.
“If there was a country that fought a proxy war in Ukraine, it was Russia, which since 2014 has supported and promoted separatist rebels in southeastern Ukraine. Moscow created this whole situation from a proxy war it waged against Kiev,” he concludes. Rauta.