The United States is Not Fighting a ‘Proxy War’ in Ukraine

I have seen many commentators on the right, and now increasingly on the left, calling the Russian-Ukrainian War a U.S. ‘proxy war’ and criticizing US policy on that spurious basis. The latest is an analyst and military commentator whom I had previously respected, and whom some who share my own values might give credence to: Andrew Bacevich. Anyone who utters the phrase ‘proxy war’ in conjunction with Ukraine’s defense reveals themselves and their motives as less than honest, or at the very least ideologically blinded to strategic and military reality.

What is a ‘proxy war’? It is one initiated or instigated by a great power in which it does not involve itself directly. The most important words here should leap off the page: initiated or instigated. The US decidedly did not initiate or instigate this war: Russia did. It is an arguable case that the irresolution of US policy toward Russia’s aggression in the first phases of Putin’s war on Ukraine under Obama and Trump enabled or allowed Russian aggression, but in no meaning of the word did the US initiate or instigate this war. Therefore, using the rightly pejorative term ‘proxy war’ about US policy in Ukraine is fundamentally a smear and a lie.

This particular lie often also signals a fundamental hostility toward US aid for Ukrainian defense, frequently justified with a conspiracy theory that we seek a goal ulterior to the preservation of Ukrainian independence, self-determination and self-defense. If there is any ulterior motive underlying support of Ukraine it is simply that Russian aggression against Ukraine strikes at the beating heart of the American-led world order and the fundamental bases of our national security: the UN Charter, rules-based relations, sovereign integrity, the NATO alliance, and promotion of democratic institutions and values – no matter how inconstant, and despite notable hypocrisies and lapses.

Ukraine is a crucial and must-win test of the order we have built with our allies in over a century of struggle and sacrifice by our military and diplomatic corps, as well as our financial and industrial leaders. Failure to defend that order would be a tragedy of historic proportions. We did not recruit the Ukrainian people to defend our order and values; they recruited themselves by their own resistance, bravery, and democratically expressed choices. The very least we could have done for Ukraine under these circumstances is to provide them with military support to defend themselves, and the financial and humanitarian aid to preserve the lives of their citizens — and that minimum is exactly what we have prudently done under the Biden Administration. You can argue that we could or should do more, but doing less would betray our own security interests and undermine our own global order.

We did not choose this war, nor did Ukraine: it was forced upon us by Russian aggression, corruption, and criminality. Those who compare the security and foreign policy challenges posed by Ukraine to any of our prior conflicts anterior to WWII are drawing flawed parallels with our more recent military follies. Their claims seek to undermine American resolve in order to serve their own political agendas – such critics either do not understand – or do not care about – the fundamentals of American leadership and power in the world.

I don’t think anyone can credibly claim to know what the outcome of this war will be, but we can foresee the result of a failure of American resolve in backing Ukraine’s self-defense. It would provide a triumph for our competitive adversaries, serve as an example of weakness that will encourage further military aggression by the authoritarian regimes of the current world order, and send a clear signal that America is a global power on the decline who will leave our allies – and aspirants to join that web of global alliances – at the mercy of barbarous aggression. We are the strongest economic and military power on earth – by a wide margin. We have enabled a nation to stand up to the aggression of a comparative military colossus and completely discredit and degrade that opponent, and done so for barely a tenth of our military budget and at the cost of not a single American service member. The American people should be proud of that accomplishment, and resolute in our course of supporting and protecting the brave and hopeful citizens of Ukraine.

Slavi Unkraini!

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