There really is a proxy war in Ukraine: Ignore it at your peril

Ukraine war

First published at Counterfire.

From the word go, most socialists in the West have rightly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is almost universal support for Ukraine’s right to self-determination.

However, a minority of us have also argued that socialists in the West cannot limit our analysis of the war to characterising it as one of self-defence by a smaller country against an imperialist invading force.

This is because the conduct of Ukraine’s war of self-defence has been subsumed by the inter-imperialist rivalry that formed the backdrop of the war: the West was quick to get involved indirectly by sending military, financial and humanitarian aid.

While it is true that many past wars have contained an inter-imperialist proxy component, we have to make a concrete judgement about how central that component is to the dynamics of the war at hand. The extent of the aid that the West has given Ukraine is in fact extraordinary.

Western aid to Ukraine is equivalent to what the US spent on average annually in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2020, and, factored into today’s prices, what it was on average spending annually on pursuing the Vietnam War. To put a figure on it, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), the West sent, or promised, US$ 128 billion to Ukraine – in the space of the last year.

Moreover, extraordinarily, Western aid to Ukraine is comparable with what Russia is spending on the invasion. According to the British Ministry of Defence in December 2022, Putin pledged around $140bn for the war effort in 2023. That level of aid dwarfs the kind of aid the Chinese and Soviets sent to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, by way of contrast. And that level of aid in turn was a mere fraction of what the US was spending during the Vietnam War. Chinese aid during 1950-1970, much more significant than Soviet aid for most of the period, annually averaged around 1/12th of US spending over the period 1965-1975.

Now, if the West is prepared to spend in Ukraine what the US spent in two wars in which its troops were directly involved, and is matching Russian spending on its war effort in Ukraine (something the Chinese and Soviets were unable to do even at the height of the Vietnam War), we must surely conclude that the proxy element in the Ukraine War is so significant as to warrant the war’s characterisation as a proxy war. Simply put, there is something qualitatively different about this war compared with a simple war of self-defence, as a consequence of the sheer scale of Western involvement.

Moreover, the dynamic of inter-imperialist proxy war has a real tendency to escalate that is being ignored or downplayed by those who do not place an emphasis on this key characteristic of the war. Escalation has consequences both for the working class of the direct belligerents and for the international working class as a whole. Following the first year of the war, the situation on the ground has reached a military stalemate. Casualties on both sides are now counted in the hundreds of thousands, and civilian deaths are in the tens of thousands. Millions are displaced or suffering from the economic effects of the war. But each escalation by one side breeds further escalation by the other, such that we are now entering the second year of the war, with the provision of large numbers of tanks, talk of fighter jets and possibly more dangerous weapons being involved.

There is an obvious question about the West’s behaviour in this conflict, which is why it is prepared to spend that much not just on Ukraine itself but also on broader war-related measures.  So spending on domestic subsidies to keep the Western economies running is actually even greater than the direct war costs, making the true cost of the war much more significant. Germany alone announced over €250 billion in subsidies in 2022. Increasing spending on ‘defence budgets’ in East and West is fuelling a broader arms race which will not end overnight or even with the Ukraine War.

Indeed, we should ask what the economic, social and other costs would be if this increasing level of spending is sustained over a longer period of time. Press reports say many NATO states are having to increase military production to maintain a level of their own battle readiness, while simultaneously delivering material to Ukraine at the level it is currently being wasted. Put differently, Western economies are having to undergo a significant shift to maintain adequate levels of war production for the kind of massive conventional war which we are seeing in Ukraine. Reportedly, the military-industrial complex in many NATO states is complaining that it is only ready to commit to such levels of spending if there is a guarantee of multi-year investment. Who will pay for this?

It must be clear that the Western imperialist states are making this level of investment because of the current cost-benefit analysis in key capitals. Washington in particular seems to think the cost is worth it because it is doing several things simultaneously. It is tying Western Europe to its own economy (no wonder if it did actually blow up Nord Stream II). It is hoping to pluck Ukraine’s riches. It is punishing Russia, its inferior geopolitical rival (which, for the time being, remains too weak to win in Ukraine, but too strong to lose). And it is warning China not to mess with Taiwan and US control of the Pacific. Washington also seems to believe that the cost will not produce such massive social upheaval as to shake the capitalist system significantly. It clearly does not believe the proxy war will spiral into a direct inter-imperialist conflict or result in the use of nuclear weapons. But just because Washington thinks that does not make it so. The risks are actually increasing the longer the war continues.

Given the proxy element of the war, too, the costs for Ukraine are seldom openly discussed – lest the mantra that Ukraine will fight until victory be brought into question, and lest the social sacrifices being made of Western populations start to be questioned. But can Ukraine maintain the level of losses it’s currently enduring? We are reading in the press about Ukraine’s manpower problems, conscription problems, and mobilisation problems. Ukraine was already a ‘fragile ward of the IMF’ (Adam Tooze) before the war. The scale of destruction by Russia and the scale of military/financial/humanitarian dependency on the West will only increase in a protracted war. Ukraine is already turning into a garrison state, in which the minorities, the left, and the labour movement, are all heavily repressed. Is it worth it?

While neither the West nor Russia appears close to giving up, the costs of the war are mounting for them and their allies, and for the people of Ukraine. The longer the war continues, the worse things will get. That is why those of us who insist that the inter-imperialist proxy war element of the Ukraine war is central, are right to put an emphasis on stopping the war in Ukraine. We are right to emphasise the need for peace negotiations. Pressure needs to be built both in Russia and the West. The stronger the opposition we can build to the war in the West, the more space we can create for a Russian anti-war movement to recover because Putin will be less able to pass himself off as the defender of the Russian people from Western hostility.

We as socialists in the West have a duty to oppose the proxy war being fought by NATO against Russia in Ukraine for that reason, but without collapsing the analysis of the war into simply the inter-imperialist element. Our line is not a simple revolutionary defeatist one, but one which combines the struggle against our ruling class with demands for the respect of Ukraine to self-determination. This is summarised by the demand for stopping the war, Russia out and no to NATO expansion. We also add ‘no nuclear war’ since we also see the potential of this inter-imperialist war to lead to nuclear escalation and even direct inter-imperialist conflict. The longer the war drags on, the more polarised the situation around it will become, and the more our arguments will be borne out against those in the labour movement who have capitulated to their warring states. The more we are able to take this message into the labour movement, the stronger will our ability be to say: we will not pay for their wars, we will not pay for their crises.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.