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The most frequent mantra in recent weeks, introduced by “geopolitical experts” and used with enthusiasm by all those who do not want (out of fear or aversion) that weapons be sent in defense of the Ukrainian resistance against the Russian invasion, is the “war by proxy ‘or’ proxy war ‘. The “power of attorney” is the delegation through which someone (person, institution, state) gives another entity (person, institution, state) the power to represent him. To speak of a proxy war between Russia and the United States (or NATO) is to believe that it was the United States (or NATO) that gave Ukraine to represent them in the war against Putin: for which, evidently, they would carry significant responsibilities in ‘ having started it or continuing it.
Although geopolitical thought tends to regard only the great powers as subjects of history, whose ambitions, fears and perceptions should be taken into consideration and respected (while those of the small powers obviously not), there are few who do not recognize that it is it was Putin who invaded Ukraine. Another surprise for geopoliticians – generally not very attentive to non-material factors such as ideologies – was the resilience of a small (indeed) nation like Ukraine. Indeed, the choice to speak of “proxy war” was not immediate, but became increasingly insistent as – in the face of the unexpected capacity of Ukrainians to resist – the United States and Europe found themselves forced (morally, politically and geopolitically) to increase their aid, including military aid, to those who are defending themselves from illegitimate and criminal aggression.
In this way, with a logical leap that should rewrite much of the history and military clashes that took place in the past, the help provided to an attacked country entering a direct war against the aggressor country is equated. Why does this happen? To find an answer, we went to re-read the autobiographical memoirs of Bob McNamara, the US defense minister at the time of the Vietnam war. He resigned in full ’68 for dissent with the way of managing the conflict and now convinced that that war could only be lost. In his memoirs he writes that the real and profound reason for the American defeat was the lack of “empathy with the enemy”: we did not know who we were facing and in these conditions it is very easy to lose. Even today, as always, the problem is the same: who is Putin? The trouble with right questions is that they produce more questions. We look for the answer to this in another very demonized and little read book: The clash of civilizations by Samuel Huntington. The central point of the book is that, after the great ideologies of the twentieth century (fascism, communism) are destined to resurrect ancient religious identities. Written eight years before 9/11, it’s not bad for analytical skills.
In Putin we find the same passage: from KGB officer to (fake) follower of the Orthodox Church and above all a believer in great Russian nationalism. But on the other hand, what does Russia have to offer for the future? It does not have the industrial capabilities of China, it does not have the science and technology of the USA (vaccine sputnik teaches). You have natural resources (gas, oil) that are being replaced if you don’t want to burn the planet. Indeed it was precisely the “curse” – development economists call it that – of oil revenues that spoiled the Russians, discourage their entrepreneurs, fuel corruption. And to lose the advantages they undoubtedly had at the time of Sputnik (the real one, the first space satellite). Putin therefore remains only the military brute force. He has that and puts that on the table. As Shakespeare says “there is method to this madness”.
Why don’t we notice these little things? Realist geopolitics was remarkably successful in the Cold War era, but not even in that period was the term “proxy war” used to explain the conflicts in Vietnam, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan. From those years, however, the idea of opposing “camps” remained largely in public opinion – especially that of the left and pacifist, an idea that survived, after thirty years, at the end of communism and the war cold; with the connected and consequent strongly critical attitude towards the United States and the West, and often tolerant and justificationist towards the Soviet one.
In much of Europe, and in Italy in particular, people have continued to look at new international relations and the new multipolar world with the eyes of the past, of the last century: and this has led to underestimate the neo-imperial aims and the Putin’s neo-nationalist ideology (which are not only re-editions of the past but have strong elements of novelty), with which we are increasingly linked in energy dependence, the result of a bipartisan vision of the right and left; but also the evolution of US politics and its growing weakness in foreign policy and international choices (from Obama’s failure in Syria to Biden’s in Afghanistan, passing through Trump’s dangerous schizophrenia).
Tracing the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine to a proxy conflict between Russia and the United States is a comforting way to use the Cold War criteria and parameters we have lived with for decades, but it prevents us from understanding the novelty – worrying and difficult to understand. resolve – of Putin’s aggressive strategy, a reinvention for Russian use and of its history, from a religious-nationalist ideological point of view, of the “vital space” considered essential by the power of Moscow (and which many “realists” consider the limit not to be violate the risk of a nuclear war).
Those who refuse, with different motivations and from different and opposing political and ideological perspectives, the delivery of arms to Ukraine to continue defending themselves from Russian aggression, fall into the logic of non-intervention that has not given in the past – even with all differences in non-comparable situations – results to be considered positive. The non-intervention of France and Spain in the face of the military rebellion of the Spanish generals against the Republic allowed the victory, after three years of civil war (and with another thirty of violent dictatorship) of Franco and the fascist countries that had it militarily supported, accelerating the warlike choice of the Axis in 1939. Obama’s non-intervention in Syria after threatening him if he crossed the red line of chemical weapons resulted in the Russian intervention and in the terrible and bloody victory of Assad after the destruction of Aleppo and other cities. These are two examples, the farthest and the closest in time, in which the logic of avoiding a war escalation led to the military victory of the aggressor, with terrible consequences for the civilian population, not only immediately but also in the future time.
Terminating or reducing aid to the Ukrainian resistance, both military and economic, both diplomatic and humanitarian, can only accelerate a victory – perhaps only partial from a territorial point of view, but complete – of the Russian army, whose forms of occupation we have seen with a wealth of documentation in Buča, Mariupol and many other places. The possible negotiation that would follow could only be a recognition of the conditions set by Moscow, while the one following a Russian non-victory could be channeled into a real negotiation with the possible participation of guaranteeing countries.
The question remains – to which no one knows and can give an answer for now – whether in the event of a persistent non-victory Putin can decide to escalate towards more destructive forms to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. However, if this fear were to prevent continuing to arm Ukrainians to defend themselves, it would open the way to a balance of “non-deterrence” in which nuclear powers can invade and conquer their neighbors at will with the threat of using, if hindered and stop, atomic weapons.
The “proxy war”, in reality, also hides another pitfall, which is perhaps the most dangerous: that of not considering as autonomous and independent entities the peoples and states that live alongside or in the spheres of influence of the great powers , to cancel their will and the choices they want and can make, to submit them to the iron logic of geopolitical realism and therefore of the reasons of the strongest. From this point of view, it is a regression – not only an ideal and juridical one – of what was painstakingly achieved with the Peace of Westphalia, even if the end of the Second World War maintained and indeed affirmed the logic of opposing and untouchable fields, which then the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war set aside in the name of the principles of freedom and self-government.
It seems to us, in particular, that the novelty of what the Ukrainians call the “revolution of dignity” and which in 2014 led to the flight of the pro-Russian president has not been grasped in the West. The protagonists of that revolution are not the flags of the USA (as happened at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989) but those of the European Union (and this is the first time in history). The meaning seems clear to us: it is not (only) the idea of economic prosperity that moves Ukrainians, but a broader and more generic idea of freedom and democracy (and this is also the first time this has happened). This is what scares Putin, for the potential implications for the younger Russian generation. But his reaction is steeped in the past: he plans to replicate Budapest 1956 or Prague 1968 with a parade of tanks for deterrent purposes. And he instead he finds himself in front of a changed world. The United States and Great Britain are also wavering in the face of the novelty: first they offer a safe conduct to Zelensky, then they think they can win the war by underestimating Putin’s capabilities for prolonged war of attrition. Mistakes mix with mistakes on both sides. Thus in the past we entered the world wars. At the cost of appearing jinxes, it is our duty as historians to remember this.
Marcello Flores and Giovanni Gozzini
Marcello Flores taught Comparative History and History of Human Rights at the University of Siena, where he directed the European Master in Human Rights and Genocide Studies, and at the University of Trieste between 1975 and 1992. Giovanni Gozzini teaches History of globalization and New Media and Globalization at the University of Siena. Together they wrote Il ’68. A watershed year (il Mulino, 2018) and The wind of the revolution. The birth of the Italian Communist Party, (Laterza 2021).