By Alex Callinicos
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The conflict in Ukraine is an imperialist proxy war

What’s happening in Ukraine isn’t just a national struggle against Russia. It’s a proxy war between imperialist powers
Issue 2803
A Nato military convoy enters Slovakia in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, underlining that the conflict is a proxy war

A Nato military convoy carrying Patriot surface-to-air missile systems enters Slovakia in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, underlining that the conflict is a proxy war (Picture: Gregory Freni)

Strangely enough, supporters of Nato’s proxy war with Russia tend to deny that it is a proxy war. There are exceptions. Leon Panetta, director of the CIA under Barack Obama, admitted in March, “It’s a proxy war with Russia whether we say so or not.” But Western governments and their apologists still deny this.

The main reason they give is that Russia is actually being fought by the forces of the Ukrainian government, with substantial popular support. Sometimes they say things like, “calling this a proxy war denies the Ukrainians agency” and reduces them to the US’s puppets.

The problem perhaps is partly the very word “proxy”, which means a person acting on behalf of another. During the Cold War, the US often accused this or that Communist movement in the Third World of being Russia’s “proxies”.

The implication was that they were just puppets of the Soviet Union. What actually happened showed that different nationalist movements with their own goals and interests used the same Stalinist ideology.

For example, in the second half of the 1970s the Communist regime in Vietnam fought wars against two other Communist regimes, in Cambodia and China. A genuine example of a proxy in the US Cold War sense would be the right-wing exiles organised and armed by the CIA in the attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961.

In its own way, the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion shows the continued vitality of nationalism as a mobilising force. But national struggles still unfold in the context of an imperialist system dominated by rival capitalist powers that use smaller states for their own purposes.

The Cold War shows how this leads to proxy wars. In July 1950 the Korean War began when the Communist-led North invaded the Western-dominated South.

Kim Il-sung, the North Korean leader, was eager to reunify the Korean peninsula. But he needed the support of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, who had put him in power in the first place.

According to Shen Zhihua’s fascinating study—Mao, Stalin, and the Korean War—Stalin eventually agreed to the invasion. He hoped to gain access to the southern ports of Pusan and Inchon.

He also thought the US would probably not intervene, but that if it did the new Communist regime in China would bear the brunt of the war. Stalin distrusted the Chinese leader Mao Zedong and believed a confrontation with the US in Korea would make him easier to control.

In the event, the US did intervene, as did China. They fought each other to a standstill, confirming the partition of Korea that continues today.

The Soviet Union had waged a proxy war with the US, avoiding a Third World War by letting North Korean and Chinese armies do the fighting. Stalin used Kim and Mao, though both were also independent actors with their own ideological motivations and economic and geopolitical interests. Something similar is happening today.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his regime represent a particular nationalist project and they are fighting for Ukraine’s independence. The US and its allies, however, are backing them up, according to the Financial Times, with “every day, eight to 10 cargo flights, most of them operated by the US, carrying hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of increasingly heavy weaponry”, for their own interests.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin last week spelled out the US’s  objective—“Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”. So this isn’t just a national struggle between Ukraine and Russia. It’s also a conflict between imperialist powers. Failing to see this leads to an underestimation of the dangers.

William Burns, the current CIA director, warned recently, “Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setback they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.” Proxy wars are bad, but an all-out inter-imperialist war would be infinitely worse.

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