Erica D. Borghard is an assistant professor and director of the Grand Strategy Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the United States government.
The shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over eastern Ukraine, for which Ukrainian separatists are likely responsible, portends a potentially dangerous intensification of the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the rebels. Of particular concern is the role the Russian government has played in arming, supplying, and otherwise supporting the rebels — something Moscow has vehemently denied. This latest escalation dramatically highlights the potential dangers states face when they form proxy alliances with rebels or insurgents.
Proxy alliances typically involve the provision of money, arms, materiel and/or training by states to non-state groups in exchange for the latter fighting on behalf of the former’s interests. These alliances are particularly appealing to states because they are informal, covert, and operate in the shadows of the international system. This allows states to plausibly deny involvement in conflicts where the political or material costs of more direct intervention are perceived to be exceedingly high. Historically, a wide range of states — democratic and autocratic; more and less powerful — have formed proxy alliances and engaged in proxy warfare. For example, during the Cold War, the United States funded rebels in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, and Iraqi Kurdistan; India supported militants in East Pakistan and Sri Lanka; Syria sponsored various Palestinian militant groups; and Libya used proxies to intervene in the Chadian civil war (to name just a few). Proxy warfare continues to be an important tool in states’ foreign policy toolkits. The current civil war in Syria, for instance, has involved proxies on both the regime and rebel side. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has received critical support from Hezbollah — a Syrian and Iranian proxy — while various Syrian rebel groups have received funding from several Gulf states.
Despite the obvious appeal of proxy alliances, there is considerable variation in states’ abilities to actually utilize proxies to their advantage. In fact, notwithstanding states’ incredible material and power advantage relative to their proxy allies, states have often found themselves unable to control their proxies or drawn into unwanted conflict escalation. Rajiv Gandhi’s administration in India had to intervene in the civil war in Sri Lanka to forcibly suppress its proxy, the Tamil Tigers, because the latter had become too powerful and refused to accept Indian attempts to achieve a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The Ba’athist regime in Syria (just prior to Hafez al-Assad’s coup) was drawn into a botched attempt to rescue its Palestinian proxies in Jordan in 1970, almost prompting a direct military confrontation between the two states. Indeed, research has found a strong correlation between external support to rebel groups and an increased risk of militarized interstate disputes.
Why is proxy warfare sometimes dangerous for states, and what can this tell us about the developing situation in eastern Ukraine? The very things that make proxy warfare attractive for states — their covert and informal nature — also make it difficult for governments to control and oversee their proxy allies. Specifically, the alliance management decisions leaders make in the interests of plausible deniability can create problems of command and control and undermine government authority over proxies. To ensure plausible deniability, political leaders have to establish distance between their government and a proxy. This often entails delegating significant authority within the state to secretive bureaucracies or organizations within the security sector (whose personnel may have interests that diverge from those of the political leadership), and entrusting intermediaries outside of the state to funnel resources to proxies (e.g., private contractors and other state and non-state allies). The extent to which political leaders care about plausible deniability shape how they decide to manage the tradeoffs between delegating authority and maintaining control of proxies.
While it is difficult to access reliable information on ongoing covert Russian operations in eastern Ukraine, most observers agree that Moscow is not only arming and supplying the pro-Russian separatists, but also exerts more direct control of rebel forces through embedding Russian officers in eastern Ukraine to command rebel units. In other words, Putin has limited ability to plausibly deny Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine. The events surrounding the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane is consistent with this idea. A weapons system capable of taking out a commercial aircraft flying at 30,000 feet is difficult to operate without extensive training (unlike the MANPADs the United States has considered providing to the Syrian rebels). Thus, it is unlikely that Moscow simply turned over an SA-11 missile to the rebels. Indeed, Ukrainian intelligence officials claim to have intercepted conversations between rebels and Russian officers concerning the downing of the aircraft, indicating that the issue quickly made its way up the chain of command. All of this points in the direction of relatively robust Russian command of rebel forces.
As of this writing, media reports indicate that Ukrainian separatists targeted what they erroneously believed to be a military transport plane. The fact that this occurred despite Putin’s ostensible decision to choose greater control at the expense of some measure of plausible deniability illustrates the instability of these alliances even when states make “good” alliance management decisions. The events in eastern Ukraine should make policymakers circumspect about being seduced by the siren call of proxy warfare.