Moscow’s asymmetric proxy wars

ZOiS Spotlight 2/2019 by Theocharis Grigoriadis (16 January 2019)

Briefing on the military operation in Syria in November 2015, National Defense Management Center Moscow. © Kremlin Pool / Alamy Stock Foto

Russia’s military involvement in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts has signalled Moscow’s return to a competitive relationship with the West and its strategy of using proxy wars as a cost-efficient way to derive long-term foreign policy gains. On the one hand, Russia’s unconditional diplomatic support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and its instalment of a military base in Syria’s main port of Latakia reveal Moscow’s intention to prevent regime change in Syria and thus use the Damascus government as an extension of its own policy planning in the Middle East. On the other hand, Moscow’s creation and financing of so-called people’s republics in Donetsk and Lugansk, in eastern Ukraine, is a direct challenge to Ukrainian statehood and a bargaining chip for the Kremlin in the Minsk peace process.

Russia has transformed the Syrian civil war and the military confrontation in Ukraine into proxy wars. In doing so, rather than introducing standard deterrence, which would have preserved the asymmetric status quo between Russia and the West, Moscow has been able to expand its market and security structures beyond its near abroad and inflict significant military costs on Western economies.

Unlike in direct wars, the consolidation of the dual principal-agent relationship in proxy wars predicts the emergence of peace. If both agents in the conflict enjoy continuous support from their principals, then peace becomes more likely. If one principal supports its agent disproportionately more than the other principal does, then resolving the conflict becomes less likely.

Israel vs. Palestine, United States vs. Soviet Union

Historical examples bear this out. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict developed as a paradigmatic confrontation, proxy war style. Since the 1950s, the United States had been the patron, or principal, of the State of Israel, and the Soviet Union that of the Palestinians. Washington treated Israel as the stronghold of Western policy in the Middle East, whereas the Soviet Union fuelled Arab nationalism, whose culmination was the self-determination of Palestine.

These two distinctive diplomatic lines persisted until the 1970s, when the first aliyah, or immigration, of Soviet Jews to Israel and Palestinian radicalisation undermined the proxy character of the war. The Soviet Union started to develop a pro-Israel stance, which continued and increased after the union collapsed and was succeeded by the Russian Federation. Hence, the Palestinians were left without a principal, while US and EU diplomacy in the 1990s and 2000s was unable to commit to a long-term solution that would capture key issues of Palestinian significance.

Shifting away from the proxy-war framework to an asymmetric international involvement in favour of Israel undermined the prospects of peace in the Middle East, because it produced only solutions that would be unacceptable to either Hamas or Fatah.

Ukraine and Syria: unstable battlefields for Russian power

Challenging the West in Russia’s near abroad has been a key strategic choice of the Kremlin. Moscow’s resolve against Poland and the Baltics has often become apparent during the Ukrainian crisis. But preserving the Syrian and Ukrainian confrontations as proxy wars limits the costs for Russia’s federal budget while projecting an image of Russia as a returning world power. On the one hand, it undermines the statehood of countries that used to be in Moscow’s sphere of influence and therefore prevents them from integrating into the EU and, possibly, NATO. On the other hand, it helps maintain friendly dictatorial regimes beyond Russia’s near abroad without risking a full-scale confrontation with regional and international actors that want the removal of the Damascus regime, such as the US, the EU and Israel.

Russia has learned its lessons from asymmetric proxy wars during the Cold War, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict indicates. The short-term successes of Russian policy in Syria and Ukraine reveal Moscow’s long-term calculus. Preserving the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts as proxy wars will continue to deliver significant foreign policy gains for Moscow, as long as the US and the EU do not decide to make costly investments in Ukrainian sovereignty and the political development of Syria’s Sunni opposition. If the government in Kyiv and the Syrian opposition forces do not receive significant support for their political reorganisation, Moscow will always achieve free victories by using its military advantage in eastern Ukraine and its incumbency advantage in Damascus.

Given the administration of US president Donald Trump, these are critical times for Europe. The transformative power of Europe must draw on a mix of hard and soft power. In the case of Ukraine, this means an economic transition from oligarchic structures to European-style business development and the strengthening of fiscal capacity at the central and regional levels.


Theocharis Grigoriadis is assistant professor of economics at the East European Institute at Freie Universität Berlin. He has just published a working paper on proxy wars with Pavel Konyukhovskiy.