A proxy war is a war fought between groups or smaller countries that each represent the interests of other larger powers, and may have help and support from these. The Ukraine-Russia War fulfills this definition quite easily.

  1. The war falls in line with NATO’s fundamental goals, given that Ukraine desires to be a part of the organization and that neighboring countries are members. The war has always threatened to spill westwards. It is vital that Ukraine prevail for NATO’s continued existence and for it to fulfill the above criteria. The same could be said for the EU.
  2. This war is the ideal testbed to observe and evaluate the performance of weaponry, to improve future designs, to tinker with strategy in order to adapt doctrine and theory. NATO can wargame where the potential losses from incorrect moves are third-party soldiers and civilians. This sounds horrible, but from NATO or the US’s point of view, this is as good as it gets in warfare.
  3. The proxy nature of this war can be seen by point of fact that allied nations, including but not restricted to NATO countries, are giving almost everything to Ukraine that might be involved in wars, bar one thing: frontline soldiers.
  4. The nations involved are providing tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and every other sort of armored vehicle, howitzers, munitions, rocket launchers, guided missiles, every type of gun and grenade launcher, ammunition, helicopters, almost certainly soon jet fighters, bridge-laying equipment, mines, and any number of other pieces of materiel. In fact, there have been factories set to work overtime in producing more munitions or upgrading existing tanks,  with plans to build more factories being suggested.
  5. Allies are also providing telecommunication equipment (such as the much-vaunted Starlink kit), access to satellite imagery, real time intelligence and other shared intelligence information, mapping, hi-tech equipment, and suchlike.
  6. NATO forces and others are providing training for the Ukrainian military as well as helping to develop military strategy, operational maneuvers, and battlefield tactics. The Ukrainian army has been on a long journey to move from old Soviet military doctrine to move to a more fluid NATO model. There are almost certainly allied special forces operating within Ukraine.
  7. Political assistance is being provided, along with financial and humanitarian aid to the tune of many billions of dollars from a host of countries.

In every single conceivable way, NATO countries, the West, the EU, allies are fighting in a proxy war. It’s only really frontline soldiers that are lacking in the help that is being strategically delivered to the beleaguered nation.

If NATO “is the practical means through which the security of North America and Europe are permanently tied together,” then this war is the manner with which this can be achieved on a lasting basis. There will never again be a better opportunity to degrade the threat of the Russian military machine to a point where it is perhaps terminally broken.

And with the growing realization that the nuclear threat is an empty one, this opportunity is now being seen as too good to waste. The floodgates are open and the nations allied to Ukraine are starting to throw increasingly bold amounts and types of equipment at the Ukrainians.

Where Russian doctrine, or maybe capability, appears to be “throw increasing numbers of humans at the problem” in light of sanctions and a decimated military-industrial complex, the West is “throwing increasing numbers and types of hardware at the problem.” There is no new or better materiel that Russia can presently access, so we see them putting a new lick of paint on tanks mothballed for half a century.

For NATO, the EU, the US, and Ukraine’s allies (there’s a lot of overlap there), it must be about covering both bases. We must throw as much equipment, and military assistance as we can, as quickly as we can, and for as long as it takes. (It might sound counter-intuitive, but sending more of such weaponry will lead to fewer people dying in the long run.) At the same time, we must up the ante in terms of economic sanctions, pressuring Russia’s own allies (or nations sitting on the geopolitical fence, unconcerned with wars far away).

Because the alternative is too dangerous to consider—where the bully wins, and an axis to threaten the present global status quo is a morally dark and pernicious entity. That’s not to say that the present world order is the paragon of virtue. Far from it. But changing it should not be brought about by might-makes-right, by invading a sovereign nation and committing a plague of war crimes.


Ukraine’s status as a proxy for the United States and NATO may be a matter of interpretation. Yet there is a kernel of truth to it: The Alliance is now engaged in a Cold War-style engagement with Moscow, in which both NATO and its Ukrainian partner risk pursuing their interests possibly at the unjust expense of each other. That the United States’, much less NATO’s, military support for Kyiv raises ethical concerns is no surprise; states rarely provide military assistance to other parties unless their interests are also served. But even well-intentioned pursuits—in this case, helping a strategic ally beat back a stronger aggressor—can end poorly. The more their otherwise shared interests diverge, the higher the risk of failure for both the sponsor and the sponsored. Even when those interests are well-aligned, assistance (especially of the lethal variety) can create moral hazards that may render otherwise just causes too dangerous to pursue. 

So whether the United States and its NATO partners are in a textbook proxy relationship with Ukraine matters less than the potential consequences if that relationship isn’t properly managed. Both parties should pay close attention to these possible perils—if not out of a commitment to the values associated with the liberal international order, then at least to deny Russia a narrative that can make its cause seem more legitimate. 

One state providing military support to another does not itself establish a proxy relationship, even if the beneficiary is at war. It is when a sponsor is able to achieve its own goals “by, with, and through” the efforts of the sponsored party that elements of such a relationship emerge. Simply put: Proxy wars allow a sponsor country or entity to more easily achieve goals without committing its own forces directly to the conflict. It does not matter that the interests are shared between the two parties—but that the sponsor would have that interest independent of the relationship. 

For example, when US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Washington’s (if not NATO’s) intent was a “weakened” Russia, he introduced a potentially divergent interest from Ukraine’s by suggesting that simply restoring Ukrainian sovereignty wasn’t the end game. President Joe Biden helpfully closed any gaps in a recent New York Times op-ed by affirming that the United States wants “to see a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous” Ukraine, and that “to prolong this war just to inflict pain on Russia” is not its objective. 

Even with this helpful clarification, it is important to point out that sharing interests is not the same as aligning them. While both NATO and Ukraine want to defeat Russian aggression now and prevent future outbursts, they may not share an interest in imposing the same costs required to do so. For example, Ukraine arguably has an interest in striking inside Russian territory—but conducting such attacks with NATO-supplied equipment may represent an escalation that is not in NATO’s interest. For that reason, restricting Ukraine’s use of US advanced artillery, for example, seems prudent. This illustrates that despite the best of intentions, interests rarely perfectly align. 

Sponsor and proxy interests do not need to be identical. But they should be aligned well enough that the proxy’s success satisfies the sponsor’s interests—or leads to the conclusion of the proxy relationship. If the interests of NATO and Ukraine diverge, for example, then Ukraine’s should generally take priority. And if, from the Ukrainian point of view, the cost of fighting exceeds the cost of settlement, NATO should not get in the way of a settlement. If, on the other hand, the only way to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty is to escalate, then NATO will need to choose between providing support or committing to escalation. A mistake on NATO’s part would be to enable Ukraine to engage in an escalatory cycle that the Alliance is not willing or able to see all the way through. 

But proxy wars are not just about aligning interests. Like all wars, they are also guided by international law, which permits wars of self-defense (or the defense of others), certain humanitarian interventions, and other military operations authorized by the United Nations Security Council. There are further ethical concerns not enshrined in law that include proportionality, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. A sponsor’s involvement will not make a fundamentally unjust cause just. However, by lowering the proxy’s costs and risks of fighting, the sponsor can make fighting more proportional, winning more likely, and thus war more attractive. 

In this case, helping Ukraine defend itself is a just cause, and aiding the country is clearly permissible. But sponsors’ reasons for intervening should also meet a standard of justice; otherwise, any additional deaths risk being unnecessary. Arming Ukraine to uphold a just international order is clearly permissible—but arming it to, say, open markets or gain access to natural resources for Alliance members is not. (And those do not appear to be NATO’s goals.) Similarly, arming Ukraine simply as a pretext to expand NATO would only feed into the Russian narrative.

Even where interests align and the costs of fighting seem reasonable, supporting another’s war is not without moral risk. In the case of proxy wars, moral hazards arise when the sponsored entity assumes greater risk because it knows the sponsor will have to bear some, if not all, of the burden associated with that risk. For example, Ukraine could decide to impose greater costs on Russia than would be necessary to re-establish sovereignty because NATO support underwrites the risk associated with a Russian response.

The presence of moral hazards does not directly affect the legitimacy of a proxy relationship—but failure to manage these hazards can effectively transform an otherwise legally permissible intervention into one that is morally ambiguous or impermissible. Should the conflict expand beyond Ukraine, military assistance be used in ways not intended, or Ukrainian soldiers engage in the kinds of atrocities Russians have in Ukraine, it could undermine the very international order that assistance is meant to uphold.

This concern is particularly relevant when it comes to escalation, the wild card factor in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With Russia already believing the war is effectively a battle against the West and NATO, there is a two-fold concern here: First is the possibility that a potential Russian defeat could motivate Putin to not only expand the conflict by attacking NATO countries but also resort to using nuclear weapons; and second is NATO sponsors determining in the event of an escalation that continued support is no longer worth the risk, potentially hanging Ukraine out to dry.

Managing escalation also requires calibrating assistance. As mentioned above, prudence can require sponsors to impose limits on assistance to avoid expanding the conflict. But it also makes no moral sense to provide just enough assistance to prolong the war and increase the suffering. This suggests NATO should indeed provide lethal assistance to defeat Russian forces as fast as possible; but since such systems could enable attacks inside Russia, its members must be prepared to bear the practical costs of that escalation, or at least be clear about the limits of their assistance. 

Related to escalation is the diffusion of weapons in a post-conflict environment. Probably the best example of this hazard is the spread of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. After the conflict ended, these missiles were found as far afield as Bosnia, Iran, the Indian-administered Kashmir region, Tunisia, and the Palestinian territories. The same could happen with Ukraine, where an estimated tens of thousands of anti-tank missiles have been handed out to a wide variety of forces. There is no single way to manage this particular moral hazard; but in the case of Ukraine, the United States and NATO should also help Kyiv ensure that it is able to maintain accountability throughout the course of the conflict. 

Lastly, the indirect nature of the proxy relationship means sponsors can often be tainted by the potentially unsavory tactics of their proxies. So far, this has not been a major concern for NATO; Ukrainian forces are fighting a just cause on their own territory and appear to be exercising due care relative to civilian casualties. But it is also not difficult to imagine that some Ukrainian soldiers may exact revenge—evidence has already emerged of abuse of captured Russian soldiers—as they retake territory.

Of course, war is brutalizing, and it is generally not possible to prevent all soldiers from committing war crimes. That fact, however, is not an excuse for complacency. What matters is whether the Ukrainian government would be willing and able to hold perpetrators accountable. If they fail on either count, NATO would be in the position of needing to consider withdrawing support or sharing culpability for whatever crimes Ukrainian soldiers commit. To avoid being placed in such a position, NATO sponsors should ensure that Ukrainian forces are committed to upholding international humanitarian law and can hold violators accountable. If those standards aren’t met, NATO should withhold lethal support.  

Proxy relationship or not, both NATO and Ukraine must do more than share interests; they must also align them. This is an ongoing challenge, since the costs and benefits of the fighting continually change for each party. 

Meanwhile, the potential for moral hazards never goes away. So far, NATO and the United States have managed escalation while providing sufficient assistance to prevent a Russian victory (if not eventually achieve their defeat). Yet more attention should be paid to the possible proliferation of lethal assistance to ensure the United States will not need to buy back, for instance, Javelin anti-tank systems in the future. Finally, while Ukraine’s soldiers have shown admirable restraint so far, it’s not too late to engage Ukraine on war-crime prevention to avert the potential need for NATO to reconsider its support.

Regardless of how one wants to characterize the United States’ and NATO’s relationship with Ukraine, failure to address these concerns risks tainting NATO’s support, undermining the legitimacy of Ukraine’s cause, and emboldening Russia’s narrative in ways that could be decisive to the conflict’s outcome.


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