The Return of Great-Power Proxy Wars

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If the United States fights with China or Russia, what type of war will it be? Will it look like the high-tech conflict envisaged in The Kill Chain or will it be closer to the plot of Ghost Fleet? Much of the U.S. strategic debate has been dominated by the perceived need to deter and prepare for large-scale, conventional conflicts — what some in these pages have called a Napoleonic conception of war. But great-power competition does not always manifest itself by direct, protracted, and high-intensity wars.

Throughout history, great powers have often competed by supporting proxy forces. The Cold War, for example, was hardly a “long peace” when one considers the numerous externally abetted, intrastate conflicts and shadow wars that took place. There is no reason to think that U.S. competition with China and Russia will be any different than earlier periods of history.



Both China and Russia have a history of adopting indirect approaches and good reason to avoid competing with the United States in overt and direct military clashes. China has a history of supporting proxies in North Korea and Vietnam, and some analysts argue that it continues to wage sophisticated influence operations and use salami-slicing activities short of direct combat, including through aggressive use of its merchant and fishing fleets as surrogate assets. Likewise, Russia has an extensive background with indirect strategies and deep operational experience with promoting separatists and mercenary forces in unconventional campaigns. One need only look at Russia’s recent and continuing conduct in Ukraine and Syria for proof of its reliance on indirect ways of war.

American policymakers and officials should recognize that proxy wars are one of the most likely ways whereby the United States will come to blows with its great-power adversaries. American strategy and doctrine should reflect that strategic reality and should prepare the United States to successfully confront proxy forces working on behalf of major rivals.

What Are Proxy Wars?

Proxy wars involve the sponsorship of actors by an external state to influence a violent conflict’s outcome for the external state’s own strategic purposes. This definition captures the desire of an external state (the “principal”) to avoid direct action while supporting clients on the ground (state governments or local militia or contractors) as well as the prospect of violence in order to obtain desired political goals. Some scholars have recently proposed definitions that stress support to non-state actors, but that approach falls short of depicting the full range of state, transnational, or commercial entities that have historically been employed by great powers in the midst of strategic rivalry. Our conception does not assume similar interests between principals and clients, but does include the use of surrogates like private military companies, armed volunteers, or computer hacking groups.

Developments That Have Major Implications for Great-Power Proxy Wars 

In an extremely prescient article published nearly a decade ago, Andrew Mumford identified four trends that he believed would increase policymakers’ interest in, and the frequency of, proxy fights. While each of these trends has the potential to affect the regularity of proxy wars broadly, we focus on their potential implications for proxy wars amid strategic competition between great powers. The trends identified by Mumford were “a ‘War on Terror syndrome,’” the rise of private military companies, the impact of digital technology, and China’s rise.

International developments, including proxy wars in Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen over the past decade, revealed this to have been an insightful list. Western democracies put up with extended deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan for 20 years, so the diagnosis of a “syndrome” appears to have been premature. But it may be more evident today, after the Biden administration’s decision to finally withdraw from Afghanistan. In the years ahead, if U.S. policymakers and the American people are eager to avoid sending large numbers of the nation’s servicemembers to fight wars in distant lands, they might turn to proxies or other indirect methods as an alternative.

Mumford’s notion that private military companies would be increasingly employed as proxy forces was proven correct and use of such companies may continue to grow. Both Russia and China have significantly increased their reliance on private military companies in the last few years. While the United States has also increased its own use of such companies, Russian employment of them has been especially pronounced in terms of scale and of the capabilities of companies contracted by Russia. The Wagner Group operates almost as a subsidiary of the Kremlin and has been particularly active in Syria, Ukraine, and Libya. It is allegedly run by Dmitry “Wagner” Utkin, a former special forces commander from Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. Although private military companies have a rather mixed track record, there is an ongoing global expansion in Russia’s use of them that will undoubtedly impact U.S. interests and those of its allies. China, too, is increasing its use of commercial security operations to protect its economic and political interests abroad: It has used 20 international private military companies — and over 3,000 of their personnel — in Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, and beyond.

Similarly, Mumford correctly assessed that cyber warfare could evolve into a mode of proxy war. That trend has been evident in a spate of attacks on energy and government services that have been conducted by malicious cyber actors who are based on the territory of U.S. rivals. Mumford anticipated that sometimes threats would come in the form of bytes rather than boots on the ground when he quipped, “The twenty-first century is thus likely to see more wars fought by proxy servers than by proxy forces as they have traditionally been conceived.”

The rise of China has been a longstanding issue that many analysts predicted would become the geopolitical topic of the day. What Mumford stated, however, was more specific. He observed that attendant with China’s rise, the world was likely to witness “the use of indirect mechanisms in an attempt to alter the balance between [the United States and China]; and this is increasingly likely to involve some form of proxy, largely because of the high levels of Sino-US economic interdependence.” This possibility may be altered by China’s significant military modernization, which has changed the balance of power in Asia. But, since the initial U.S.-Chinese economic decoupling that is currently occurring will not end the mutual benefits produced by trade, the Chinese government will probably still eschew direct confrontation with the United States. As it has already done in the South China Sea, it will likely use proxies such as its assertive fishing fleets to deny the United States and its allies access to contested spaces.

As Dominic Tierney has correctly noted, future Chinese interventions could be problematic for international stability and U.S. security. “Looking ahead, Chinese intervention is set to increase,” he concluded, since “China’s interests will keep broadening, its appetite for energy and raw materials will enhance its perceived stake in the stability of other countries, and its growing capabilities will boost the temptation to act.” He could have also added that ensuring the safety of China’s diplomats and citizens overseas is a real concern for Beijing. Tierney assessed that the Chinese government is likely to realize that local actors may be the only viable means of protecting Beijing’s interests while minimizing the risks of provoking a serious backlash from other major powers. Sponsoring surrogates — embracing “my enemy’s enemy” — could afford more gain at lower risk levels for Chinese policymakers.

The trends examined by Mumford will continue to influence the character of proxy wars, including those that occur amid great-power competition. There are also additional developments that will influence proxy conflicts. Among those of particular significance are a post-pandemic redefinition of security, a diffusion of technology, a glut of foreign fighters, and an increased number of protracted civil conflicts. 

A Post-Pandemic Redefinition of Security

When Mumford published his article in 2013, American perceptions about the benefits of using military force, and willingness to engage with the world, were at a half-century low. That was understandable after the country had spent a decade at war. Since then, a partisan divide over the respective roles of diplomacy and military instruments has emerged, with many Republicans still focused on military primacy and a more unilateral policy while many Democrats emphasize diplomacy and listening to allies.

In addition to being shaped by a weariness and wariness of foreign wars, public opinion in the United States and many of its allies will likely be impacted by weak government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This could increase expectations that governments will better protect their populations from a broader set of threats, including the ravages of pandemics and other calamities, and from severe environmental degradation. The Biden administration has stated that a broader definition of national security is needed. Immigration, crime, cyber security, and resilience are hot topics for voters that could pull resources from traditional military budgets toward homeland security and critical infrastructure. This shift could produce enhanced incentives for American policymakers to abstain from foreign interventions entirely. It could also drive further U.S. reliance on indirect or “over the horizon” options, including technological surrogates and proxy forces.

The COVID-19 pandemic might also have implications for proxy wars because of its effects on armed conflicts. Recent studies suggest that some armed conflicts escalated during the pandemic because parties exploited government weakness, poor public health services, or a lack of international attention because of COVID-19. These worrisome dynamics could affect future levels of armed conflict and increase opportunities for external involvement in such conflicts. 

Diffusion of Technology 

The diffusion of drones, cyber weapons, and anti-ship missiles to medium powers and even non-state actors could increase the use of such capabilities by surrogates. Iran’s purported strike against Saudi Arabia’s energy infrastructure — which the Houthis in Yemen claimed they carried out with their drones — demonstrates how states can try to achieve plausible deniability through having technologically capable surrogates. Separatists in Donbas have also benefitted from the use of Russian drones, electronic warfare, and cyber activities against Ukrainian government forces. Proxies and resistance movements could be increasingly capable on land, in the air, at sea, and in cyberspace, whether their capacities are organically developed or derived from a sponsor. This will complicate counter-insurgency operations beyond the purely ground-centric orientation that they have had in the past and where air dominance was a given for Western-supported forces. 

A Glut of Foreign Fighters

In addition to using private military companies, great and medium powers could turn to foreign fighters as a means of furthering their own interests. Daniel Byman estimated that, cumulatively, some 40,000 individuals travelled to join up with ISIL in Syria and that 6,000 of those came from Europe. According to scholars, at one point in time, there were 19,000 foreign fighters in Syria originating from 90 different countries. Many of these fighters have received little education for transitioning to a more productive livelihood, but they attained skills and combat experience, and many have taken up employment with various militias. These peripatetic foreign fighters have drawn the attention of analysts for some time and they could supplement private military companies or local militias measurably in the Middle East or perhaps in North Africa. Russia’s employment of veterans from the Balkan wars as mercenaries in Donbas is a good example of how U.S. rivals might use foreign fighters to pursue their strategic aims.

An Increased Number of Protracted Civil Conflicts

The last decade has seen an increase in the number of intrastate conflicts, especially the number of internationalized civil conflicts. If the number of civil conflicts around the world continues to rise, it means there will be more places where great powers might face off in proxy contests.

In the past, such internal conflicts could be mitigated with either U.N. or multilateral peacekeeping interventions. But in an age of great-power competition, U.N. Security Council concurrence for peacekeeping operations could be harder to secure, or the missions and resources could be so limited as to neuter the effectiveness of any U.N. force. International peace missions require a consensus among the permanent members of the Security Council, which could be a rare occurrence in the years ahead given the West’s competitive tensions with China and Russia.

While the efficacy of peacekeeping operations is debatable, research suggests that such interventions have a clear stabilizing effect as they mitigate lethal violence and help to keep minor conflicts from intensifying into major ones. U.N. peacekeeping operations tend to have a positive effect on peace duration when conflicts have been settled by negotiated agreement. As one study concluded, “peacekeeping is an effective conflict management tool.”

The track record of more robust peace operations is mixed, largely due to constraints placed on intervening forces. In the future, even if and when multilateral peacekeeping operations are authorized, states that have traditionally provided troops to such missions may be reluctant to allocate scarce resources to them because of competing security risks in their own region. As one analyst observed, “A newly assertive Russia and a crumbling Middle East has European decision makers worried that their militaries (exhausted by Afghanistan and shrinking due to budget cuts) may be needed closer to home.” Some Asian states may feel the same way as a result of Chinese assertiveness.

Authorizations for multilateral peace operations, and the robust provision of resources to them, are less likely in the near future. Consequently, the number of ongoing civil conflicts is likely to remain high. In concert with other destabilizing forces — such as economic inequality, extremism, and climate change — civil conflicts will remain a primary venue for major powers to contest their strategic interests, including through the sponsorship of proxies. 

Implications for U.S. Strategy and Doctrine 

Proxy wars are poised to be a more significant factor in the evolving strategic environment. Events of the last decade suggest the increasing salience of such conflicts, and the additional factors discussed above increase the likelihood of strategic competition waged through indirect but violent approaches.

All the state actors that the United States recognizes as competitors have strategic cultures and past histories in which indirect approaches, including proxy wars, have played a prominent role. This bears detailed study and updated U.S. doctrine that reflects lessons gleaned from historical cases, including Syria. Proxy conflicts are, after all, the ultimate indirect approach.

While U.S. national strategic documents recognize the reemergence of great-power competition, they pay little attention to the salience of lethal proxy forces armed by a competing power. The focus in the 2018 National Defense Strategy was modernization for major contingencies, although then-Defense Secretary James Mattis emphasized that the Pentagon needed to avoid adopting a myopic focus on a narrow or “preclusive form of warfare.” The United States should rethink its force design and its ability to confront proxy forces working on behalf of major rivals. This may include providing additional increases to the special operations community, which will need to address great powers across the continuum of conflict and not just in large-scale conventional wars. 

As suggested by Michael Mazarr, U.S. defense planners should expand their thinking about what constitutes appropriate defense strategy. They should incorporate proxy contingencies into U.S. planning as part of the next National Defense Strategy’s revised force-sizing construct. The contingency guidance and sizing construct could include a requirement for sustained proxy scenarios and the provision of appropriate resources for Special Operations Command and Cyber Command. These scenarios currently get little attention in the Pentagon’s analytical agenda and research program, despite ongoing campaigns of malign proxy influence. This subject warrants changes in the warfighting mission priorities in the next National Defense Strategy. Proxy scenarios are likely to occur and could have geopolitical consequences that warrant inclusion in formal Defense Department planning. Curricula in Joint Professional Military Education institutions should also incorporate some attention to proxy wars in the context of strategic rivalries. Indeed, as Aaron Stein and Ryan Fishel have argued in these pages, U.S. forces have already started to contend with a “messy, congested” battlespace in Syria that will likely characterize future proxy conflicts as well.

Just as it learned and honed its extensive experience in alliance management and building partnership capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government can also absorb lessons from recent conflicts. If history can help to illuminate a dark future, the likelihood of facing proxy forces is much greater than the Pentagon is currently planning for.



Frank Hoffman, Ph.D., is a contributing editor of War on the Rocks and works at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. Andrew Orner is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is a student fellow at Perry World House. He is also affiliated with Institute for National Strategic Studies. This article reflects the views of the authors and does not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster)