Chris Hedges: Ukraine’s Death by Proxy

Proxy wars devour the countries they purport to defend. There will come a time when the Ukrainians will become expendable to the U.S. They will disappear, as many others before them, from U.S. national discourse and popular consciousness.

By Chris Hedges

There are many ways for a state to project power and weaken adversaries, but proxy wars are one of the most cynical. Proxy wars devour the countries they purport to defend. They entice nations or insurgents to fight for geopolitical goals that are ultimately not in their interest.

The war in Ukraine has little to do with Ukrainian freedom and a lot to do with degrading the Russian military and weakening Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. And when Ukraine looks headed for defeat, or the war reaches a stalemate, Ukraine will be sacrificed like many other states, in what one of the founding members of the C.I.A., Miles Copeland Jr., referred to as the “Game of Nations” and “the amorality of power politics.”

I covered proxy wars in my two decades as a foreign correspondent, including in Central America where the U.S. armed the military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and Contra insurgents attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. I reported on the insurgency in the Punjab, a proxy war fomented by Pakistan.

I covered the Kurds in northern Iraq, backed and then betrayed more than once by Iran and Washington. During my time in the Middle East, Iraq provided weapons and support to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) to destabilize Iran. Belgrade, when I was in the former Yugoslavia, thought by arming Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, it could absorb Bosnia and parts of Croatia into a greater Serbia. 

Proxy wars are notoriously hard to control, especially when the aspirations of those doing the fighting and those sending the weapons diverge. They also have a bad habit of luring sponsors of proxy wars, as happened to the U.S. in Vietnam and Israel in Lebanon, directly into the conflict.

Proxy armies are given weaponry with little accountability, significant amounts of which end up on the black market or in the hands of warlords or terrorists. CBS News reported last year that around 30 percent of the weapons sent to Ukraine make it to the front lines, a report it chose to partially retract under heavy pressure from Kiev and Washington. The widespread diversion of donated military and medical equipment to the black market in Ukraine was also documented by U.S. journalist Lindsey Snell. Weapons in war zones are lucrative commodities. There were always large quantities for sale in the wars I covered.

Warlords, gangsters and thugs — Ukraine has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in Europe — are transformed by sponsor states into heroic freedom fighters. Support for those fighting these proxy wars is a celebration of our supposed national virtue, especially seductive after two decades of military fiascos in the Middle East. Joe Biden, with dismal poll numbers, intends to run for a second term as a “wartime” president who stands with Ukraine, to which the U.S. has already committed $113 billion in military, economic and humanitarian assistance.

When Russia invaded Ukraine “[t]he whole world faced a test for the ages,” Biden said after a lightning visit to Kiev. “Europe was being tested. America was being tested. NATO was being tested. All democracies were being tested.” 

Similar Sentiments

I heard similar sentiments expressed to justify other proxy wars.

“They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help,” Ronald Reagan said of the Contras, who pillaged, raped and slaughtered their way through Nicaragua. “They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance,” Reagan added. “We cannot turn away from them, for the struggle here is not right versus left, it is right versus wrong.” 

A group of Contras rest after a firefight, Jan. 1, 1987. (Tiomono, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“I want to hear him say we’re going to arm the Free Syrian Army,” John McCain said of President Donald Trump. “We’re going to dedicate ourselves to the removal of Bashar al-Assad. We’re going to have the Russians pay a price for their engagement. All players here are going to have to pay a penalty and the United States of America is going to be on the side of the people who fight for freedom.”

Those feted as heroes of resistance, like President Volodymyr Zelensky or President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, are often problematic, especially as their egos and bank accounts inflate.  The flood of effusive encomiums directed towards proxies by their sponsors in public rarely matches what they say of them in private.

At the Dayton peace talks, where the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic sold out the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats, he said of his proxies: “[they] are not my friends. They are not my colleagues…They are shit.”

Dec. 14, 1995: U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, talking with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Paris with onlookers Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, General Wesley Clark.  (C.I.A., Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

“Dark money sloshed all around,” The Washington Post wrote after obtaining an internal report produced by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

“Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul. Mansions known as ‘poppy palaces’ rose from the rubble to house opium kingpins. President Hamid Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the C.I.A. had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it ‘nothing unusual.’”

“In public, as President Barack Obama escalated the war and Congress approved billions of additional dollars in support, the commander in chief and lawmakers promised to crack down on corruption and hold crooked Afghans accountable,” the paper reported. “In reality, U.S. officials backed off, looked away and let the thievery become more entrenched than ever, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by The Washington Post.”

Those lionized as the bulwark against barbarism when the arms are flowing to them, are forgotten once the conflicts end, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The former proxy fighters must flee the country or suffer the vendettas of those they fought, as happened to the abandoned Hmong tribesmen in Laos and the South Vietnamese.

The former sponsors, once lavish in military aid, ignore desperate pleas for economic and humanitarian assistance, as those displaced by war go hungry and die from lack of medical care. Afghanistan, for the second time around, is the poster child for this imperial callousness.

U.S. soldiers with Afghans boarding a C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 21 after the Taliban captured Kabul. (U.S. Air Force, Brennen Lege)

The collapse of civil society spawns sectarian violence and extremism, much of it inimical to the interests of those who fomented the proxy wars. Israel’s proxy militias in Lebanon, along with its military intervention in 1978 and 1982, were designed to dislodge the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the country. This objective was achieved. But the removal of the PLO from Lebanon gave rise to Hezbollah, a far more militant and effective adversary, along with Syrian domination of Lebanon.

In September 1982, over three days, the Lebanese Kataeb Party, more commonly known as the Phalanges — backed by the Israeli military — massacred between 2,000 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. It led to international condemnation and political unrest inside Israel. Critics called the protracted conflict “Lebanam,” conflating the words Vietnam and Lebanon. The Israeli film Waltz with Bashir documents the depravity and wanton killing of thousands of civilians by Israel and its proxies during the war in Lebanon.

Proxy wars, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out, engender unintended blowback. The backing of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets, which included arming groups such as those led by Osama bin Laden, gave rise to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It also spread reactionary jihadism throughout the Muslim world, increased terrorist attacks against western targets which culminated in the attacks of 9/11 and fueled two decades of U.S.-led military fiascos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.

Jan. 1, 1987: Mujahideen in Kunar, Afghanistan. (erwinlux, Flickr, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Should Russia prevail in Ukraine, should Putin not be removed from power, the U.S. will have not only cemented into place a potent alliance between Russia and China, but ensured an antagonism with Russia that will come back to haunt us. The flood of billions of dollars of weapons into Ukraine, the use of U.S. intelligence to kill Russian generals and sink the battleship Moskva, the blowing up of the Nord Stream pipelines and the more than 2,500 U.S. sanctions targeting Russia, will not be forgotten by Moscow.  

“In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows,” Johnson writes, “Although people usually know what they have sown, our national experience of blowback is seldom imagined in such terms because so much of what the managers of the American empire have sown has been kept secret.”

Taliban fighters patrolling Kabul in a Humvee on Aug. 17, 2021. (Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons)

Those supported in proxy wars, including the Ukrainians, often have little chance of victory. Sophisticated weapons such as the M1 Abrams tanks are largely useless if those operating them have not spent months and years being trained. Prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, the Soviet bloc provided Palestinian fighters with heavy weapons, including tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and artillery. The lack of training made those weapons ineffective against Israeli air power, artillery and mechanized units. 

The U.S. knows time is running out for Ukraine. It knows that high-tech weapons will not be mastered in time to blunt a sustained Russian offensive. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned in January that Ukraine has “a window of opportunity here, between now and the spring.”

“That’s not a long time,” he added.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin taking questions at a press conference with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, Kiev, Ukraine, Oct. 19, 2021. (DoD, Chad J. McNeeley)

Victory, however, is not the point. The point is maximum destruction. Even if Ukraine is forced in defeat to negotiate with Russia and concede territory for peace, as well as accept status as a neutral nation, Washington will have achieved its primary goal of weakening Russia’s military capacity and isolating Putin from Europe.  

Those who mount proxy wars are blinded by wishful illusions. There was little support for the Contras in Nicaragua or the MEK in Iran. The arming of so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria saw weapons flow into the hands of reactionary jihadists. 

The conclusion of proxy wars usually sees the nation or group fighting on behalf of the sponsor state betrayed. In 1972, the Nixon administration provided millions of dollars in weapons and ammunition to Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq to weaken the Iraqi government, which at the time was seen as too close to the Soviet Union. No one, least of all the U.S. and Iran, which delivered the weapons to Kurdish fighters, wanted the Kurds to create a state of their own. Iraq and Iran signed the 1975 Algiers Agreement in which the two countries settled disputes along their common border. The agreement also ended military support for the Kurds.

The Iraqi military soon launched a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq. Thousands of Kurds, including women and children, were “disappeared” or killed. Kurdish villages were dynamited into rubble. The desperate plight of the Kurds was ignored, for, as Henry Kissinger said at the time, “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” 

The Islamic government in Tehran resumed military aid to the Kurds during the war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988. On March 16, 1988, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein dropped mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun, and VX on the Kurdish town of Halabja. Some 5,000 people died within minutes and up to 10,000 were injured. The Reagan administration, which supported Iraq, minimized the war crimes committed against its former Kurdish allies. 

President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement towards China, in another example, included terminating covert assistance to Tibetan rebels. 

U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Feb. 25, 1972. (White House/Wikimedia Commons)

Betrayal is the closing act in nearly all proxy wars.

The arming of Ukraine is not missionary work. It has nothing to do with liberty or freedom. It is about weakening Russia. Take Russia out of the equation and there would be little tangible support for Ukraine.

There are other occupied peoples, including the Palestinians, who have suffered as brutally and far longer than Ukranians. But NATO is not arming Palestinians to fight against their Israeli occupiers or holding them up as heroic freedom fighters. U.S. love of freedom does not extend to Palestinians or the people of Yemen currently being bombed with British and American weapons, or the Kurds, Yazidis and Arabs resisting Turkey, a longtime NATO member, in its occupation and drone war throughout the north and east of Syria.

U.S. love of freedom only extends to people who serve its “national interest.”

There will come a time when the Ukrainians, like the Kurds, will become expendable. They will disappear, as many others before them have, from our national discourse and our consciousness. They will nurse for generations their betrayal and suffering. The American empire will move on to use others, perhaps the “heroic” people of Taiwan, to further its futile quest for global hegemony.

China is the big prize for our Dr. Strangeloves. They will pile up even more corpses and flirt with nuclear war to curtail China’s growing economic and military power. This is an old and predictable game. It leaves in its wake nations in ruins and millions of people dead and displaced. It fuels the hubris and self-delusion of the mandarins in Washington who refuse to accept the emergence of a multipolar world. If left unchecked, this “game of nations” may get us all killed.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR.  He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”

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18 comments for “Chris Hedges: Ukraine’s Death by Proxy

  1. Jeff Harrison
    March 15, 2023 at 00:30

    Well said, Chris. I suspect, however, that our run of using various and sundry countries as cannon fodder is going to come to an end.

  2. John Nicholas Manning
    March 14, 2023 at 16:27

    It amazes me that so many people believe US politicians statements on foreign policy instead of judging their actions.

    The USA has provided Ukraine with between US$70 – US$90 Billion of military aid (giving it the world’s third largest military budget) with the condition that the war they fight is within Ukraine. So they have equipped Ukrainians to destroy Ukraine.

    It can be no clearer. The aim of US policy is the destruction of Ukraine. What it is achieving is the prevention of a power block being established between Russia – Ukraine – Belarus, which because of its agricultural and mineral assets would be potentially as powerful as Europe.

  3. Ron
    March 14, 2023 at 16:05

    The will be an anti-war rally on Saturday, March 18th, at 2:00 pm at Westlake Park in Seattle. Please consider attending if you’re in the area.

  4. March 14, 2023 at 15:54

    Devastatingly accurate!

  5. Susan Siens
    March 14, 2023 at 15:22

    I think Russia is making it pretty damn clear it doesn’t care much anymore for our Eurovassals’ good opinion. Who wants the good opinion of a bunch of corrupt puppets?

  6. KiwiAntz62
    March 14, 2023 at 14:46

    Everything, Everywhere, All at Once? Like the frenetic Movie of the same name, this perfectly sums up the American Hegemonic agenda to dominate the World? But with Ukraine, the death knell of the US Empire has begun, Chris, this is no ordinary US Proxy War, this is the Proxy War to end all Proxy Wars, this is unlike any previous conflict that the Americans have engaged in against weak, Non nuclear Nations with inferior forces who can’t fight back? In taking on a Military Superpower like Russia, using Ukrainians to fight its dirty Regime change War, America has sown the seeds of its own destruction & demise as a unipolar Hegemonic Superpower! It’s waning influence & authority to dominate & bend other Nations to its will outside of the Collective West is becoming very evident for all to see as the Ukraine conflict has revealed! When this conflict ends, Russia will be victorious, America will be humiliated like in Afghanistan, Ukraine will cease to exist, Europe will be in tatters, bankrupt & de-industrialised & NATO destroyed but worse of all, the US will lose it’s Empire, once & for all, it’s USD & Petrodollar advantage will cease to exist as a Multipolar World emerges! This catastrophic & totally avoidable trainwreck that the Neocon POTUS Biden started is like the Financial equivalent of the East Palestine Rail disaster? And along with that loss of economy privileges & prestige will herald in the complete end of America’s ability to wage Military conflicts, Wars & chaos around the Globe as it will no longer be able to fund its MIC or support its 300 overstretched forward operation Military bases in over 80 lands! Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say!

  7. JonnyJames
    March 14, 2023 at 12:59

    Great Game, Game of Nations, The Grand Chessboard.

    “Foreign policy is not for the plebs” Prince Klemenz von Metternich (Henry Kissinger’s hero)

    Nothing has changed since Metternich, the callous, amoral elite will fight until the last drop of other peoples’ blood.

  8. Greg Grant
    March 14, 2023 at 11:14

    Including the example of Serbia as an example, a country targeted for destruction by the U.S., is pretty wrong. You could have found a million better examples, including the U.S. proxy wars in the region at the same time. As such, you’re just adding to the smear campaign of Serbia by the West.

    • Blessthebeasts
      March 14, 2023 at 15:10

      True. Hedges still has blinders on

    • Susan Siens
      March 14, 2023 at 15:20

      Yes, Hedges has always been shamefully ignorant about the destruction of Yugoslavia.

      • Frank Lambert
        March 15, 2023 at 08:49

        I’ve always disagreed with Hedges on Yugoslavia. Dr. Michael Parenti’s book, “To Kill A Nation”, published in 2000, and articles by the astute writer, Diana Johnstone, are accurate, on the US led (along with the vassals in NATO) breakup of Yugoslavia.

  9. William F Johnson
    March 14, 2023 at 10:34

    Once more, Chris lays it out for anyone to read.

  10. Packard
    March 14, 2023 at 10:13

    The American people happily support their proxy wars because they are never asked (i.e. required) to put any of their own skin in the game. It is like cheering for an Idaho high school football team that they have no connection with in any tangible way.

    Beyond posting their virtue signaling, Pray for Ukraine yard signs, flying their Ukrainian flags, or wearing their self serving Ukrainian/American lapel pin flags, what real sacrifice is any American ever asked to bear for this latest and greatest of proxy wars? Correct answer: None.

    Left unexamined of course, are the scores of billions of dollars committed to this most recent strategically meaningless military adventure. It is a nasty war assisted by the dirty tricks provided by our CIA, and then propagated by our US State Department’s pseudo diplomacy through carefully scripted leaks to the media.

    All of which are leading to enormous international risks taken in our name. They are also risks that most American citizens have not the vaguest notion about. D*MN!

    • J Anthony
      March 16, 2023 at 07:19

      True, no skin in the game directly, yet they are paying for it in the sense of corrupted institutions, runaway price-gouging, degraded public services, debt-peonage, and all manner of typical hyper capitalist exploitation, as the government we pay for and are made to abide disregards its citizenry’s concerns in favor of the corporate and war-making interests. . The trouble is most don’t see any correlation between foreign and domestic policy, or how one can and does affect the other

      • David Braden-Johnson
        March 16, 2023 at 20:46

        Well said.

  11. Scott Farquharson
    March 14, 2023 at 09:39

    Well said Chris if only the public would read alternatives of the news instead of being brainwashed by bbc etc all.

  12. Dfnslvlty
    March 14, 2023 at 09:32

    The wrongness of “proxy” wars is not limited to their being “proxy”; rather to being wars.

    The u.n. Was chartered to end armed conflict and became a “proxy” war participant rather than a war limiter.

    Diplomacy and verbal exchange are needed.

    Stop Wars — all wars, proxy or other.

    • George Philby
      March 15, 2023 at 00:26

      Hear, hear, Dfnslvlty

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