The Dangers of Waging War by Proxy

The shocking destruction of Malyasian Airlines MH17 is merely the latest in a string of cases in which irresponsible and unaccountable proxies have brought shame and international condemnation down upon the heads of their foreign sponsors. The precise details of how a passenger airliner carrying 298 souls fell from the sky still aren’t known, but, as Jon Lee Anderson notes in the New Yorker, ”however it played out, this sort of tragedy is a natural consequence of giving weapons to violent men who feel that their powerful sponsor allows them to commit crimes with impunity.”

One hopes, once the memorials to the victims are concluded, and friends and families have had time to come grips with their loss, that the MH17 incident will induce greater caution on the part of would-be foreign sponsors the next time they consider arming shadowy rebels. But I’m not that optimistic. It certainly won’t be sufficient to stop all such cases. Advocates will likely claim that the particular proxy group that they favor isn’t at all like the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, and, thus, that there is nothing to worry about. “Our guys can be trusted with these weapons,” they’ll say. One hopes that skeptics won’t be scorned and ridiculed for voicing concerns. 

For now, the focus is appropriately on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cynical manipulation of the unrest in Ukraine. And that is where it should stay. I warned more than two months ago that Putin wasn’t the evil genius that some in the West have made him out to be, and that he likely had less control over the separatists in Ukraine than some alleged. His proxies might ignore him if he told them to stand down, I predicted, or do other things that he didn’t entirely support. The downing of a civilian airliner isn’t what I had in mind, but the bottom line is the same: senseless, tragic death. It doesn’t matter that Putin didn’t push the button that launched the missile, or that he didn’t want civilians – especially foreign nationals – targeted. If he provided separatists with weapons capable of causing such destruction, he bears responsibility for their actions. 

That Putin appears to recognize this is proved by his mouthpiece Russia Today’s ham-fisted attempt to shift blame. RT’s initial report that it was caused by a Ukrainian missile fell apart almost immediately. Separatists, with Russian help, were seen trying to cover their tracks by moving SA-11 missile batteries within a few hours of the disaster. Strategic masterminds don’t deny responsibility for military operations that they are proud of. Eisenhower didn’t try to claim that the Normandy landings were a false flag operation. Douglas MacArthur’s forces at Inchon weren’t disguised as little green men. The absurdity of RT’s latest efforts prompted London-based RT reporter Sara Firth to quit in protest. “I couldn’t do it any more,” she told BuzzFeed. “Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it.”

In the United States, hawks wasted no time trying to build support for tougher actions against Russia. This was inevitable. Whether any of these measures – including more military aid to Ukraine, more troops in Eastern Europe, and more sanctions – will have the desired effect seems to be beside the point. For my part, I would prefer forcing Putin to stew in the juices of his disastrous proxy war a little longer while the evidence of Russian complicity accumulates. We shouldn’t allow him to divert attention away from this heinous act.