Part of problem is lack of agreed definition, writes Andrew Buncombe
Every day there are more indications.
We learn,and it is confirmed,the US helped Ukrainians locate and identify the Russian flagship, Moscva, which Ukraine then sank, in an embarrassing blow to Moscow.
We know that the US is set to send around $14bn in military aid and other assistance to help Ukraine rebuff Russia, and that President Joe Biden has asked Congress to approve $33bn.
We know Washington officially wants to degrade the Russian military so that it cannot repeat what it did to Ukraine. We also know Mr Biden has said claimed Vladimir Putin is a war criminal who “should not remain in power”.
And these are just the things we know about.
Despite this, the White House continues to insist that the US is not engaged in a proxy war with Russia.
“This is not a proxy war,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at this week, claiming the question she was being asked to address was a Russian talking point.
“This is a war between Russia and Ukraine. Nato is not involved, the US is not fighting this war.”
She added: “So, I think it’s important and vital for all of us to not repeat the Kremlin talking points on this front.”
Norman Naimark, a Stanford University professor of Eastern European Studies and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, tells The Indepedent, he does not think what is happening in Ukraine is a proxy war. He has said it is an insult to Ukrainians to suggest so.
“A proxy war is when someone who is fighting is doing your bidding,” he says. “That’s not what is happening in Ukraine. They’re doing the fighting.”
He said the US had stated it wished to reduce Russia’s’s capability of doing this kind of fighting. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, by helping Ukraine,” he said. “But they’re not fighting for us. They are fighting for themselves.”
Russia has certainly claimed the US is engaged in a proxy war.
As Nato defence ministers met last month in Germany to discuss their levels of support to Ukraine, Russia’s foreign minister has accused Nato of fighting a proxy war by supplying military aid.
Sergei Lavrov told Russian state media: “Nato, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”
It is not just Russian ministers such as Lavrov who disagree with the White House and believe the conflict in Ukraine, now entering its third month, has taken on all the characteristics of a proxy war.
And for all of the Biden administration’s insistence that he does not want American boots on the ground and is seeking to de-escalate the conflict, plenty of people have warned that the US and Nato risk an even bloodier response from Russia, if Mr Putin feels trapped – potentially with the use of nuclear or chemical weapons.
Some have said it is essential that the US seek to turn off the pressure, and push for a negotiated settlement.
Former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who in 2019 launched a campaign to become the party’s candidate for president, has been among the most outspoken.
Speaking this week on Fox News, she said he Biden administration had “already gotten us into a war with Russia and not just a cold war but a hot war, and they’re using Ukraine as our proxy”.
She added said Lloyd Austin, the nation’s defence secretary, had spelled out Washington’s arms during a visit to Ukraine, and then Poland, saying the US wanted to see Russia “weakened to the degree that it cannot do the kinds of things that it’s done in invading Ukraine”.
“So what does this actually mean on a practical level, it means the United States and Nato will need to use economic and military means to decimate Russia’s economy and military. That means taking out hundreds and thousands of their troops tens of thousands of their tanks, their vehicles, their planes.”
There is no fixed or agreed upon definition of a proxy war, which further complicates the debate.
In the past it has been used in cases such as the conflicts in Vietnam, where the US sought to rebuff the power of two Communist nations, China and the Soviet Union, who backed North Vietnam, against South Vietnam, which was supported by Washington.
The war dragged on for years with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people on both sides, and a policy of public dishonesty from the US about its actions and aims.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the US allied with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as well as Britain, in backing and arming mujahideen fighters agains the invading forces. The effort is widely considered to have dangerously emboldened the Islamist fighters, among them Osama bin Laden.
John Mearsheimer, a longtime political and strategic analyst, also argues the US appears to have clearly changed what it wants to secure from the conflict. Initially, he said, it appeared the US was focussed on helping Ukraine to “stymie the Russian offensive”.
He told PBS News that its goal appeared to have shift as Ukraine had been more successful in countering Russia.
“When it became clear that the Ukrainians were doing very well on the battlefield against the Russians, we escalated and eventually greatly escalated our goals,” said Mearsheimer, author of a number of books including The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, and who is a professor at the University of Chicago.
“And we are now bent on inflicting a decisive defeat on Russian forces in Ukraine, in other words, beating them decisively on the battlefield, and, in addition, wrecking the Russian economy with sanctions.”
He added: “All of this is designed to greatly weaken Russian power. Secretary of Defence Austin has made this very clear. And, in fact, one could argue what he and his colleagues in the Biden administration are interested in doing is knocking Russia out of the great power ranks.”
But Sarah Petrin, a former adviser to Nato who has long worked to help civiians in conflict zones, said she believed it was clear the US was not trying to get further involved.
“The reluctance to engage them militarily is evident in the restrictions on the type of weapons offered and the lack of any air or ground defences commited,” she told The Independent in an email
“The risk of escalation is that more people would be killed and there could be further damage to civilian infrastructure. “
She added: “Also, the risk of the conflict spreading to other parts of Eastern Europe is something the US and Nato have been trying to avoid.”