Vol. 1 No. 2 | Spring 2014
On February 27 and 28, 2014, shortly after the revolution in Kiev that toppled Viktor Yanukovych’s government, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was taken over by thousands of masked and armed Russian troops, backed by armor and attack helicopters. In an unconvincing attempt to hide their origin, the soldiers wore no insignia and passed themselves off as a ‘self-defense’ militia drawn from the ethnic Russian majority of the peninsula, which until 1954 had belonged to Russia itself. In fact, this occupation force consisted either of personnel from the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) based in Crimea or troops sent from the Russian Federation.[i] Russia’s parliament subsequently voted to grant President Vladimir Putin powers to order further interventions in Ukraine to ‘protect ethnic Russians’, whilst a ‘referendum’ held in Crimea on March 16 produced an overwhelming vote in favor of union with the Russian Federation. Three days later, Russian troops and ‘self-defense’ militias forcibly evicted Ukrainian naval personnel from their own bases, formalizing the annexation of Crimea.[ii] This landgrab by Russia, and the separatist turmoil it is currently inciting in Eastern Ukraine, constitutes the most serious crisis in Europe since the Georgian war of August 2008. Although the post-Yanukovych government in Ukraine has acted cautiously and focused on mustering diplomatic support, the country has become the location of a diplomatic confrontation between Russia and the West (the United States, its NATO allies, and member states of the European Union) that could potentially deteriorate into a military clash between Kiev and Moscow.[iii]
There are repeated instances in history where states have resorted to proxy warfare rather than the overt use of force, using non-state para-military actors to subvert and undermine an adversary. In the process, sponsor states have armed, equipped, trained, and sheltered proxies, and have at times even reinforced them with advisors and special forces personnel, as is the case with Russian military intelligence (GRU) and special forces (spetsnaz) troops reportedly reinforcing local ‘separatists’ in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. Proxy warfare has also sometimes preceded an overt military intervention. Given both Putin’s threats to ‘defend’ ethnic Russians and the mobilization of Russian army and air force units over the past two months, this remains a very real possibility in Ukraine. The overall objectives of a sponsor state usually involve the coercion of an adversary, its disruption, or the attainment of a transformative objective, which in turn can involve the successful encouragement of separatism, the annexation of territory, or regime change. Allowing for the absence of solid information on Russian aims it is likely that Moscow’s present reasons for destabilizing Ukraine involve an opportunistic combination of these three outcomes. Putin may well hope that the turmoil he is inciting in the East of the country will forestall the forthcoming elections on May 25 and will force Kiev to subordinate its foreign policy to Russian interests. It is likely that he may consider the takeover of more Ukrainian territory if its government persists in its efforts to forge closer ties with the United States and EU.[iv]...
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[i] “Ukraine: The end of the beginning?”, The Economist (London), March 8, 2014. ‘Believed to be Russian Soldiers’, The Atlantic, March 11, 2014: accessed March 12, 2014; For a daily survey of reporting from Ukraine see the Intepreter live-blog at .
[ii] Roland Oliphant, David Blair and Joanna Walters, ‘Ukraine: Russia launches ‘armed invasion’ as Obama warns Moscow of ‘costs’ of intervention’, The Daily Telegraph (London), February 28, 2014. ‘Crimea crisis: Merkel warns Russia faces escalating sanctions’, BBC News, March 20, 2014: accessed March 20, 2014;
[iii] Leonid Peisakhin, ‘Eastern rising’, Jane’s Intelligence Review 26 (2014): 8-13. ‘Chaos out of order’, The Economist, May 2, 2014. Ronald D. Asmus, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan 2010, 19-52.
[iv] Igor Sutyagin and Michael Clarke, Ukraine Military Dispositions: The Military Ticks Up While the Clock Ticks Down. London: Royal United Services Institute Briefing Paper, April 2014. Geraint Hughes, My Enemy’s Enemy: Proxy Warfare in International Politics. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press 2012.
Geraint Hughes is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC). The paperback edition of his latest book, My Enemy’s Enemy: Proxy Warfare in International Politics, is available from Sussex Academic Press. The analysis, opinions and conclusions expressed or implied in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the JSCSC, Defence Academy, the Ministry of Defence or any other UK government agency.
Despite the well-worn cliché, the relationship between proxy and sponsor is seldom as simple as that between puppet and master. Overlooking internal trends and ruptures, an outside great power may find itself incapable of maintaining the careful balance that ensured its dominance. Actors within a proxy state who have become independent from a sponsor’s largesse may be prepared to strike out on their own when shifts in world politics provide an opportunity. Modern Afghanistan is currently caught up in a struggle that will determine both the shape of the state and its relationships with outside powers, once the dust of recent decades of upheaval settles. Those inside and outside the state considering the wisdom of re-forging old bonds or establishing new ones would do well to consider the lessons of an earlier period of Afghan history, the “Great Game”, when the British began losing control of Afghanistan due to that state’s shifting internal dynamics, and subsequently choose to give up the struggle due to major shifts in their own external calculations.
Afghanistan’s status as a regional British proxy began to unravel during the latter stages of the reign of Amir Habibullah Khan. Afghanistan’s foreign relations since 1880 had been controlled by the Government of India, which was an instrument of the British government led by an appointed viceroy and responsible for the empire’s policies on India’s neighborhood. Habibullah maintained his father’s policy of accepting that arrangement. This policy was opposed by both conservatives at court, who were anti-British, and modernizers, who wanted outright independence. At times the interests of the two camps coincided and at others they did not. Their positions on foreign policy evolved based on the ways they saw the world, which were also reflected in domestic politics. Before the Afghan state could promote an independent foreign policy, a shift at the domestic level that undermined support for the British had to take place...
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C. M. Wyatt
C. M. Wyatt works currently at the Institute for Conflict, Co-operation and Security at the University of Birmingham, UK, and previously for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) . He holds a PhD in History from the University of Leeds, has taught both at the University of Leeds and the University of Reading, and is the author of Afghanistan and the Defence of Empire: Diplomacy and Strategy during the Great Game among other works.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century strategists of the British Empire called their long struggle for mastery in the borderlands of Central and South Asia the ‘Great Game. Their Russian adversaries styled it the ‘Tournament of Shadows’. Each phrase tends to elide as much as it evokes. The Boy’s Own flair obscures, even diminishes, the underlying geopolitics and high stakes involved. Nothing less was at issue, at least from the British point of view, than the balance between global sea power, on one side, and consolidated land power based in the heart of Eurasia on the other. War between the principals frequently seemed in the offing. It erupted in the Crimea in 1854. However, as suggested by the phrase ‘Tournament of Shadows’, the competition between Britain and Russia over Asia and the Middle East played out largely through indirect means.
Proxy warfare figured prominently in the informal imperialism of the Great Game. For their part, the British relied heavily on their time-tested, European strategy of ‘guineas and gunpowder’— subsidies and arms transfers — to delineate spheres of influence, buffer states, and ‘anti-routes’ in the marches of India. Lines of clientage were blurred if not invisible. This afforded plausible deniability, but the advantage was double-edged. Abdur Rahman, Afghanistan’s ‘Iron Amir’ between 1882 and 1901, offers a prime example of the dilemma. His internal wars to consolidate the Afghan state, assisted by British subsidies, helped to staunch the subcontinent’s northern frontier against Russia; they also rattled nerves in British India and a host of its smaller client states in the mountainous reaches west of the upper Indus.
Thomas Barfield, an American scholar of Afghanistan, has noted another “surprising consequence” in the case of Abdur Rahman’s war against the Kafirs: it put the Amir in a position “if Russia was determined to invade India… to ease their way” and thereby “direct the Russians away from any crucial Afghan territory.” British strategists understood that their Afghan proxy left them “to some degree in a cleft stick.” Abdur Rahman’s kingdom was “rapidly being converted into one vast armed camp, equipped by our aid and largely at our expense.” This seemed an inevitable and small price to deter Russia. Still, the British hedged their bets by demarcating a hard border—the ‘Durand Line’—between Afghanistan and what was then British India and is today Pakistan.
Informal imperialism was indeed, as the British historian John Darwin has noted, an inherently “unstable category.” The Great Game exemplifies how flexible yet fraught the sub-category of proxy warfare has been and remains. Current scholarship, focused on the prevalence of proxy warfare in the twenty-first century and its Cold War precedents, emphasizes sub-state, transnational actors. While such proxies loom large today, size is not the defining factor; the uncertain dynamic between proxy and patron is. Moreover, proxies can be found on the highest levels of the international system as well as the lowest, a point that modern scholars underemphasize. Ethnic and political militias, tribal irregulars, and mercenaries each fought as proxies in the Great Game, as did conventional states. Proxies of all kinds often possessed substantial capacities, ambition, and will. “On the Central Asian board,” to quote the distinguished anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, “pawns often moved of their own volition.” Put another way, the Great Game embedded numerous lesser games at different levels. Abdur Rahman was certainly his own agent in a lesser game. And what was true of Afghanistan was true of smaller and bigger examples alike. Throughout the Great Game, proxies functioned at the sub-state, regional, and great power levels. Consider, for instance, the roles played by the Baluch, Iran, and China.
Proxies Great and Small
In most accounts of the Great Game the Baluch do not get the attention they should. The Baluch are an Iranian ethno-linguistic group, who today number between 5 and 6 million. They inhabit the expansive and desolate landscape that stretches across what is now western Pakistan, southeastern Iran, and parts of Afghanistan. Despite their comparatively small numbers, the transnational Baluch have historically played a conspicuous role as a proxy force on the sub-state level, and still do. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Baluch mercenaries enabled the sultans of Oman to secure a commercial empire and dominate the slave trade between East Africa and the Persian Gulf. Baluch mercenaries later formed the backbone of forces that the British developed to secure their Omani allies against insurgency at home. On their home ground in the late nineteenth century, the Baluch functioned as middlemen in the arms traffic between the Gulf and Afghanistan. This benefitted the Russians and French, as well as Abdur Rahman and, to the chagrin of British authorities, a number of British firms. During the Cold War, Baluch separatism generated anxiety about Soviet-backed proxy warfare in Pakistan. Such potentialities similarly alarmed Iran under the Shah, while in recent years the Islamic Republic has charged that insurgency among the Sunni Baluch of Iran enjoys the sponsorship of both Pakistan and the United States.
A player as much as a pawn, Iran illustrates the variability of proxies at the level of regional states. Iranian foreign policy in the early to mid-nineteenth century was animated substantially by irredentism in the Caucasus and later Afghanistan. During the Napoleonic wars, the British alternately moved into and out of an alliance with Iran as they moved into and out of an alliance with Russia. Russian influence grew in Tehran after the Treaty of Turkmanchai, which settled the border in the Caucasus in 1828. Iran subsequently focused eastward on Afghanistan, its irredentism now working to Russia’s advantage. Twice, in 1838-39 and again in 1856-57, Iran moved to reclaim Herat, only to be met in each case by a British counterpunch in the Gulf. The second instance led to war and to Iran’s agreement to demarcate through British arbitration a border with Afghanistan. The fixed boundary was perhaps arbitrary in a Middle Eastern context, but it undermined the pretext on which Russia could promote a proxy war against British India. Britain’s friend-or-foe dilemma in nineteenth century Iran has considerable resonance today. Is Iran an ambitious rival to be contained, or a useful and even necessary proxy against the Taliban and the recrudescence of Russian imperialism?
Similar uncertainty, of course, arose over China during the Cold War. Colonial strategists did not speak of the ‘China Card’ per se, but they certainly debated how and whether it could be played. In 1880, amid the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the British saw China’s reassertion of its authority in the Ili Valley as a useful diversion of Russian attentions. A decade later some British officials urged backing China’s reconsolidation of control over the whole of Xinjiang as a bulwark against Russia. Others in London, however, warned against such a course, lest China’s underlying weakness invite the very extension of Russian influence the British wished to block. The dilemma persisted into the twentieth century. One recent scholar has provocatively claimed that efforts to sustain China’s front against Japan in the south represented an Anglo-American proxy war to divert Japan away from the Soviet Union during the critical fall and winter of 1941-42. The Chinese dimension reminds us that while Anglo-Russian rivalry dominated the arena, the Great Game was a multi-polar contest. India’s independence after World War II, and more particularly the subcontinent’s partition, compounded the problem of games within games and clouded the role of proxies further still.
New Rounds, Old Rules
The Great Game is usually considered an issue of the nineteenth century. But understood as shorthand for using the power of South Asia to balance and parry that based in Central Asia, it continued through the twentieth. In fact, one was more likely to hear the expression in Anglo-American policy circles during the Cold War than ever in offices of the Raj. Britain’s transfer of power on the subcontinent in 1947 did not end the Great Game. Neither did the advent of nuclear weapons. What British Air Marshal John Slessor called the “Great Deterrent” reinvigorated the Great Game and its indirect methods of war. The battlefield Slessor reasoned, now belonged, and had to belong, to the “termite”—to the guerilla forces and regional states we so associate with proxy warfare. Pakistan, the Afghan mujahidin, and the Taliban present essential and standard examples of the attraction, convolutions, and limits of the old wine in new bottles. The collaboration between the United States and India to sustain armed resistance against China in Tibet during the late 1950s and early 1960s presents a lesser-known but equally compelling case.
More delicate and difficult to appreciate is the role that India itself, as an emerging great power, has played and continues to play as a proxy for Anglo-American interests in post-independence rounds of the Great Game. Last year, General Raymond Odierno, the US Army’s Chief of Staff, visited India and proclaimed the Indian Army to be “by far the most influential” in Asia. Some discerned an oblique reference to aligning India’s continental power with the maritime posture of the United States in the Indo-Pacific as part of a larger strategy for the containment of China. Odierno was quick, however, to preempt speculation, emphasizing the importance of India’s “strategic autonomy.” As a proxy force India is neither a pawn nor a puppet. Nor was it either during the Cold War. New Delhi’s avowed neutralism was vexatious, but the more acute in the Anglo-American defense establishment recognized that “in spite of conflict between certain United States and Indian policy objectives, there are many lines of parallel action.”
Ultimately, the notion of India as a proxy force underlines not only the persistence but also the ambiguity and contingency of proxy warfare as both a strategic and analytical category. In the Indo-American case, it is not even clear who is gaming whom. Americans no more look on their considerable forces in, say, Afghanistan or the South China Sea, as proxies for Indian interests, than Indians see their country’s position vis-à-vis China in Central Asia as a proxy for the United States. But, at least to some degree, do they not act as such? In the nineteenth century, Great Gamesmen engaged proxies to achieve the effects of empire where they could not or would not fight; in the twenty-first century the idea is perhaps more to achieve the effects of alliance where one cannot or will not be formalized. In the former circumstance, a proxy stands somewhere between autonomy and occupation, and in the latter somewhere between the free agency of neutrality and the definite obligations of alliance. The attraction and utility of proxy warfare lies in those vagaries, whether employed as a strategy between big patrons and small clients, as scholars typically treat the phenomenon, or between great powers, as the Great Game suggests scholars more often might. Either way, Rudyard Kipling’s admonition still pertains: “Who can say,” he wrote about the uncertainty of war in Abdur Rahman’s game, “when the night is gathering, all is grey.”
Peter John Brobst
Peter John Brobst is Associate Professor of History at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He teaches British imperial and modern international history, and is the author of The Future of the Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India’s Independence, and the Defense of Asia (2005).