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Vol. 1 No. 1 | Winter 2014
Proxy Wars in Cy...

Proxy Wars in Cyberspace:

The Evolving International Law of Attribution

Michael N. Schmitt & Liis Vihul | 20 December 2013

States are more likely to receive blame for cyber acts of terror than are the non-state actors frequently responsible for this genre of criminal activity. Schmitt & Vihul discuss the legal difficulty in attributing illicit activity to the culpable actors themselves.


As a longer article, this piece will only be offered in PDF format for easier reading. Download the PDF to read more.

Irina Chindea 


Irina Chindea is a Ph.D. candidate in the International Security Studies Program at the Fletcher School. Irina's doctoral research investigates the patterns of cooperation and conflict among criminal groups in weak and strong states. More specifically, Irina’s dissertation focuses on the shifts in alliances among the main Mexican and Colombian drug cartels as well as the leading Canadian Mafia groups. Prior to completing her MALD at The Fletcher School in 2008, Irina worked as a senior analyst for the investment-arm of Raiffeisen Bank and for the Financial Advisory Services unit of KPMG Romania.  You can follow Irina on Twitter @ichindea.

The Death of M2...

The Death of M23:

Ending Rwanda's Proxy War in the Congo

Federico Borello | 20 December 2013

Recent developments in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) offer, after almost 20 years of unending violence and conflict, a glimmer of hope. While the conditions for a lasting peace still need to be built, the recent dissolution of the Congolese rebel group known as the March 23 Movement (M23) could potentially lead to a major reduction in violence and instability in the region. As we will see, this major positive development demanded radical shifts in the attitude of the international community towards Rwanda’s support to armed proxy groups in the region. In 2013, after 15 years of tacit acceptance of Rwanda’s disruptive role, a spectacular change in policies in the US, UN, and, to a more limited extent, the UK, decisively altered Kigali’s cost-benefit calculations, and led it to abandon its proxy – the M23 – more or less to its fate.


To assess this major policy shift, it is important to understand the main factors that led to international tolerance of Rwanda’s behavior for so long, as well as the factors that fueled recent policy revisions.


Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the government in Kigali has consistently denied any involvement in supporting the M23. While it would be untrue to define the M23 as solely a puppet in the hands of Kigali, there is ample evidence that the Rwandan government played a key role in supporting the creation and the initial military fortunes of the group, as it did with the M23’s predecessors, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, (RCD) from 1998 to 2003, and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) from 2005 to 2009. The Rwandan army provided logistical support, helped in recruitment and directly deployed in support of M23 during all major military confrontations fought in 2012, effectively winning critical battles and swaths of territory for its proxy.

A mix of security, economic, political, and cultural interests have motivated Rwanda’s support of abusive proxy groups in the DRC and led it to periodically send its own troops into its neighbor’s territory. Though the militia has been recently weakened, Kigali feels threatened by the FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group created by the surviving perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide that, due to instability and a lack of security enforcement, has been active under different names in eastern DRC since 1994.


International criminal networks systematically exploit the considerable natural resources of eastern DRC, often with the complicity of army officials from all countries involved, including Rwanda. These illegal networks were mostly created during Rwanda’s occupation of eastern DRC (1998-2002), and continue to operate in the region. Additionally, the government in Kigali has strong cultural, political, and economic bonds with the minority Rwandophone communities in the Kivus, which have been historically discriminated against in DRC. In short, Rwanda believes that exercising a dominant influence in the Kivus, which it sees as within its legitimate sphere of influence, is a fundamental interest.


The M23, with Rwanda’s support, ruled over parts of the North Kivu province of the DRC from April 2012 to November 2013 when it was defeated on the battlefield by a re-energized Congolese army (FARDC) backed by UN peacekeepers (MONUSCO). After over a year of on-and-off combat, the crucial element that precipitated the M23’s likely final defeat in only four days was Rwanda’s decision to stop supporting its proxy, leaving the group with little chance of success on the battlefield against superior forces.


As a result of the M23’s defeat, today, for the first time since 1996, there is no major Rwandan-backed armed group active in eastern DRC.


The international community tolerated Kigali’s disruptive behavior for 15 years. Few protested when Rwanda, with other African states, put together a coalition of Congolese rebels to topple President Mobutu in 1996. During the 1996-1997 war, the Rwandan army committed widespread abuses, mostly against Rwandan refugees in DRC, killing thousands of unarmed civilians during the military campaign. The UN sent a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the massacres and the international community, tellingly, put a lot of pressure on DRC President Laurent Desire Kabila, who was then very weak and entirely dependent on Rwandan support, to stop these abuses and bring the perpetrators to justice. This was something that was entirely outside his powers at the time. The decision not to hold Rwanda accountable for its crimes in eastern DRC, and ignore its support to proxies, dates back to those days.


The international community failed to hold Rwanda accountable, at least until recently, first and foremost because of its own failures. In addition to the “genocide guilt” due to the outside world’s unforgivable inaction during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the UN was also unwilling to directly address the growing security threat posed to Rwanda by Rwandan rebels (now the FDLR) who fled to the DRC in the aftermath of the genocide. Instead, the UN and the larger international community established the pattern of “tacit acceptance” of Kigali’s interference in eastern DRC.


Second, the Rwandan government was able to engineer a spectacular recovery from the ashes of genocide, wisely using every single dollar invested by the donor aid community. This not only won Rwanda praise and admiration in international circles, but also created a powerful constituency of international supporters with an interest in continuing support to Rwanda. These donors were reluctant to jeopardize one of the most successful aid programs in Africa by exposing the Rwandan government’s support for the M23 in the DRC.


Third, the international community grew increasingly frustrated with the inefficient and corrupt DRC government, and was thus less willing to exert effort and resources in its support. There was a perception of hopelessness about the future of the DRC, stemming from the profound difficulty of addressing the multiple causes of violence, a disillusionment with the Congolese political class as a whole, and ultimately, the lack of a shared vision for helping the country move out of the conflict, particularly after the 2006 elections. Many diplomats rightly pointed out that removing Rwanda from the equation would not by itself bring peace to the DRC, and used this as an excuse to tolerate the unacceptable and to focus their attention elsewhere.


Finally, until recently, there was no political process or forum where the countries in the region could be brought in to discuss political, economic, and security arrangements, and where a coordinated strategy could be devised by international actors (the International Contact Group on the Great Lakes Region, which regularly gathers main donors to the region, is largely an information-sharing forum, devoid of any political clout).


Given this seemingly intractable situation, what “changed the tide” on this issue, and what can we learn from it?


As the M23 gained power and destabilized eastern DRC, the context, both within the DRC and internationally, began to shift. The UN Group of Experts gathered and made public conclusive and extensive evidence, corroborated by other sources, about the extent of Rwanda’s support to the M23. The UN also collected evidence implicating the M23 in both serious past atrocities and ongoing abuses in areas under its control. These abuses, combined with the M23’s failure to mobilize even their seemingly most natural constituencies, the Rwandophone communities in eastern DRC, eventually turned the group into a pariah movement, unanimously despised by the Congolese people as well as the international community. Advocacy groups in the US and UK launched a vigorous advocacy campaign around the issue of the M23 and its patron, aimed at making their governments reconsider uncritical support to the Rwandan government. Finally, the UN suffered one of its worst humiliations in its history of peacekeeping in November 2012, when the M23 occupied the town Goma in front of powerless peacekeeping forces.


Due to these shifts, 2013 saw a flurry of new initiatives to bring peace to the region. The UN engineered the signing of the “Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework,” in which 11 countries from the region explicitly committed not to support armed groups in neighboring countries. The UN then went on to approve the most ambitious mandate revision in the history of peacekeeping, authorizing MONUSCO to use force to neutralize armed groups – in other words, to go to war against them. This raised the stakes even higher for Rwanda, as it had little appetite to see its army openly fighting the Tanzanian and South African armies (the main contributors to MONUSCO’s new troops) on the battlefield, and knew that without direct military support, the M23 stood no chance.


This remarkable change in UN assertiveness coincided with welcomed changes in leadership at the top. Mary Robinson (UN Special Envoy), Russ Feingold (US Envoy), and Martin Kobler (new SRSG at MONUSCO) all had relatively little experience with, and expertise on, the region, which turned out to be an advantage as they did not have preconceived ideas about the conflict and did not feel bound to certain actors and states. While they insisted (unsuccessfully at the time of writing) that the DRC and M23 sign a peace agreement, they simultaneously placed enormous pressure on Kigali to stop supporting the M23. Ultimately, Kigali capitulated, enabling UN forces to defeat the M23, which formally surrendered on November 5 and fled to Uganda, where, at the time of writing, they have been disarmed and are being held in military camps by the Ugandan military.


Rwanda could, in principle, lay low for a while and then support the creation of another armed group. That would, however, be much more difficult than it has been in the past, given that the strong military networks built as long ago as 1998 have effectively been dismantled.


It is too early to completely evaluate the impact of the M23’s demise on the security situation in eastern DRC; however, the Congolese army (FARDC) and the UN are confident of success, and have committed to turning their attention to the FDLR, likely with significant impact.


Most other Congolese armed groups were created, at least in principle, to confront either (or both) the FDLR or the M23 rebels and protect local populations. With both these groups gone, it should be possible, though by no means easy, to achieve the demobilization of most of the remaining armed groups in the Kivus.


In other words, after almost 20 years of failed attempts, the end of the M23 could provoke a significant reduction of the level of violence in eastern DRC. In order to get there, it was necessary to break Rwanda’s determination to support abusive armed groups in eastern DRC, which was made possible only by a complete overhaul of the political and military tools employed by the international community and by bringing in fresh, high-quality leadership that had no “baggage” in the region.


Moving forward, it is necessary to separate legitimate from illegitimate concerns of all countries in the region who continue to fuel violence. The ongoing political process needs to concern itself with legitimate interests (armed groups, border security, cross-border trade and cooperation, refugee return, etc.), while the international community should continue to enforce a “zero tolerance policy” on regional governments’ support to armed groups. While Rwanda has historically been the main culprit, the DRC government has been known to support the FDLR and other armed groups, while Uganda also supported the M23, its predecessors, and other armed groups in the northern region of Ituri. The international community needs to show all countries the same determination it has shown Rwanda in 2013, standing ready to suspend aid and apply targeted sanctions against all governments and government officials that continue to support abusive armed groups.

Federico Borello


Federico Borello is currently Director of Investments at Humanity United, a private foundation where he is in charge of the Democratic Republic of Congo and International Justice portfolios. He has more than a decade of experience with international organizations, including serving as the coordinator of the Transitional Justice and Anti-Impunity Unit at MONUC (the UN mission in Congo) from 2005 to 2008, and later joining the UN Mapping Team in Congo as investigations coordinator and legal advisor.



Russia's Proxy War in the Caucasus

Dr. Alexandros Petersen | 20 December 2013

Conceptions of proxy wars have until now tended to be rooted in the Cold War era, during whichthe opposing blocs engaged in numerous rounds of geopolitical shadow boxing, from Vietnam to Angola. These ‘classic’ proxy conflicts tended to involve the manipulation of smaller powers or paramilitary groups by great powers, with both trying to match one another’s influence and/or power projection. Now, as Iran inflames the Middle East with its proxy Hezbollah in Syria, interest in proxy conflicts has reemerged. The conflicts that began in the 1990s, which resulted from the break-up of the Soviet empire, were generally given different descriptors: ethnic clashes, frozen conflicts, separatist or irredentist disputes. Many of these, however, whether in the Balkans, the Caucasus, or Central Asia, can be better understood as proxy conflicts in which Russia uses various actors to pressure or defeat its regional foes, as well as to exert tenuous control of what its leaders have called Russia’s “privileged sphere of influence.”


Perhaps the most glaring and increasingly dangerous of those proxy wars is the simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous territory is an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan, but has a majority ethnic-Armenian population. This is especially the case after Armenian regular forces and militias, with their Russian supporters, cleansed the Karabakh territory and its seven surrounding Azerbaijani districts of ethnic Azeris during the most violent phase of the conflict in the early 1990s. The conflict zone remains one of the most ominous powder-kegs in the world because even though a cease-fire was signed in 1994, firefights, sniping, and incursions occur regularly along the trench warfare-style line of contact between the two belligerent parties. The initial phase of the conflict resulted in over a million refugees and thus remains a neuralgic issue for the peoples of both countries. With no international peacekeepers in the conflict zone and a very limited number of observers, just one miscalculation could reignite a full-scale war.

So, how is this a proxy war? Russian assistance is the main reason for Armenian control over Karabkh and its surrounding regions. This comes in the form of a treaty guaranteeing Russian defense of Armenia in case of conflict, which is compounded by a number of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) obligations that tie the two countries together, primarily ensuring that Russia could work closely with, and even command, Armenian regular forces.


On the ground, this is underpinned by Russia’s major military base at Gyumri. The 102nd Military Base, leftover from Soviet times, keeps 5,000 troops armed with tanks, artillery, helicopters, MiG-29 aircraft and Iskender-M tactical ballistic missiles ready to support Armenian forces and to serve as a deterrent against any Azerbaijani plan to retake the territory. Armenian forces receive training at the Russian base and the militaries of the two countries conduct regular exercises together. Russian officers inspect Armenian positions and provide tactical advice. In October 2013, Col. Andrey Ruzinsky, commander of the Gyumri base, stated in an interview with an official Russian media outlet that Russian forces are prepared to intervene should the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict heat up again. In a show of how important the base is to Russia, when Vladimir Putin visited Armenia recently, he spent more time at Gyumri than in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. He also declared that Russia will increase its influence in the South Caucasus this year.


Armenia’s defense arsenal is procured from Russia, and Moscow provides major discounts forthe dependent nation. These arms go both to Armenian regular forces and the militias active in the conflict zone. Additionally, Armenia’s economy is almost entirely dependent on Russian investment, and all large enterprises in the country are controlled by Russian firms with ties to the Kremlin. More than 80% of Armenia’s energy infrastructure is owned by Russian companies and the government owes Russia enormous debts, incurred from natural gas and arms sales. Remittances from abroad are crucial to Armenia’s economic welfare, and a major portion of these comes from Armenians working in Russia. Given Moscow’s proclivity to deport foreign nationals for geopolitical reasons (as occurred with Georgians during the 2008 war), the fate of Armenian workers in Russia is a major source of leverage.


Interestingly, Russia also sells arms to Azerbaijan and maintains cordial relations with Baku. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfer database, Russia sold Azerbaijan $1 billion dollars’ worth of weapons from 2007 to 2012, with another major sale this year. This is a telltale sign of the interesting balance that Moscow seeks to maintain in this conflict. By simmering along in a violent, but tolerable (for Russia) state, creating a gaping chasm of instability in the middle of the South Caucasus, Russia achieves a number of strategic aims without direct intervention: it pressures Western-oriented and energy-rich Azerbaijan, ensuring that despite its growing independence of policy, Russia holds a hammer above its head; and it provides an important ace up Russia’s sleeve to menace European energy and transport projects, mostly oil and gas pipelines that snake from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to the EU.


The simmering conflict serves the same purpose when it comes to U.S. and NATO supply lines – the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) – to and from Afghanistan, and will continue to block Western plans for a “New Silk Road” through the region to bolster Afghanistan’s economy. It is a potential geopolitical grenade to throw if greater instability suits Russia in the region, and the conflict provides a ready excuse for greater Russian military and diplomatic involvement should the international community seek greater security in the region. Most of all, constant fighting keeps Armenia in a stranglehold. It ensured that Yerevan recently joined Moscow’s neo-Soviet Customs Union, that Armenia maintains a subordinate membership within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and that Armenia does not integrate further into the EU and NATO. This was evidenced most dramatically by Armenia’s rejection of building greater ties with Europe before the November 2013 Vilnius Summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership.


Russia also holds the key to conflict settlement. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe maintains a conflict negotiation mechanism, the Minsk Group, which is meant to facilitate discussions between the belligerent sides and oversee the implementation of a peace agreement. The international co-chairs of this group, however, are the United States, France, and Russia, meaning that a party to the conflict and the major geopolitical impetus behind it is also officially recognized as a mediator. It is perhaps not surprising that the Minsk Group has achieved little in almost two decades.


For Russia, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a low-cost, low-effort proxy war yielding geopolitical returns. The conflict helps Russia to indirectly pressure Azerbaijan, the EU, NATO, and the United States, as well as to maintain a hand in the economies and major infrastructure projects of the region. Russia’s security commitments to Armenia and capabilities in the region mean that Moscow may have to make good on its commitments at some point in the future, but for the moment, as the region suffers continuing instability, Russia gains continued clout amongst its neighbors. Most of all, Moscow holds the power to put a cork in the strategic bottleneck of the Caucasus between Russia and Iran, blocking Western access to Central Asia and Afghanistan.


What, if anything, can the United States and its allies do to ameliorate this dilemma? As Minsk Group co-chairs, the U.S. and France (representing the EU) can cease to play the polite diplomatic game that requires treating Russia as if it were an impartial mediator. A public acknowledgment of Russia’s active role as a party to the conflict would not only clarify various interests involved, but also expose Moscow on the international stage in such a way as to potentially elicit a shift in its posture. Were U.S. and European diplomats to publicly call out Russia on Nagorno-Karabakh, it may begin to tip the Kremlin’s cost-benefit calculus.


This should go hand-in-hand with a renewed effort towards holding comprehensive negotiations. The Obama administration is in fact very well suited to tackle the thorny Karabakh conflict. The current U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group, Ambassador James Warlick, is one of the most senior diplomats to hold the position, and he brings extensive experience negotiating with Afghan leaders on security agreements. Secretary of State John Kerry is intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the conflict, having as a Massachusetts senator represented one of the most powerful Armenian diaspora communities. In his current role – as ought to be expected – he has shown that he can leave his legislative biases behind. But, importantly, he still holds the trust of Armenians: a crucial element to achieving a settlement.


In the context of matters with Iran, Syria, the East China Sea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would seem that Nagorno-Karabakh might not warrant high-level U.S. and/or European attention. However, as Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan, cease moving supplies through the NDN and generally begin a strategic retreat from the former Soviet space, Washington and Brussels will quickly be left without a strategy for engaging Eurasia. Vladimir Putin’s recent pugnacity in Ukraine and plans for a Eurasian Union are engendered, at least in part, by the perception of Western abandonment of the region. By grasping the nettle of the Karabakh conflict, Western powers can begin to reformulate their Eurasia policy, from one in which the region is simply a thoroughfare to Afghanistan, to one of understanding the region as warranting strategic attention for its own sake.

Dr. Alexandros Petersen


Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and co-edits

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