By Cameron Leckie
Historically, it used to be clear when one country was at war with another. Not so today. Indeed, that is one of the Department of Defence’s objections to war powers reform, where it stated in its submission to the Armed Overseas Conflict Inquiry that “the growth of grey-zone activities and offensive operations in the space and cyber domains [challenge] traditional concepts of ‘conflict.’“
Another type of conflict is the proxy war. Proxy wars are “when a major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing a party to a conflict but does only a small portion of the actual fighting itself” according to Daniel Byman, foreign policy editor of the Brookings Institution’s Lawfare blog. Byman argues that the United States uses proxy wars to reduce the cost to itself; “Locals fight, and die, so Americans do not have to.”
It is increasingly clear that the war in Ukraine is a proxy war with the United States, NATO and the European Union using Ukraine as their proxy to “weaken Russia.” Without, at least officially, engaging in combat with Russian forces, the Western powers have armed, equipped, supplied and trained the Ukrainian military, both in the lead up to the current war and in the years prior. Additionally they are providing command and control functions including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, that has likely directly contributed to the deaths of Russian service personnel, Ukrainian tactical successes such as its Khariv offensive, and Ukrainian drone/missile strikes within Russia. Finally, the Western powers have imposed unprecedented sanctions (that have largely boomeranged) on Russia and attempted, with minimal success outside the West, to isolate it diplomatically.
The Ukrainians are dying in large numbers, so that Westerners do not have to (at least to this point). Retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, a combat veteran and senior adviser within the Trump administration estimates that the Ukrainian military has already lost over 150,000 soldiers killed, with eight Ukrainian soldiers being killed for every Russian soldier. Whilst it is difficult to know the real numbers, given Russia’s clear dominance in firepower (both in quantities of weapon systems and rates of ammunition expenditure) and its slow methodical approach, as fighting in and around Bakhmut demonstrates, it appears reasonable to assume that many more Ukrainians soldiers are being killed than Russian.
Despite the proxy war in Ukraine posing no threat to Australia’s national security, the Government (under both the leadership of Prime Ministers Morrison and Albanese) has actively supported this proxy war. This has included:
- The provision of military equipment including Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles, M113 armoured personnel carriers and M777 howitzers.
- The deployment of a 70 person training team (Operation KUDU) to the United Kingdom to train Ukrainian soldiers.
- The provision of $665 million in support to Ukraine, of which $475 million is military assistance.
- Placing numerous sanctions on Russia.
- Diplomatic manoeuvring such as at the annual UN General Assembly vote on Russia’s annual non-binding Resolution ‘against the glorification of Nazism.’ Traditionally Australia has abstained but in 2022 we voted against this resolution and pushed through an amendment to the draft (note that the majority of nations, 105 votes, voted in favour of the resolution, with 52 nations against the resolution and 15 abstentions).
Based on the aforementioned actions, and rhetoric of the Australian Government, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are a party to the proxy war in Ukraine.
Whilst these actions have bi-partisan support, it is also clear there has been no debate in the Parliament on Australia’s decision to enter into a proxy war.
Superficially this may not appear to be an issue. After all the war is a long way geographically from Australia, and no Australian Defence Force personnel are coming home in body bags.
But on deeper reflection it is clear that we have, without any apparent thought for the consequences, entered into a conflict that may very well seriously harm Australia’s interests.
Some of these consequences include:
- The opportunity cost to Australia. More than half a billion (and counting) has been spent on Ukraine that could have been used to address dozens of domestic issues from natural disaster responses to our struggling healthcare system.
- Australia’s support to the proxy war is extending the conflict and will increase both the total number of Ukrainian casualties and how much territory it loses. Numerous reports indicate that Ukraine came close to a negotiated outcome to the conflict with Russia in April 2022, an outcome that then United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson is alleged to have prevented. Is extending this conflict, and all its inherent trauma, for Ukraine’s benefit? Or the West’s broader geopolitical objectives?
- The proxy war is, as I have argued elsewhere, leading to a transfer in the balance of global power from the West to the Eastern world – an outcome inimical to Australia’s interests given our current alliances and allegiances.
- Our reputation in the region. Very few of the countries in our region have been supportive of the Western sanctions and other actions against Russia. We could, in the increasingly likely outcome that Russia ‘wins’ this conflict, find ourselves an outlier isolated in our region.
- The potential rise of far-right extremism in Australia. Virtually every major Western media organisation and human rights group had reported on the influence and power of neo-Nazis in Ukraine prior to the commencement of the war. Marise Payne as Foreign Minister even cancelled a former Australian soldiers passport as he was planning to fight with the ‘notoriously neo-Nazi’ Azov Battalion. We are now warned of the growing threat of far-right extremism in Australia whilst ignoring that we are supporting a country with a widely known problem with this ideology. Perhaps there is a link between our unquestioning support to Ukraine and this growing threat?
For Australians for War Powers Reform, the demand that the Parliament should vote on the deployment of Australian troops should remain as our number one priority.
However, it is also clear that a legislated requirement for a parliamentary vote on armed overseas conflict is insufficient. As Australia’s involvement in the Ukraine proxy war demonstrates, current proposals for war powers reform do not cover circumstances where Australia can become party to a conflict without the physical deployment of troops in a conflict zone. Proxy wars can be a slippery slope towards real war and as described above can have significant negative consequences.
Involvement in any overseas conflict, whether directly or indirectly, is too important to be left to the whim of executive government. With there being no debate, or vote, in the Parliament on the potential consequences of Australia being a party to the current proxy war, we have sleepwalked into another disastrous conflict. It is time for Australia to do better!