It’s time to stop pretending what’s happening in Ukraine is anything other than a US proxy war

It’s time to stop pretending what’s happening in Ukraine is anything other than a US proxy war

Updated: 1 month, 9 days, 6 hours, 59 minutes, 16 seconds ago

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Do you remember how quickly this whole thing was meant to be over – and not in a good way for Ukraine.

Back in February, as Russian troops massed on the border, there was an anticipation that if and when they launched an invasion, they could reach Kyiv in days.

This assessment was partly the result of Russia’s own propaganda. Moscow believed it could swiftly seize the capital, oust the government, and establish its own regime. Russia’s military was believed to be large and powerful; how could Ukraine hope to resist?

In the frantic days after the 24 February “special operation” that Vladimir Putin named his illegal invasion, it was about trying to keep Ukraine and its leader alive by rushing in military equipment, and helping tens of thousands escape. The timetable of operations was marked in days, and at best weeks. Everyone assumed it would only be a matter of time. At one point, EU leaders feared if they would ever see their Ukrainian counterpart again.

Ten months later, we know that was not the case. The West overestimated the abilities of Russia’s armed forces, wrongly assumed Putin had a workable plan, and underestimated the capability and resolve of Ukraine’s military.

It had also failed to conceive how Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian known in Washington DC – if he was known at all – for a cameo role in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, would seize the moment and emerge as the defiant face of his united nation.

So much has changed since then. While Russian forces still occupy parts of Ukraine, Kyiv looks more solid than ever, with the West coming together to back its people.

Joe Biden and the US Congress spent more than $100bn for military aid for Kyiv, a windfall for the US arms makers who were called on to stock up Zelensky’s arsenal, but probably essential to his survival.

And as the months have gone on, so too has the US’s involvement in the conflict had become deeper and more intertwined.

Initially, the US was content to call on Putin to withdraw his forces. Soon, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was calling for Russia to be “weakened” as a nation, and made unable to launch such an operation again. Earlier this month, the US gave in to demands from Kyiv and dispatched its highest capability defence system, the Patriot missile.

If there was any lingering doubt what is happening in Ukraine is now a full-on proxy war for the US, it was dispatched by the visit to Washington DC this week of Zelensky, his first visit outside of the country since the invasion began.

“I am in Washington today to thank the American people, president and Congress for their much-needed support,” Zelensky said after he arrived.

“And also to continue cooperation to bring our victory closer. I’ll hold a series of negotiations to strengthen our resilience and defense capabilities.”

Biden welcomes Ukrainian president Zelensky to The White House

After heading to the White House for talks, Biden and Zelensky held a joint press conference. Later, he was due to be granted the opportunity to address Congress, a rare honour previously offered to the likes of British war time leader, Winston Churchill.

Churchill, who famously travelled to Washington DC in December 1941 to meet Franklin Delano Roosevelt and urge him to enter the war against Nazi Germany and Japan in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, may have been on many people’s lips today.

But it is hard to think of such a similar instance, when the leader of a US ally arrived in DC in the middle of a conflict, asking for more help, and all but guaranteed to get it.

Dr Matthew Schmidt, an expert on international relations at the University of New Haven, says he does not think the fighting in Ukraine is a proxy war in the classic sense of the phrase.

However, he says over the course of the war “the United States has locked itself in to the outcome more than it was at the beginning at the war”.

As such, the US is committed to equipping Ukraine’s military, but also helping rebuild its infrastructure.

Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a press conference with US President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House

“And it’s critical that the West does that, and the US has an interest in making sure that the allies do not pull up short on that, because that would essentially, we’d lose the peace and win the war,” he says.

In DC, as Zelensky handed Biden a Ukraine military medal, Biden said the US and Ukraine would continue to project a “united defence” as Russia wages a “brutal assault on Ukraine’s right to exist as a nation”.

He said Russia was “trying to use winter as a weapon, but Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world”. He told Zelensky “it’s an honour to be by your side”.

Zelensky told Biden: “It’s a great honour to be here.”

A key part of Zelensky’s visit was to try and build relations with any Republicans tempted to dilute the US support and break what has largely been a bipartisan approach to the war.

There is a vocal number of hardline, MAGA-aligned Republicans, who feel the US should stop sending money to Ukraine. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has even suggested holding an audit.

Putin has certainly sought to portray the conflict as a proxy, knowing that it will be easier to sell to the Russian public tens of thousands of military deaths, forced conscription and international condemnation.

Yet, just because Putin, who more than anyone carries the blame for what is happening in Ukraine, has his own reasons to describe it thus, it does not benefit the West to shy away from the reality.

The US and other western nations came to Ukraine’s aid. They are now inextricably involved in the outcome of the war. And the US wants Russia to lose.

Admitting the scale of the West’s involvement helps sharpen our focus. It is also honest.