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A proxy war or proxy warfare is a war that results when opposing powers use third parties as substitutes for fighting each other directly.

While powers have sometimes used governments as proxies, violent non-state actors, mercenaries, or other third parties are more often employed. It is hoped that these groups can strike an opponent without leading to full-scale war.

Proxy wars have also been fought alongside full-scale conflicts.

It is almost impossible to have a pure proxy war, as the groups fighting for a certain nation usually have their own interests, which can diverge from those of their patron.

Typically proxy wars function best during cold wars, as they become a necessity in conducting armed conflict between at least two belligerents while continuing cold warfare.



(Also see List of proxy wars)


Spanish Civil War

A famous conflict which exhibits patterns of a proxy war was the Spanish Civil War. The conflict that started between the Second Spanish Republic and Francisco Franco's Nationalists soon involved Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on the Nationalist side and the Soviet Union on the Spanish Republic's side. This war served as a useful proving ground for both the Axis and the Soviets to test equipment and tactics that would later be employed in the Second World War.

Cold War

Proxy wars were common in the Cold War, because the two nuclear-armed superpowers (the Soviet Union and the United States) did not wish to fight each other directly, since that would have run the risk of escalation to a nuclear war (see mutual assured destruction). Proxies were used in conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Latin America.

The first proxy war in the Cold War was the Greek Civil War, which started almost as soon as World War II ended. The Western-allied Greek government was nearly overthrown by Communist rebels with limited direct aid from Soviet ally or client states in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria. The Greek Communists managed to seize most of Greece, but a strong government counterattack forced them back. The Western Allies eventually won, due largely to an ideological split between Stalin and Tito. Though previously allied to the rebels, Tito closed Yugoslavia's borders to ELAS partisans when Greek Communists sided with Stalin, despite the lack of direct material support from the USSR. Albania followed Tito's lead shortly thereafter. With no way to get aid, the rebellion collapsed.

In the Korean War, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China aided the Communists in North Korea against the US-led United Nations forces. The Soviet Union did not enter the war directly, though it was alleged that the Soviets had sent pilots to fly MiG 15s for the Communists. China, however, did enter the war directly and sent thousands of 'volunteers' in 1950 preventing the U.N. coalition from defeating the Communist government of the north.

Another example of a proxy war was East Germany's covert support of the Red Army Faction (RAF) which was active from 1968 and carried out a succession of terrorist attacks in West Germany during the 1970s and to a lesser extent; in the 1980s. After German reunification in 1990, it was discovered that the RAF had received financial and logistic support from the Stasi, the security and intelligence organization of East Germany. It had also given several RAF terrorists shelter and new identities. It had not been in the interests of either the RAF or the East Germans to be seen as co-operating. The apologists for the RAF argued that they were striving for a true socialist society not the sort that existed in Eastern Europe. The East German government was involved in Ostpolitik, and it was not in its interest to be caught overtly aiding a terrorist organization operating in West Germany. For more details see the History of Germany since 1945.

In the Vietnam War the Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam and the Viet Minh with training, logistics and material but unlike the United States Armed Forces they fought the war through their proxies and did not enter the conflict directly.

In the war between the Mujahadeen and the Soviet Army during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the aid given by the U.S. to the Mujahadeen during the war included weapons, supplies and training.

In the Lebanese Civil War, Syria supported the Maronite Christian dominated Lebanese Front with arms and troops, while interestingly enough Syria's enemy Israel also supported the Lebanese Front by providing them with arms, tanks and money. While the Soviets tended to support Syria, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the leftist Lebanese National Movement (NLM).

Following the Carnation Revolution (leftist military coup) in 1974 against the dictatorship in Portugal, the last remaining colonies on the African continent, Angola and Mozambique were to be set free. Until then, Portugal had been fighting three major liberation movements in Angola (FNLA, MPLA, UNITA) and one in Mosambique (FRELIMO) (see: Portuguese Colonial War). While transition of power in Mozambique was a rather simple affair, the three movements in Angola had been rivals for years during the Angolan War of Independence, each receiving low-key support from a motley assembly of countries, making a transition very difficult. The MPLA and initially UNITA, an offspring of the FNLA, were more or less left leaning and mainly supported by socialist countries; the FNLA, at that point by far the strongest of the three, was mainly supported by Zaire. After the Alvor Agreement in early 1976, according to which the three movements set up a joint interim government with Portugal and independence was to be granted in November, the US decided to support the FNLA, fighting between the three movements resumed and the agreement fell apart. Zaire and apartheid South Africa, each for its own reasons but with US support, joined the fight on the side of FNLA and UNITA to wrestle Luanda out of the hands of the MPLA before independence day. It was only with the help of Cuban forces (see: Cuba in Angola) and Soviet support pouring in on the last days, that the MPLA held the capital and proclaimed independence. With Cuban help the Angolan Army (FAPLA) almost annihilated the FNLA and Zairians and drove UNITA, after the South Africans retreated, to remote southeastern pockets of the country. UNITA continued to receive aid from the US and South Africa repeatedly invaded Southern Angola either in pursuit of SWAPO or to support UNITA which, in time, managed to reconquer large areas in the south. After a major clash in southeastern Angola in 1988 involving FAPLA, Cuban, SWAPO, UNITA and South African forces, South Africa agreed to retreat from Angola and Southwest Africa and grant independence to Namibia and Cuba agreed to move its forces out of Angola. In spite of supervised elections in 1992, in which the MPLA won, the Angolan Civil War only ended in 2002. The US recognised the Angolan government only in 1993.

In Mozambique power was handed to the one liberation movement, FRELIMO. The new leftist Mozambique government supported liberation movements against the white minority led governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid South Africa. The Rhodesian government organized and funded an anti-communist rebel group called Mozambique National Resistance, later RENAMO beginning the Mozambican Civil War. After Rhodesia collapsed and became Zimbabwe in 1980, South Africa took over supporting RENAMO until the decline of the apartheid regime. In 1992 RENAMO and the government of Mozambique signed a peace accord.

The conflict between Israel and the Arab countries has been described as a proxy war, with Israel acting as a proxy for the United States and the Soviet Union's proxy being Egypt until they expelled the Soviets in 1972, and Syria thereafter. [1], [2] According to Pennsylvania State University Professor of Political Science Stephen J. Cimbala, this theater was the site of the greatest Cold War setback to America when, under the influence of anti-Israeli attitudes after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, American allies Saudi Arabia and Iran (under the shah) drifted from the American sphere of influence, leading to the 1973 oil crisis as well as the eventual Iranian Revolution in 1979. [3]

An example from Latin America is the long-time struggle between the United States and the communist government of Cuba during and after the Cuban Revolution. Many attempts have been made by the United States to overthrow Cuba's government, often by using Cuban exiles as proxies. One of the most notorious is the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961.

Second Congo War

Since the end of the Cold War the largest war by proxy has been the Second Congo War in which the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda all used (and are perhaps still using) third party armed irregular groups.


  • Bernd Greiner / Christian Müller / Dierk Walter (Ed.): Heiße Kriege im Kalten Krieg. Hamburg 2006, ISBN 3-936096-61-9 (Review by H. Hoff, Review by I. Küpeli)
  • Scott L. Bills: The world deployed : US and Soviet military intervention and proxy wars in the Third World since 1945. From: Robert W. Clawson (Ed.): East West rivalry in the Third World. Wilmington 1986, p. 77-101.
  • Chris Loveman: Assessing the Phenomeon of Proxy Intervention. From Journal of Conflict, Security and Development, edition 2.3, Routledge 2002, pp 30–48.
  1. ^ "Will new ‘Cold War’ play out in Middle East?", Leslie Susser,, The Jewish Journal, August 27, 2008
  2. ^ "Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967 (review)", Thomas A. Dine, Journal of Cold War Studies Volume 6, Number 2, Spring 2004
  3. ^ Politics of Warfare, Stephen J. Cimbala, Penn State Press, 2004, ISBN 0271025921, 9780271025926


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