Proxy War

A proxy war is a military conflict where neither nation directly fights the other. Instead they provide support to third parties who are opposed, essentially attacking their enemy's national interests rather than their enemy's territory.

This usually takes place in the context of a Space Cold War between superpowers that don't want to fight each other in the open (whether due to treaty obligations, fears of Mutually Assured Destruction, or other reasons such as simply not wanting to fight a full-scale war), but aren't afraid to get involved in smaller fights. No matter who wins, the real loser is often the proxies themselves: the big powers are mostly interested in achieving their goals of undermining each other and could care less for the damage done in-country.

A form of Realpolitik. Often factors into a Balance of Power, as it's an easy way for the major powers to shift the balance in their favor without exposing themselves to direct conflict.
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    Fan Works 
  • The War Of The Masters: By the end of season 2 the Moab Civil War develops into one between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, who have just recently signed a peace treaty after an inconclusive border war during which the Moab Confederacy seceded from the Federation and allied with the Klingons. In "The Silence Ends" Captain Tyria Sark compares this to a war one of her previous hosts fought in on Trill between the nations of Vella and Moash over Dalaran.
    Tyria: It didn't end well for anyone involved, the Dalarani least of all.

  • X-Wing: Starfighters of Adumar ends up in one of these, with Wedge Antilles backing one coalition on Adumar and the Imperial Remnant backing the other. Wedge's side wins because he teaches his side to fight in a more militarized fashion instead of the Proud Warrior Race stylings usually used by Adumari pilots.
  • Honor Harrington: Attempted several times by Haven early in the series.
    • In On Basilisk Station Havenite intelligence agents start arming the Iron Age Starfish Alien natives of Basilisk so that they'll attack the offworlder enclaves, thereby making it look like Manticore cannot govern the system properly and make their invasion of the Medusa system and slaughter of the native uprising seem like a rescue. All this to allow a two-pronged invasion of the Manticore system. Unfortunately their pet shaman attacks early, screwing up the plan and alerting Honor to the impending invasion.
    • The Second Grayson-Masadan War in The Honor of the Queen. Manticore and Haven are both trying to build alliances for the coming war. Manticore gets to Grayson first and gives them technical upgrades, while Haven has to settle for its Ax-Crazy sister planet Masada and gives them a modern battlecruiser and destroyer, which Masada uses in an attempted invasion of Grayson. The scheme backfires for Haven: the Masadans are so crazy they seize control of the battlecruiser from the Havenite military advisors and try to nuke Grayson cities. Honor destroys the ship and Manticore occupies Masada between books.
    • In The Short Victorious War Haven is mentioned to be backing the Zanzibar Liberation Front against the Manticore-allied Caliph of Zanzibar, mostly to use them as cover for raids on Manticoran convoys ahead of full-scale war.
  • RCN: Several of the first seven books' plots deal with attempts by Alliance proxies to overthrow the governments of pro-Cinnabar planets and having to be stopped by RCN forces under Daniel Leary. In one case it costs the RCN an entire battle group after Alliance-backed rebels gain control of anti-ship missile batteries defending a harbor. Defied in book eight and later: With Cinnabar and the Alliance having signed a peace treaty of mutual exhaustion and trying very hard to avoid a resumption of hostilities, Daniel's job is turned on its head, with him trying to prevent a Cinnabar client state from invading a pro-Alliance planet, and removing a Cinnabar citizen leading a rebellion on an Alliance planet to prove the Republic wasn't involved.
  • The conflict between Ellimist and Crayak in Animorphs. Because direct conflict between the two Sufficiently Advanced Aliens could potentially destroy the universe entirely and them along with it, they are forced to continue their war through mundane proxies such as the Animorphs and the Yeerks, respectively.
  • In Kris Longknife, the main conflict between the United Sentients (led by the Longknife family) and the Greenfeld Confederation (led by the Peterwald family) plays out (mostly) as a Space Cold War, usually with the Peterwalds using local proxies to destabilize a planet or mount a coup d'etat so it can be added to their empire, and Kris ending up in the middle of it while on-planet on ostensibly unrelated business and stopping them. It's explained a couple of times (notably by a Friendly Enemy Greenfeld captain in Intrepid) that both nations would rather avoid direct war because they're about evenly matched in size and technology, and therefore any such conflict would in all likelihood either become an unwinnable Forever War or end in a Mutual Kill, and likely would drag most of human space down with it. After a third party conspires with Greenfeld State Sec to provoke that war, the cold war defrosts: Greenfeld becomes too preoccupied with its internal conflicts to continue, and Kris and her opposite number Vicky Peterwald have become Fire-Forged Friends in the process.
  • In Second Foundation the First Foundation starts to become complacent with the idea that the Second Foundation won't let them fall, so the Second Foundation convinces a minor dictator with just enough strength to threaten the First to attack them.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Shadow-Vorlon conflict in Babylon 5 is one of these turned into a Forever War. The two Precursor races refuse to engage each other directly (apparently due to some arcane rules of war and because their Lensman Arms Race went too far), instead using the younger races as their proxies about every thousand years. This has lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. It began over an Order Versus Chaos disagreement in their approaches to how to guide the young races: the Vorlons thought orderly development and teaching was the way to help them grow, while the Shadows believed in fomenting conflict out of a Social Darwinist worldview. It finally ends in season 4 when Sheridan gets the young races to ally and demand both sides leave them all the hell alone.
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: Enterprise: The Temporal Cold War had a future version of the Federation opposed to the Na'kuhl and the Sphere Builders, each of whom backed various factions in the 22nd century with the goal of tampering with the timeline to either ensure the Federation would form or prevent it from forming.
    • Star Trek: The Original Series: "A Private Little War" has the Klingons supplying increasingly advanced firearms to one tribe of a primitive planet, to install them as a puppet leader of that world. Another tribe, one that Kirk had met years before, begins to demand similar weapons by the end, and Kirk begins arranging a Federation-aligned alliance of tribes to oppose the Klingon-controlled ones. He even references the brush wars of the 20th century as he does so.
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
      • "The Siege": This trope is critical to the climax. The Cardassians have covertly been supplying a Bajoran ultranationalist group called the Circle they hope will overthrow the Bajoran government and force the Federation out, allowing the Cardassians to reoccupy Bajor.
      • "The Maquis": In order to get around the peace treaty between the Federation and the Cardassian Empire, the Cardassians have secretly been supplying weapons to their colonists in the Demilitarized Zone so they can attack Federation colonies while the Central Command keeps Plausible Deniability. The Federation colonies organize militias to fight back when the Federation government won't, and are helped by sympathetic Starfleet officers.
  • Season two of Madam Secretary sees the United States briefly get into one with Russia over Ukraine. Moscow invades Ukraine, but the Air Force enforces a no-fly zone while Ukrainian ground forces aided by US advisors and intelligence stop the Russian Army cold. After this they reach a peace deal that grants major concessions to the Russians.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Forgotten Realms: The incessant Divine Conflicts between the hundred-plus deities in the setting usually play out as fights between their worshipers, from large-scale wars by the powerful cult of Bane that rules Zhentil Keep down to individual paladins and clerics. The gods taking the field themselves is a rare and usually cataclysmic occurrence.

    Video Games 
  • In Galactic Civilizations it's possible to manipulate other civilizations into making war on your behalf. In canon the Drath Legion (experts at this in game) paid the Korx to attack the Altarians in revenge for supposedly driving them off their homeworld millennia ago.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic: At the start of the game, the Treaty of Coruscant is still in effect, preventing the Republic and Empire from going after each other directly, but it doesn't stop them from fighting proxy wars in neutral territories.
  • Team Fortress 2: At first, the game's Excuse Plot consisted of mercenary teams hired by two brothers who hate each other, and are trying to achieve superiority over the other via complete ownership of a gravel pit. Later events changed the status quo as The Verse was further developed.
  • In Crusader Kings II it's possible to join wars of coreligionist rulers even if you aren't formally allied, a mechanic that can be used to wage proxy wars. For example, you could join a war against an ally of one of your enemies in order to remove them as a threat to your own interests, or back a revolt against a ruler you have a truce with.

  • In Drowtales the Sullisin'rune Clan and the ruling Sharen Imperial Family were doing this using the Sarghress and the Vloz'ress respectively, especially since after being beaten by the Sharen centuries ago the Sullisin'rune are officially at peace with them and support the Sarghress,who started as a mercenary band and eventually became a great clan, to get around this. The Sharen in turn sponsored the Vloz'ress, formerly a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits group of demon worshipers, to themselves becoming a great clan.

    Real Life 
  • The Cold War saw many of these between the United States and the Soviet Union. Usually one of them would be directly involved militarily in addition to propping up its chosen side, while the other would mostly hold back its troops and provide technical support.
    • The Korean War, between the primarily US-backed South Korea and the communist North, backed by the Soviets (provided advisers and some pilots) and China (drove the UN coalition out of North Korea).
    • The Vietnam War. The US, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand provided troops and advisers to the South Vietnamese dictatorship, while the Soviets and Chinese again provided advisers to North Vietnam. North Korea participated in the war by providing combat-ready forces to help the NVA.
    • The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was an inversion of the usual pattern. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to prop up a Moscow-friendly government against a tribal and Islamist rebellion, and were opposed by an American-led alliance that aided the mujahideen who became al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. Ironically, after 9/11 the Northern Alliance that the US aided in retaking the country from the Taliban was partly composed of The Remnant of the former pro-Soviet government.
    • During the Cold War, this was alleged of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: that this was a way for the West and the Russians to practically test the combat efficiency of their best kit without directly going to war with each other. Israel got American, British and French materiel; her Arab opponents got the best Russia had to offer. The after-combat reports furnished the opposing superpowers with the best possible information as to how well their equipment performed in combat, with no risk of World War III breaking out, and no American or Russian lives lost in the fighting.
    • Proxy wars between South Africa and their Soviet-backed neighbors were also treated in the same cynical way, with the South Africans receiving covert Western aid and the Angolan/Mozambique communist insurgents supplied with Soviet assistance via Cuba, a reliable third party.
  • The 2010s civil war in Ukraine is essentially a continuation of the Cold War. The Ukrainian government is loosely allied to NATO, while the eastern provinces are largely controlled by pro-Russian separatists who totally don't have the Russian Army helping them out.
  • The civil war in Yemen in the 2010s is one between Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals in the Middle East. This is to a large extent a sectarian war: the Sunni Saudis back the Yemeni government, which is mostly Sunni, while Shiite Iran backs Shiite Houthi rebels.
  • The 2010s Syrian civil war is a rather convoluted example of a proxy war, which could partially be seen as an extension of both the Iranian/Saudi and Russian/American rivalries. On one hand are the Syrian government loyalists (both the regular Syrian armed forces and allied militias), which are supported by Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. On the other hand are various different rebel factions (which are also fighting each other), some of which are supported by the Saudi-led GCC and US-led NATO coalitions. What makes it especially complicated is Daesh (also known as ISIS/ISIL), which everybody hates, but only the US considers them the top priority and has been trying for years to get the more moderate rebels and Sunni and NATO countries to concentrate on them (with mixed results).