Home Opinion Putin’s Ukraine misadventure will undermine Moscow’s Asian ambitions

Putin’s Ukraine misadventure will undermine Moscow’s Asian ambitions

Asia hoped that Russia could be a valuable ‘third force’ for a region that was being sandwiched between America and China. But in aligning with China, pursuing an impossible sphere of influence in Central Europe, and launching a costly but failed invasion of a brother nation in Europe, Putin has further marginalised his country in Asia

by News Desk
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is not joining the “season of summits” in Asia, but the consequences of his faltering aggression against Ukraine are bound to reshape Asian geopolitics. While the calls for peace talks to end the Ukraine war have grown and the upcoming harsh winter in the European steppe has increased the prospects for a frozen conflict, Ukraine’s continuing gains on the battlefield are reducing the incentive for early Western concessions.

Moscow retreated last week from Kherson, which it recently proclaimed as an integral part of Russia. This withdrawal from the only regional capital it had seized in the last eight months weakens Russia’s hand in any peace negotiations with Ukraine and the US. As Moscow goes on the backfoot, expect Kyiv and the West to intensify pressure on it. If and when the negotiations do begin, expect the Western terms for peace with Putin to be rather hard. Meanwhile, Putin’s Ukraine gamble is producing at least five major consequences for Asia.

First, Russia’s misadventure will have an important bearing on the triangular dynamic between Moscow, Beijing and Washington. It might be recalled that US President Joe Biden, who has sought to focus on the China challenge since the beginning of his term, met Putin in Geneva in June 2021 to explore the prospects of a reasonable bilateral relationship.

But Putin chose to go with Xi Jinping. Days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin and Xi announced a partnership with “no limits” and “no forbidden areas”. Underlying the new alliance was a shared interest in countering the US and the West. If Russia had gained control over Ukraine in the last eight months, it would have enormously strengthened the hands of Putin and Xi in dealing with the US. But Putin’s looming failure in Ukraine gives Biden the upper hand in dealing with Xi.

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On the strategic front, realists in China will fear that a weakened Putin will embolden Washington to turn up the heat against Xi. On the tactical front, the unexpected good showing of the Democratic Party in the midterm elections will compel Xi to show some respect, if grudgingly, to Biden. The immediate compulsions on Xi to stabilise the US relationship can only grow in the near term. That, in turn, will strengthen Biden’s hand against Russia.

Second, Putin and Xi were not alone in betting that “America’s decline was terminal’’ and “China’s rise was inexorable”. Many in Asia had bought into the Russian and Chinese propaganda about the “new power of the East” and the “pathetic dysfunction in the West”. This rhetoric on Western decline was reinforced by the chaotic withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan last August.

It now appears that Asia will have to wait a while before the US really declines. Thanks to the great courage of the Ukrainians in defending their motherland, Asia must face up to the fact that the US might be winning the most significant conflict in Europe since World War II without getting its own hands dirty.

Asia also has to come to terms with the fact that the US is not doing too badly on the economic front while China’s growth is slowing down. The recent conventional wisdom that China would inevitably dominate Asia and the US will have no option but to retreat from the region will now have to be discounted as Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy makes steady progress.

Third, Putin’s unwise threat that Russia might use nuclear weapons in Ukraine has had a powerful impact on Asia. Although the threat might turn out to be hollow, its security implications in Asia will linger. The fear that a nuclear power might seize the territory of its neighbours and brandish the nuclear sword to hold onto the illegal occupation has sent a shiver down the spine of China’s neighbours.

Some are beginning to strengthen their military capabilities and boost their deterrence against the Chinese threat. In Japan, which is at the receiving end of China’s bullying in the disputed territories of the East China Sea, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called for a doubling of defence spending in the next five years and to build a significant offensive missile arsenal.

China could certainly slow down the militarisation and the potential nuclearisation of its periphery by being nice to its neighbours. But, there is nothing so far to suggest that Xi is considering such a policy. Many in India have long hoped that pressure from the US will make Beijing seek a compromise with Delhi. But having raised the nationalist pitch at home Xi might find it harder to pipe down. He might find it easier to make concessions to America than to Japan or India.

Fourth, a long-term consequence of Putin’s war in Ukraine is the growing integration of European and Asian strategic theatres, long viewed as distinct. The US National Security Strategy issued last month articulates the case for US allies and partners in Europe and Asia helping each other out in dealing with the respective challenges of Russia and China.

The NATO summit in Madrid this year saw the participation, for the first time, of leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Even as they confront the Russian challenge at home, European leaders are beginning to recalibrate their traditional Asia strategies that were centred on China. The need to reduce the economic dependence on China and contribute to Asian security are ideas that are beginning to seep down European policymaking.

Finally, Putin’s war on Ukraine will inevitably diminish Russia on the Asian stage. Even at the peak of Soviet power, Russian salience in Asia was limited. Once Mao’s China joined hands with the US, Russia was out of the Asian geopolitical core. After the Cold War though, Asia was eager to draw Moscow into the regional architecture. The ASEAN invited Russia to join the East Asia Summit. Japan’s late Shinzo Abe made a special effort to encourage Russia to play an independent role in Asian geopolitics.

Asia hoped that Russia could be a valuable “third force” for a region that was being sandwiched between America and China. But in aligning with China, pursuing an impossible sphere of influence in Central Europe, and launching a costly but failed invasion of a brother nation in Europe, Putin has further marginalised Russia in Asia.

 C. Raja Mohan 

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