Roundtable in Asia Policy 18.2
Regional Responses to the Russia-Ukraine War
What Lessons Have Been Learned?
The essays in this roundtable examine the relevance of the Russia-Ukraine war to other regions outside the war zone, assess the responses of countries in these regions to the war, and explore the lessons they have learned from the conflict so far.
The Ukraine War and Northeast Asia
Michael J. Green
Central Asia’s Balancing Act
Europe Reinvents Its Security System—for the Short Term
Pavel K. Baev
The Russia-Ukraine War and the Impact on the Persian Gulf States
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Faraway War: Effects of the Ukraine War on South Asian Security Thinking
Southeast Asian States Have Their Own Views on the Ukraine War
U.S. Lessons from Russia’s War on Ukraine
Matthew Kroenig and Clementine G. Starling
After eight years of simmering conflict, Russia undertook a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022—an event that sent geopolitical shockwaves around the world. Beyond the immediate impact on how policy and military planners strategize about European security, the invasion has had wider implications for thinking about the stability of the international order and existing security arrangements, norms of sovereignty, the intertwined nature of security and economics, major-power relations, and the management and conduct of war. In this context, this Asia Policy roundtable examines the relevance of the Russia-Ukraine war to other regions outside the war zone, assesses the responses of countries in these regions to the war, and explores the lessons they have learned from the conflict so far. Notably, a clear line can be drawn between the northern regions, where the war has prompted close attention and strong reactions, and the southern regions, which have tended to view the war as a less pressing concern.
The roundtable opens with Michael Green’s analysis of Northeast Asia, focusing on Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. He argues that, for Northeast Asian governments, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that traditional national security toolkits really do matter and precisely which tools are most effective on the battlefield,” and that these governments are applying these lessons to their defense procurement, planning, and policies, even if the timelines for actualizing capabilities are still over the horizon. Japan and Taiwan, which draw parallels between Russia’s invasion and imagined future actions by China, have come out the strongest in support of Ukraine and the Western-led coalition backing Kyiv. Both have also stepped up plans for stronger national defenses and counterstrike capabilities. South Korea has ended its strategic ambiguity by clearly favoring the U.S. position on the conflict, albeit cautiously to mitigate any hostile response by China or Russia. And China, where all Northeast Asia’s attention is focused, has chosen to align more closely, at least diplomatically, with Russia rather than remain neutral or reassure other states in the international system. As a result, the geopolitical divide in Northeast Asia between China and U.S. allies is only set to grow.
In Central Asia, Nargis Kassenova assesses that the Russia-Ukraine war is also highly destabilizing. As part of Russia’s “near abroad,” Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an existential threat because it “undermines the founding principles of the post-Soviet security and political order—the mutual recognition of each other’s sovereignty and the existing borders at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.” Kazakhstan, which shares a border with Russia and has sometimes been identified as “historical Russia,” sees its sovereignty and national livelihood as particularly at risk. The Central Asian states, especially Kazakhstan, are thus forced to perform a delicate tightrope act as they attempt to deepen foreign and economic relations with other states, such as China, the United States, and Turkey, while not offending or alienating Russia, their powerful neighbor and historical supporter. Whether the Central Asian states can demonstrate unity and resilience in this regional balancing act remains to be seen.
Along with Central Asia, Europe most directly feels the repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine war. Pavel Baev argues that the invasion united Europe in a way that nothing else had:
- Although Russia…hoped to create confusion and discord among its neighbors, the European Union has risen to the challenge, recognizing the invasion of Ukraine as a direct threat to the security of all stakeholders in regional peace. The immediacy of this threat has brought together Europe’s interest-based and value-based policies and focused them on the common goal of ending the war with a just peace, ensured by resolve to increase investments in collective security.
As united as it is now in its support for Ukraine, however, Europe will need to manage several thorny problems as it re-evaluates EU and NATO collective security over the longer term. These include adapting to a declining U.S. leadership role in the continent’s security affairs; integrating (or not) the special case of Turkey, which walks a fine line between its NATO allies and Russia; and managing long-term support for Ukraine. But thorniest of all, Baev argues, will be the question of how to deal with rebuilding relations with a defeated Russia and reintegrating the country into the continent’s—and the world’s—future order.
Moving south, the Persian Gulf states (Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen) have benefited from the resurgence of interest in the region as an energy supplier and found navigating the complexity of major-power dynamics more complicated than ever. Yet, as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen notes, “none of the Arab Gulf states…have formally picked sides in the Russia-Ukraine war. As with much of the global South, it has become clear that states across the Middle East do not feel that Ukraine is ‘their war.’ ” That said, these states are taking away lessons from the war, particularly the need to balance competing relationships and avoid choosing sides in confrontations between external powers. States in the Persian Gulf are also paying close attention to how developments in the Russia-Ukraine war, such as the experience Iran gains from supplying drones to Russia, could come back to haunt them in their own neighborhood with its history of rivalries and conflicts.
In South Asia, the war has resulted in both increased economic pressure on scarce commodities, such as energy and food, and increased diplomatic pressure to take sides. Rajesh Rajagopalan explains that “while several South Asian states have felt the knock-on effects of the Russian invasion, especially on their already struggling economies, it is unclear that security planners in the region see any clear lessons to be drawn from the war.” India, he notes, is the exception. The country has gained valuable information on planning and managing war and on self-sufficiency that it could usefully apply in potential armed conflicts with Pakistan or China. For India, however, the biggest consequence of the war might be the more bifurcated international security order that pits the West and its allies on one side and Russia and China on the other. This is a divide that will be “difficult for India to bridge entirely.”
In Southeast Asia, rising pressure to take sides in the international order has also been a consequence of the war. Jeffery Reeves observes that “just as Southeast Asia has emerged as the center of gravity for the countries of the global West’s respective Indo-Pacific strategies, so too has the region become a priority area for Western diplomacy on the Russia-Ukraine war.” On the whole, however, Southeast Asian states are less interested in the war than are other regions, nor do they want to align with any one side. The reasons for this disinterest, and its degree, vary between countries. Singapore and the Philippines are more supportive of the Western position on Ukraine, whereas Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand are less inclined to buy into Western narratives of Russian aggression or limit economic ties with Russia. As Reeves notes, Southeast Asian states have been relatively successful so far in remaining detached and resisting pressure to take the West’s side, which “speaks to their growing agency as strategic actors.” Instead, most regional states have “actively developed alternative narratives that are more in line with their own foreign policy and security interests.”
Looking at the United States, Matthew Kroenig and Clementine Starling argue that while the war is a tragedy, it has also been “a laboratory for understanding the future of warfare,” with important lessons for policymakers and military planners in Washington. The need for a strategy to manage the “two peer challenger” problem—one that is “designed to deter and, if necessary, defeat, Russia and China at the same time”—is at the crux of security matters facing the United States and its network of allies and partners. Kroenig and Starling propose a series of recommendations on how the United States can adapt and strengthen its military defenses, spending, armament capabilities, nuclear posture, and cooperation with allies and partners to respond to the new strategic environment in which it finds itself.
Taken together, the essays in this roundtable deepen understanding of how countries in Asia and beyond are responding to the Russia-Ukraine war, reinforcing the aphorism that “where you stand is where you sit.” In examining how regions outside the war zone perceive the war and what lessons they have drawn from the first year of conflict, we can better see how the war is further dividing the international order.
Michael J. Green is the Chief Executive Officer at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney (Australia). He is also a Nonresident Senior Adviser and the Kissinger Chair with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a Distinguished Scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo.
Nargis Kassenova is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on Central Asia at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University (United States) and an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and Regional Studies of KIMEP University in Almaty (Kazakhstan).
Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Norway). He is also a Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Research Associate at the French International Affairs Institute (IFRI).
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy (United States).
Rajesh Rajagopalan is a Professor in International Politics in the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (India).
Jeffrey Reeves was formerly vice president for research and strategy at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (Canada).
Matthew Kroenig is the Vice President and Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a tenured Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University (United States).
Clementine G. Starling is the Director of the Forward Defense Program in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security as well as a Resident Fellow at the Scowcroft Center (United States).
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