The ongoing war in Ukraine is poised to be one of the most significant history-changing events in the turn of the new century, triggering an unprecedented wave of sanctions and unified almost the entire global order in effectively turning Moscow into the most sanctioned state by far. This enormous turn of event in one of the most hard-hitting economic wars waged by the West and adhered to by almost the whole of the international community ranging from total withdrawal of business ties to ending of trade relations provide an uncharted path of geopolitical maneuvering ahead.
The different ball game following the systemic fall-out and the surprising stall in the all-out affront by the Kremlin in besieging Ukraine provide new challenges to the calculated steps and responses by the regional and global communities, juggling between having to show a solidified front in defending global norms and order and in upholding the sanctity of the democratic front and liberal freedom, and the need to be meticulous in not crossing the red line that could trigger an escalatory path to an expansionary conflict with bigger implications and reigniting the terrifying risks and wariness of past events during the Cold War.
In navigating through the twists and turns, the one aspect that never fails to provide surprises is the eventual fallback to conventional methods of managing conflicts and in securing the immediate and ultimate interests of one’s own long-term affairs of the state, with strategic calculations played out in threading the complex path of the Ukrainian fallout.
The stark old realities of international political maneuvering and gameplay are on full display in the Ukrainian high intensity conflict. This fall-out signals the official return to state led traditional threats with the interests of state superseding all other considerations. President Putin has long been earmarked as the aggressor and symbolic face of the autocratic front and assertive nature of global politics, in the same league as President Xi and others with the nucleus of global politics once again being shaped by the return to state competition for power and purpose. The US and the West have been singled out as the prime instigators in this conflict, goading the Kremlin to the all-out affront and upping the ante in securing hidden interests and purposes.
Putin has been playing a long and calculated strategic plan in reviving and securing these interests, deemed by himself as non-negotiable. Timing and window of opportunities remain one of the prime strategic chessboard maneuverings. In the decisive path leading towards the full steam incursion, various parameters will need to be assessed by Putin and his elite advisors. Previous moves in Georgia and Crimea were executed where the US Presidencies at those periods were deemed incapable of mounting a serious enough response that could upset the balance of reward and returns.
This latest saga is not entirely reckless in nature by Putin, having seized the right opportune moment where he sees the cracks in NATO and the disunity of the Western front in responding decisively and effectively. He is further emboldened by the perceived American weakness and decline, underscored by the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the weakness of Biden in coming up with solid deterrence measures.
Quarters have also highlighted the revival of American strength under Trump where his Peace through Strength mantra has been flagged as the forceful deterrence against furthering Putin’s intentions. The timing now is apt, with years of strategic patience since the Crimean annexation and in analyzing the reactions and policies of the West and US in the aftermath of the Minsk Agreement whether the continuous Eastern push by NATO and the arming of Ukraine will be continued. Not only does it not abate, but the moves against Moscow were also seen as gaining further intensity and momentum, with the push for NATO membership and the hidden hands in the internal politics of Kiev in entrapping Ukraine under Western control justify urgent moves by the Kremlin, further supported by other external parameters. Rapid measures need to be taken now to prevent the swift fall of Kiev to Western spheres and in sensing that the openings and the returns still outweigh the fall-out and risks of unpredictable responses.
China is following the retaliatory measures undertaken by the West and especially Washington closely, needing the assessments of the limits and types of measures Washington is willing to put forth in estimating the potential backlash and responses incurred should Beijing initiate a similar move in Taiwan. Policymakers in Beijing do realize that it is entirely a different ball game with Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific in terms of the extent and sacrifices the West is willing to stake out, with different stakes at play.
Taiwan certainly feels the jitters when the tanks rolled in into Ukraine, with wariness and anxiety of facing the similar fate in the near future by the same move orchestrated by President Xi, with initial skyrocketing fears of Beijing trying to take the advantage at hand by executing the grand chess play of moving into Taiwan at the same time. Analysts and policymakers in Taipei and beyond do take heart that those fears are allayed, at least in the near term, by unwavering American assurance, deterrence and focus in not jeopardizing its ultimate priority, which very much remains containing China and strengthening its laser focus in the region.
While in initial stages Washington is keen and careful not to overstep the red line and in escalating the Ukrainian conflict by sending in jets and other offensive weapons notwithstanding the desperate pleas by Zelensky, the newfound confidence now in rolling back previous limitations risks further erratic counter actions from Putin. To what extent he could digest and accept the escalatory push by Washington and NATO in clouding his judgment remains to be seen. While analysts have been quick to dismiss his nuclear threat as a mere enhancement of bargaining chip, unforeseen miscalculations in pre-emptive understanding and action reading will push the spectrum to a new unknown territory.
Japan remains wary of the threat by Moscow, with a long-complicated history of ties and with existing overlapping territorial claims and continues to adhere to Western led global front in the condemnation and sanctions against the Kremlin, careful not to ruin its dependence on Washington and the Quad in halting the Chinese and North Korean threats. India remains trapped between a rock and a hard place, juggling between long-term risk-benefit calculations in responding to Western and global calls for sanctions and bans on the Kremlin.
In maintaining its strategic independence started by then President Manmohan, New Delhi remains steadfast in its strategic maneuvering in continuing its long held and deep rooted ties with Moscow stretching back to the Cold War era and in maintaining the ever vital defense link with its heavy reliance on Russian weapons and systems, amounting to more than 70% of total Indian defense spectrum. While clearly disappointed with India’s stand on the issue, Washington and Quad do realize the strategic importance of New Delhi in lending its weight on the structure built to focus on the larger actor at play, China.
Notwithstanding initial awkwardness in being the sole major democratic player in the world and in Quad in not following the push in punishing Putin, Indian policymakers remain confident that the long-term strategic securing of India’s interests and security remain protected with continuous and uninterrupted supply chain of critical defense reinforcements from Moscow and in galvanizing present support from Quad in deterring threats and risks from Beijing. The polarizing response remains similar in ASEAN member states, with a majority of states remaining heavily dependent on Moscow’s support for defense and security as underscored by Moscow being the largest defense partner and supplier for ASEAN from 2000 to 2019 amounting to more than USD 10 billion. Careful and meticulous stands on the issue are drafted in avoiding immediate fall-out and risks to the co-dependency, something which Singapore is not part of with its most vocal stand in the region in not only joining the global bandwagon in the sanctions and condemnation of the Kremlin, but also initiating further sanctions on its own. This early and forceful stand is well expected, with the republic weary of facing similar fate and together with Taiwan, remain at the mercy of great powers in wielding their interests through forceful means in the realm of power politics and might-is-right mantra. Early decisive stand as such remains pivotal in highlighting Singapore’s concern.
The realm of geopolitical maneuvering remains highly volatile and risky, where the Ukrainian conflict further proving to be the eye-opener for states, especially the vulnerable ones, to up the ante in securing their interests and security, thus further creating the vicious cycle of the arms race and the never-ending security dilemma. Already, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has initiated the monumental leap of enhancing readiness and resilience by the target increase of up to 80,000 strong force by 2040, further bolstering defensive capacities. Even without escalatory events and risky maneuvers, states in the region and beyond will be compelled to increase defensive capabilities and triggering the inevitable shift to enhancing security and defense sectors in the quest for survival and in winning the new great power competition.
The depth of energy dependency on Moscow, especially by Europe and the US has not been any more significant, although a bigger number of states who are ready to ditch this dependency and so is the rest of the other global players both in energy and critical defense support. Putin realizes that any tit for tat measures against Moscow will be confined to calculative actions by the West, with the West not being able to tolerate the high risks and chain impact on their internal economic damage with the already escalating inflationary squeeze. Additional confidence settings include perceived resilient internal capacity with high international reserves and the subsequent free flow of energy export with higher prices in funding the military operations.
Hopes are pinned on big powers that hugely depend on Moscow’s military and security support to not be swayed by the Western led international condemnation, isolation and sanctions to avoid total global solidarity in making Russia a pariah state as a result of this action. Not all goes according to Putin’s plan however, with the slower than anticipated onslaught and inroads gained after months of invasion laying bare the weak and poorly coordinated offensive capacities and capabilities of Moscow in a full scale high intensity operation.
The most recent involvement of the Russians in similar war settings was the Syrian debacle almost a decade ago, being confined largely to air power projection and the utilization of special forces unlike the massive logistical and sustaining planning needed for the Ukraine invasion. Ukraine, being the second largest state in Europe, certainly defies expectations of the Kremlin in putting up higher resistance in the early days and in forcing Putin to up the ante and getting the cards and the chips in the negotiations with Kiev with his recent call to bolster his nuclear force readiness.
This also sends a message to the US and the West that Moscow will not bow to the perceived hypocritical and assertive push by the US and in reminding them that for all the focus on China’s ascension for the past decades, Russia remains the ever capable and dominant leader of the resistant front to Western dominance. Lagging in global solidarity and Western unity in their response to the Kremlin in the early days, now the momentum has slightly shifted to the West in the effectiveness and intensity of their punitive measures.
Putin’s readiness to absorb the short- and medium-term damage and impact on Moscow’s international legitimacy and soft power standing provides the understanding that he can still count on his bankable allies, although they are not officially in tandem and in agreement with his war against Kiev, knowing well that his grip on their economic and security lifelines has not been stronger.
Although he will eventually win the stakes at play in Ukraine, the domino fall-out will not be in his realm of calculations and he will soon face the same dilemma the Americans faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, in winning the hearts and minds of the locals and capturing the staying power and relevance in securing the long-term interests in the targeted state. For Ukraine, it is easier said than done that the people will fully accept the push to be engulfed in either Moscow’s or Washington’s or Brussel’s sphere of dominance and influence whether through the installation of a puppet regime or a downright annexation.
The game might still largely be determined by the volume of missiles and mortars fired and the number of tanks in action, but the eventual long-term stability and trust will only be won by a clear and open communication of purpose and sanctity of values and reasons with respect and adherence to basic established norms and ethics. For in lacking these fundamental foundation traits for the future, it risks becoming another Chechnya or a deja-vu return to the nerve-wracking high-risk stakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis that could threaten irreversible damage.
The slim hope for de-escalation still persists, albeit only possible with greater willingness to shed some conventional pride and norms and in increasing readiness to shoulder higher responsibilities and sacrifices. While the goal and the game remain the same in safeguarding interests and projecting power and influence through as much diplomatic and dependency measures designed, the gap and the grip will still be determined by the forces of hard power and the projection of artilleries and arsenals in a show of force, deterrence measures and mutually assured destructions which herald a risky path ahead, unless the riddle and paradox of the security dilemma and the theoretical realities of the realist stand of global politics are strategically tamed, for now.
*Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.