Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine have come as a surprise to all, which quite likely includes President Vladimir Putin as well. This is surely not how he imagined his invasion to go, with Russian forces now back-pedalling from the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. It is difficult to imagine a power like Russia losing the war entirely but it is now in the realm of possibility. Some observations and implications follow from this.
Conventional war, unconventional outcome
First, if Russia loses—either by being ejected from all Ukrainian territory or through some peace agreement that favours Ukraine—it would represent a rare outcome in international politics. Great powers have frequently lost wars against weaker adversaries but these have usually been in guerrilla wars. In such wars, irregular forces use hit-and-run tactics to frustrate and foil much more powerful conventional forces, wearing down great powers that deploy them.
But rarely have smaller, weaker countries defeated stronger powers in a conventional war. When they do—as in the Six Day War when Israel defeated the combined Arab forces—such exploits become legendary. This is one reason why state power in international politics is measured by crude indicators of military equipment and personnel, and the wealth that underlies it. Though such indicators are not always useful in predicting outcomes, especially in the everyday business of international politics, they are expected to at least give us a fair sense of what might happen in a direct test of arms. And they usually do—with the exception of guerrilla war—which is one reason why such measures of strength are used despite their limitations.
Sure, Ukraine has received huge quantities of arms from the US and Europe. Ukrainian victories may not have been possible without these. But equally, Ukrainian determination, skill and sacrifice were necessary for its spectacular performance, aided by Russian incompetence. Western arms are not the only variable here. So, if Ukraine does win, it will still remain an unusual outcome in international politics.
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Powerful Russia, slightly weakened
Second, regardless of the type or extent of Russian defeat, one thing is for sure: it will likely be a temporary setback for Moscow. Russia can recover from a defeat in Ukraine. A large country with considerable natural resources and population is a natural candidate for great powerness, assuming it has the leadership that can convert this potential to reality. This has been another constant in international politics: potential power is not actual power.
India has the potential, for example, but converting it into actual power has eluded Indian leaders since independence. Brazil has an even longer history as a potential great power, which suggests that converting potential into power is easier said than done. Russia could wallow as a potential power for a long time, joining its other BRICS partners with the obvious exception of China. For Indian foreign policy, a weakened Russia is a mixed bag: it is likely to be more beholden to Beijing, but its support to China in the Indo-Pacific and on other issues would matter less.
Power imbalance pips domestic ideology
A third implication is regarding the long debate about American ‘liberal hegemony’, with a number of American ‘realists’ castigating the US for its aggressive foreign policy. They are not wrong about Washington’s expansive, global definition of its self-interest and its ideological promotion of liberal values. What is puzzling is that they are puzzled by this: Realists should know that great powers seek to dominate, and they promote their own ideology to grease the wheels of hegemony.
What is equally puzzling is that they would identify liberalism as particularly aggressive. Liberal democracies are not immune from aggressive behavior but aggressiveness is not limited to liberal democracies either. As Russian behavior demonstrates, states that are stronger seek to dominate others, especially in their neighbourhood. Power imbalance is the problem, not the ideology of the domestic regime. The implications for Asia should be clear.
Also read: Defender to attacker: Ukraine’s counterattacks in Kherson, Balakliya herald new phase in war
Aggression begets aggression, Putin misread
A fourth point to keep in mind is that aggressive behavior will make those threatened to react and respond, most likely aggressively. Other powers will not be concerned about justifications of behavior or justice but only the consequences. They will seek to counter any accretion of power by other powers, unless such accretion is beneficial to themselves. So, the US reaction to both the Russian invasion of Ukraine and to China’s aggression is understandable. As Moscow and Beijing come together to oppose the US, it is foolish not to expect the latter to respond and counter both, especially when they make such obvious mistakes and make themselves vulnerable as Putin did. Putin’s invasion was foolish but Joe Biden would have been equally foolish not to exploit the opportunity. Helping Ukraine and undermining Russia may not take Moscow off the board but wounds it sufficiently to allow the US to pay greater attention to China.
Equally, the logic of power suggests that a Russia-China partnership was inevitable. What reasons could they have, under the circumstances of the contemporary balance of power, not to come together? Yes, as neighbours, they are a threat to each other but states prioritise threats and cooperate against the greater, more pressing danger. This might eventually change but for the foreseeable future, New Delhi has to assume this will be a strong partnership.
But India’s bet seems to be that Russian-Chinese cooperation will be limited to countering the US and will not harm India. Neither logic nor history provides any such comfort. Logically, countering the US would be a more pressing task, one that Moscow won’t abandon to help India. Think of the 1962 India-China war, when Moscow abandoned India for China’s support in the Cuban missile crisis. It was Jawaharlal Nehru’s strategy that mistakenly expected Russian support, not Moscow’s understandable self-interested behavior.
Though the battleground results are indeed surprising, the crisis overall reinforces a basic principle of international politics. Imbalances of power matter and states have to respect that or pay the price. Putin was foolish in expecting that the West would not respond to his aggression. Now his mistake is going to cost Russia considerably. As for the mistake in misreading the balance of power, Putin alone is responsible.
The author is a professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)