The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now fully underway. There is little question that this represents a serious setback to the US and Western strategy, in addition to the human and political catastrophe facing Ukraine itself. Even more seriously, this has implications for the Indo-Pacific because many elements of the US strategy on Ukraine are similar and thus will likely fare no better against China.
The American and European strategy has been to seek to reassure Russia in the belief that it was Russian insecurity that was driving its behaviour. This is also the tone of a lot of Indian commentary on the subject. But whether it is insecurity that is driving Russia needs a sincere examination.
Reading Russia wrong
Irredentism appears to be a more serious driver for Russian President Vladimir Putin than insecurity. This matters because if it is so, then the response has to be different. Irredentism is not something that can be satisfied with any compromise short of surrendering to such demands. It can only be defeated, not compromised with. Mistaking irredentism for insecurity is potentially problematic because it leads to appeasement — not in the pejorative sense but as deliberate and viable strategy—that may tempt powers such as Russia to fulfil their desire by force.
This could very well be the case in Ukraine. The US and its NATO partners appear to have adopted a reassurance strategy, putting off Ukraine’s plea for NATO membership and refusing to help shore up its defences. They thought it was a way of reassuring Putin that the West took his concerns about Russian security seriously. On the contrary, this may have led him to see an opportunity to satisfy his irredentist objectives. Add this to an uncertain Western commitment to Ukraine’s defence, repeated Western efforts to help negotiate a settlement satisfactory to Putin—including Macron’s ridiculous six-hour haranguing of Putin—may have convinced the Russian President that he could expect a quick victory without the West responding too severely. The West mistaking irredentism for insecurity may have inadvertently created an incentive for the Russian invasion.
But there are two problems with the above analysis.
One is figuring out whether it was irredentism or insecurity. For example, Pakistan’s demands for Kashmir is an irredentist demand, but it also senses insecurity from a much larger and more powerful India. Irredentism and insecurity make a potent mix, but India’s superior power means that Pakistan has not been able to satisfy its goal despite repeated efforts, making the country progressively more insecure. In Ukraine’s case, though one cannot be certain until the dust settles, irredentism is clearly an important factor. Putin’s refusal to accept Western efforts as reassurance suggests that insecurity was a less important factor. If Putin decides to hold on to the whole or a substantial portion of Ukraine, claiming historical reasons, then the evidence will be clearer.
A second problem is when great powers define security so broadly that it impinges on others’ security substantially.
This is not unusual: commentators in the US have repeatedly railed against US perceptions of insecurity despite being the world’s most powerful State. But it becomes a problem in tight geopolitical settings such as Europe, where Russian demands for security appear to require sacrificing far more than either the US or Europe—leave alone the smaller States in Central Europe—are willing to grant. There is no right or wrong here: Russia deserves security, but so do others, including smaller States. Problem is that there is not enough security to go around for everybody. Russia can impose its will by force today, but there should be little surprise if others respond likewise. This problem is called the ‘security dilemma’ — very familiar to students of international politics — is likely to lead to further spiral of insecurity all around.
To make matters even more complicated, insecurity may also potentially be tied not so much to national insecurity as to regime insecurity. Putin’s insecurity about Ukraine, in other words, appears to be concerned not so much about any physical threat to Russia as much as to the potential success of democracy next door and the demonstration effect this has on his own brutal regime’s control over Russia.
All of the above also applies to the Indo-Pacific and specifically, Taiwan: irredentism mixed with national and regime insecurity. It’s clear that trying to appease countries such as Russia and China, on issues they appear to be determined—such as Ukraine and Taiwan—will not work. If the US and its allies and partners want to protect such countries from an inevitable assault, they may have to get directly involved. Nothing that the West did to comfort Moscow about Ukraine’s status made any difference. In hindsight, NATO membership may have prevented this avoidable tragedy because it is unlikely that Putin would want to tangle with NATO itself. The argument prior to the Ukraine invasion was that this would have made Russia more insecure and driven it into Beijing’s embrace. But clearly, nothing that the West did or could have done would have assuaged Putin’s insecurity.
This bodes badly for Taiwan because the US and allied strategy towards the Indo-Pacific shares common elements with the failed strategy towards Russia. It is focused partly on reassuring China about Taiwan as well as about regime security, with the US emphasising in its recent Indo-Pacific Strategy that it is not seeking to challenge the Chinese communist regime. Reassurance on Taiwan includes both limiting US contacts with the island State as well as limiting Taiwan’s defense capabilities. Geography makes a difference: China is unlikely to be able to carry out an amphibious attack operation in the next couple of years, but it is unclear how long this obstacle may last. Leaving Taiwan dangling may be inviting an attack, whose consequences may be even more serious than what is happening to Ukraine.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)