Ukraine stalemate shaping Asian geopolitics

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Ukraine stalemate shaping Asian geopolitics

Michael Green

The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

I have written about the ways the Ukraine War is shaping geopolitics in Asia. On the positive side, like-minded democracies including Korea have demonstrated solidarity in response to Putin’s aggression in Europe that could help deter other actors from considering similar attacks in Asia. On the negative side, the conflict in Ukraine has necessarily drawn finite American resources and attention to Europe at a time when the Biden administration was hoping to realize the pivot to the Indo-Pacific. The economic impact of the conflict on energy prices and food supplies has also been disruptive for the global economy.

At a recent gathering of the best and brightest strategic thinkers from Congress, the administration and think tanks I heard a broad consensus that the conflict — and its impact on Asia — will easily continue well into 2023. There is no doubt that Russia is suffering painful consequences from Putin’s aggression. Putin thought he could conquer all of Ukraine with 190,000 troops but since February he has lost 50,000 of those troops as casualties and another 20,000 who deserted or refused to fight. He is afraid to lose Russia’s middle class in Moscow and St. Petersburg by resorting to general mobilization and is instead recruiting poor peasants from ethnic minority areas and throwing them into combat as cannon fodder with only a minimal amount of training. He cannot replace his precision weapons because of China’s fear of U.S. sanctions and is therefore turning to Iran for drones —not exactly a hi-tech source of weaponry.

But if Putin’s forces are stressed, they are not yet spent. He cannot afford to lose and appears fixated on the hope that Europe will lose its resolve when energy shortages cause outages this coming winter. His calculation is almost certainly wrong: yes, European publics will punish their governments for energy shortages, but polls show they will also punish their governments for going soft on Russia. And in any case, not losing is a victory in its own way for Putin, since he seeks to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrate the costs of former Soviet states joining the West and continuous bombardment and combat does that for him.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is suffering almost as many casualties, though none of the desertions of the Russian military because Ukraine’s forces are so highly motivated. But President Zelensky is not about to agree to a cease fire that denies him the right to retake territory seized by Putin since February (Zelensky refuses to concede Russia’s occupation of Crimea since 2014 but has said that issue can be solved diplomatically at a later point). Nor is President Biden likely to pressure Zelensky to change his stance. Some European governments might be inclined to do so, but they do not have the necessary leverage since the United States and stalwart allies like Britain are the ones providing the real firepower to Ukraine right now.

That the most likely scenario for months to come is bloody stalemate and continuous hemorrhaging of the global economy and global order.

There are some things that could change that.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 26. [AP/YONHAP]

First, if Russian mothers begin protesting as they did in the Afghanistan invasion at the end of the Cold War, Putin would likely have to retreat. However, the United States has had a policy of not trying to destabilize Russia’s internal politics for decades and so this scenario would have to happen spontaneously.

Second, the U.S. could provide even more advanced weapons to Ukraine to raise the cost of the conflict to unacceptable levels to Putin. Some in Congress are calling for this escalation. These newer weapons would involve precision long-range strike systems that could hit logistics and staging areas even further behind the Russian lines. The U.S.-provided Himar rocket systems are already having a devastating effect on Russian forces, but not enough to stop their indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities and ports. The risk with longer range weapons systems is that they might tempt Putin to escalate by attacking NATO countries where weapons supplies are being staged for Ukraine. The Biden administration is divided, with more dovish officials deeply worried about a direct NATO-Russia conflict that could even go nuclear. Hawkish officials say Putin also wants to avoid that scenario so there is room to provide greater firepower. My guess is the administration will not go to the next level of weapons systems but that if they do, Putin would lose territory and be more inclined to sue for peace.

There are other wildcards. If Putin is backed into a corner, he might declare the eastern Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Luhask to be Russian territory and therefore defended by nuclear weapons. This would deter Ukraine for further efforts to retake lost territory and stabilize the front line in a way, but at the cost of a very dangerous precedent in terms of territorial aggrandizement and nuclear threats.

Putin also faces more internal risk than Zelensky. That may seem counter-intuitive since Putin has ruled with an iron fist for decades and Zelensky has a fairly new government that was struggling with governance challenges before February. But despite Putin’s autocratic control of Russian politics, there are major constituencies in Russia, including the middle class and many oligarchs, who see their own futures at threat because of the war. In contrast, Zelensky has strong support from the Ukrainian people — even ethnic Russians in Ukraine — and even without him in charge there are other leaders ready to pick up the mantle of defending Ukraine and continuing the fight. Putin’s leadership is therefore at greater risk. Recently Fiona Hill, the top Russia expert during the Trump administration who watched Putin up close, argued that Putin could be gone in the near future because of this war. Historically, the Czars of Russia who overextended their reach in wartime all fell. But this is not a scenario that can be seen as likely.

In the end, contingencies like these could halt the fighting, but we may all need to accept the reality that the conflict will continue.
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