Michael Kugelman: War in Ukraine: Implications for FOIP, the Quad, & South Asia

An Interview with Michael Kugelman

“One of the likely geopolitical outcomes from the Ukraine crisis is that the relationship between Russia and China will get even stronger, just because Russia will likely become more dependent on China for economic support, given that it has become a global pariah. China could enjoy more leverage over Russia, and that could conceivably prompt China to pressure Russia to scale up its presence in the Indo-Pacific.”

War in Ukraine: Implications for FOIP, the Quad, & South Asia

How have US allies and partners in South Asia responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? How do countries throughout that region perceive the likelihood of a similar conflict in Asia, and to what extent are nations in the region prepared to respond to such a conflict?

Responses within South Asia to the invasion of Ukraine have been quite striking for their muted nature. Half of them abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has friends in the region and few enemies. We know about the very deep relationship between India and Russia, but other countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, all have varying degrees of friendships with Russia going back some time. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are countries where Russia has very quietly made some notable economic investments in the past, particularly in the energy industry in the case of Bangladesh. In that sense, it’s not that surprising that some countries in South Asia did not want to take the side of the United States and the other Western countries and support the UN resolution condemning the invasion.

The possibility of a similar conflict in Asia would presumably involve China and Taiwan. India, which views China as its biggest strategic rival, would certainly be concerned, but for India, I think the biggest concerns revolve around what China might do closer to home. There was an unusually deadly exchange along the India-China border several years ago, so India is concerned about increased provocations. India would not be in a position or have the capacity to deter a conflict involving China in the South China Sea—that would certainly fall to the likes of the United States and some of the U.S treaty partners in East Asia.

Why hasn’t India explicitly condemned the war in Ukraine, and what is behind its abstention in the UNSC vote? What do you perceive as driving the strategic calculations behind India’s neutrality, and can you discuss some of the challenges of juggling its relationships with Russia, the U.S and China?

There are three main reasons why India has taken the position it has on the invasion of Ukraine. India has had a heavy dependence on Russian arms for quite some time. For decades, Russia has been India’s top arms supplier, which is particularly important, given the perceived “double threat” posed by China and Pakistan. India does not want to risk alienating its arms relationship with Russia, by condemning the invasion, or by condemning Russia.

We also must keep India’s broader relationship with Russia in mind. During the Cold War, India was officially unaligned, but it did have a treaty of friendship signed with the Soviet Union. India believes that Russia has been its most dependable, consistent, low maintenance partner, and believes Russia has gone out of its way to help India on the world stage, especially through its voting pattern at the UN, where it has voted on resolutions related to Kashmir.

India has a policy of strategic autonomy, which is a modern form of non-alignment. India wants to maintain as much independence and flexibility as possible in its foreign policy. For India to have that flexibility and independence, in its view, it needs to be careful not to align itself with large blocs, large groups, or put itself in certain camps, particularly when it comes to the major powers. In this case, even though this is a cold-blooded invasion, India is unwilling to align itself with those that have condemned that invasion.

This has always been India’s policy. India has never condemned Russia by name when these aggressions take place. This policy is not new but certainly, I think it’s more concerning today, because this aggression was particularly egregious. Meanwhile, India’s relations with the U.S and many other countries in the West and the QUAD have all strengthened significantly. I think the U.S-led alliance hoped India would take a different, stronger stand against Russia. The United States and the countries that have been the most vociferous opponents of this invasion have framed the response as something that needs to be done by the world’s democracies. Democracies must come together to confront Russia and do whatever is possible to end the conflict and India, of course, is the world’s largest democracy.

Has the war in Ukraine created new, or intensified existing economic and security challenges for India? More generally, has there been any spillover from the conflict in Ukraine into the region, and if so, to what extent has it affected regional security and stability?

The economic concerns emanating from the Ukraine crisis are starker than security concerns for India and for South Asia. In the South China Sea, we certainly must worry about how China may respond. We are seeing a series of exogenous shocks to the global economy as a result of the Ukraine crisis—the surging oil prices, food shortages, and supply chains issues. India, like many countries in the region more broadly, had already been dealing with economic challenges due to the pandemic and the oil prices have caused spikes in inflation that has generated more difficulties.

For India, the biggest economic concern emanating from the crisis in Ukraine is the rising oil prices and what that means for an Indian economy that is slowly recovering from the pandemic. Because of its special relationship with Russia, India can simply try to engage more commercially with Russia, which many other countries cannot do. India has decided to scale up its oil imports from Russia and the Indian government has depicted this as a purely economic decision. Russia was making a lot of cheap oil available, and India wanted to take advantage of this. I would argue that India and most South Asian countries for that matter, don’t really have major energy relationships with Russia—India gets most of its hydrocarbon imports from the Middle East, and increasingly, from the United States.

China could, for whatever reason, be prompted or emboldened to cause significant provocations in the South China Sea, and conceivably over Taiwan. I don’t necessarily think that China would be more inclined to do much in South Asia in a military sense, other than perhaps scaling up provocations along its border with India. But I think that there will be other motivations for that, that have less to do with Russia, and more to do with other factors like India’s growing relationship with the United States, or deepening tensions between India and Pakistan.

India is a microcosm of the world overall, dealing with a relatively vulnerable economy and trying to recover from the pandemic amid surging oil prices, and rising food insecurity.

In your opinion, what were some of the most pressing concerns or topics for discussion going into the QUAD Summit? Do you think that India’s autonomy regarding Ukraine and Russia has or will impact discussions in the future?

Ukraine has the potential to create tensions within the QUAD for several reasons. India’s position on it is so diametrically opposed to those of the other three members. Japan, Australia, and the United States have provided some of the most strident, confrontational, critical reactions to the invasion. The Japanese Prime Minister and others have explicitly linked the Russian invasion of Ukraine to this idea of a free and open rules-based Indo-Pacific. What has happened in Ukraine is something that we need to ensure cannot happen in the Indo-Pacific. One of the likely geopolitical outcomes from the Ukraine crisis is that the relationship between Russia and China will get even stronger, just because Russia will likely become more dependent on China for economic support, given that it has become a global pariah. China could enjoy more leverage over Russia, and that could conceivably prompt China to pressure Russia to scale up its presence in the Indo-Pacific.

In recent years, Russia has been trying to scale up relations with some of the ASEAN countries and if China is getting closer to Russia, then, indirectly, the QUAD is about Russia as well. The QUAD has generally been able to work around these potential sticking points with India on the Ukraine issue. My sense is that they’ve agreed to disagree. The joint statements that have come out of the most recent QUAD summits employs language which highlights the few areas where the four countries agree. With Ukraine, there are references to the humanitarian crisis and how the four countries can cooperate work to mitigate it. There are also references to the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity and how these cannot be violated.

When asked whether the U.S would get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that, President Biden answered “yes”. Does this have any implications for the strategic ambiguity in the One China policy?

This was not the first time that President Biden has made a comment like that. There have been several instances in recent months when he’s indicated that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would receive such a response from the United States. Some observers thought that Biden would be much softer on China than Trump was and that’s clearly not the case. One of the very first things the Biden administration did was invite the Taiwanese representative to the U.S to Biden’s inauguration. It’s the first time that’s ever happened. That certainly sent a strong message. What Biden said is not completely surprising, given the trend lines, and given what we’ve seen from this administration and the hard line that it has taken on China.

Perhaps Biden misspoke, but this could well perhaps also have been an effort to deter China from thinking about the possibility of invasion by trying to raise the stakes. In the very least, we could read his comments as a reflection of the fact that the administration is very concerned about the very real risk of a possible scenario where China could try to stage military operations in Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

How has the crisis in Ukraine impacted the relationships that have been developing between the EU, U.S, Asia, and Australia, and their efforts to address China in the Indo-Pacific? Is the emerging transatlantic, transpacific bond a temporary side effect of Russia’s invasion or a long-lasting realignment? 

There has been a gradual coalescing of interests around the need to work together more to counter the rise of China, particularly because of a shared view among these regions that China’s actions are increasingly a threat to their security and interests. I would argue that the U.S and the EU countries and other countries in the West have really faced the same challenges with building a consensus to counter China as they’ve experienced in trying to build a consensus to counter Russia. These are issues of trade and commercial relationships, particularly in the energy sphere. Many European countries are heavily reliant on Russian energy and have been slow to embrace the types of harsh, comprehensive, multifaceted sanctions that the U.S would like to see enforced, including those that would target Russia’s critical energy sector. Several European countries have talked about new policies they are developing that will allow them to wean themselves off Russian energy supplies.

Since the invasion, we’ve had this U.S-led approach to try to confront Russia and punish it. It has been difficult, even with like-minded partners and security allies. The West and parts of Europe have very substantive trade relationships with China and Russia. Some of the NATO countries and even some of the Asian partners don’t want to completely jeopardize their trade relations with China. That is certainly going to cause some issues. European countries are reluctant to risk losing their energy relationships with Russia. That, of course, gives Russia and China leverage. So long as the energy industry in Russia has not been fully sanctioned, Russia will have a lifeline. It will leverage that and try to provide further inducements to its key energy recipients, including those in Europe, to continue to do business with it.

When we think about why President Biden made his recent trip to Asia, especially when so much is going on at home and amid the Ukraine crisis, it’s important to highlight that he is trying to act as convincer-in-chief. After all these years of U.S president saying that they are ready to pivot their focus towards Asia, there are still a lot of skeptical capitals in the region, especially in eastern Southeast Asia.

For all this conversation about how the U.S is strengthening its ties with the Indo-Pacific through the Quad and through strengthening bilateral relationships, some of the Southeast Asian countries, especially those that have been quietly building up economic relations with China, are not quite convinced that the U.S is ready to complete this pivot. Obviously the Ukraine crisis has become the latest concern because it could be a distraction.




Michael Kugelman

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