The recent massive, two-way diplomatic expulsions by Moscow and multiple European and North American capitals prove once and for all that, between Russia and the West, it is only Asia that has not been radicalised. Indeed, it is only Asia that can save Russia, Ukraine and the West from themselves.
How did we get here? Back in 2012, when I was visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, my distinguished colleague Kishore Mahbubani, then dean, would say that Asia was at peace, but with every prospect of war, while what was wonderful about Europe was that there was peace with absolutely no prospect of war.
In that same year, in an American presidential debate, Barack Obama, then far more exercised by the disintegration of the Middle East and the Iranian nuclear question, ridiculed the suggestion made by Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, that Russia was America’s main geopolitical adversary.
Meanwhile, what was happening in Ukraine in 2012? Answer: it was happily and successfully hosting, jointly with Poland, the European football championship.
So what happened after the relative calm of 2012 to have brought the European and North American continents to such hysterics and strategic instability? Answer: the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, followed by the Russian annexation of Crimea. All other details are commentary, for the revolution was the geopolitical, political and psychological equivalent of a nuclear fission, succeeding in radicalising three houses: Ukraine within itself, Russia (through the patriotic passions provoked by the annexation), and the West, which knew little about Ukraine but reacted frontally, through political and economic sanctions, to Russia’s moves in Crimea and in support of the counter-revolution in the Donbass.
The three houses radicalised in 2014 have not succeeded in deradicalising today in 2018. Worse still, they have forgotten the original source of their radicalisation. The diplomatic expulsions following the Skripal attack in the United Kingdom are but the latest manifestation of this radicalisation. The frenzied preoccupation in the American political establishment with apparent Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is similarly symptomatic of the radicalisation begun in 2014. (Virtually no one was talking about Russia in 2012.) Even in Moscow, leading analysts have begun characterising the stand-off with the US in terms of great-power rivalry. Ukraine and its internal stability are hardly mentioned in their analysis.
What’s Asia to do with these three radicalised houses? The first official instinct is to let sleeping dogs lie. Let the radicalised “whites” of Europe and North America fight among themselves – just don’t infect Asia, where China has been spearheading a remarkable return to the centre of international affairs. On this very logic, a top Asian diplomat told me bluntly a couple of years ago, when I suggested to him that his country could play a decisive role in ending the Russia-Ukraine-West conflict: “Not interested.”
And yet this first Asian instinct of staying away to preserve itself has suddenly become problematic in light of the prospect of conflict between the US and North Korea later this year – notwithstanding the present summit-making activities of Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul. Such a conflict could evidently assume a nuclear character, and would quickly drag in both China and Russia. In short, the prospect of war in Northeast Asia has fused together the fates of the Russia-Ukraine-West and Asian strategic theatres in ways that were nowhere apparent back in 2012, 2014 or even last year. As if things were not complicated enough, it is the very radicalisation of Washington vis-à-vis Moscow that may play an important role in determining America’s disposition and timing for war.
A second option for Asia, then, is to remain sober, avoid radicalisation, and lead the charge toward an exit from the growing storm. For if the leading capitals of Asia – Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore and Jakarta – do not act, then they too may get carried away in the present madness.
The idea of peacekeepers in the Donbass, and Asian peacekeepers in particular, originates directly in the track 1.5 work we at the Institute for 21st Century Questions led, in key capitals around the world, in the days and weeks immediately following the Ukrainian revolution and the start of the war in southeastern Ukraine. These peacekeepers must come principally from relatively neutral Asian countries (non-Nato and outside the Collective Treaty Security Organisation) that are respected by both Moscow and Kiev. Leading candidate countries to supply these peacekeepers include India, China, Singapore, Indonesia and perhaps Mongolia.
But if peacekeepers are finally on the international policy agenda today, then the critical Asian dimension remains underappreciated in Western and Asian capitals, which have also failed to do their homework in thinking through the larger strategic agreement in which the insertion of peacekeepers must be packaged.
Peacekeepers may put a stop to the fighting in the Donbass, but they are by themselves not enough to stabilise – and deradicalise – the houses of Russia, Ukraine and the West. Moreover, without a broader deal, Russia would be sure to veto any peacekeeping proposal at the UN Security Council.
Enter Asia again. For Russia, Ukraine and the West are today not only radicalised, but have also run out of imagination in respect of their own discord – in many cases no longer believing in the possibility of exit from the present dynamic. Only leading Asian nations are left to engineer the deal to which their peacekeepers would be attached.
What would this deal include? While Russia and Western capitals are fixated on the removal of sanctions, leading Asian capitals could make much of this tired logic moot by floating a massive infrastructure and economic package to rebuild the Donbass, restabilise the Ukrainian economy in the context of a revolution that has not been successfully consolidated, and provide fresh capital investments into key sectors of the weak Russian economy.
This Asian-led package would be second-best, as it would not be able to address Nato non-membership for Ukraine, Ukraine’s internal governance arrangements, and the restitching of economic ties between Russia, Ukraine and the EU. All of these, as well as the removal of certain Western sanctions against Russia, would have to be discussed when the three houses are deradicalised.
If it is not too late already, then the time for Asia to act is now – if not to save Russia, Ukraine and the West, then to save recent Asian economic and strategic successes from the fallout of any kinetic clash in the Eurasian space resulting from the ever-escalating hostilities and distrust among these radicalised camps. Such a clash could be caused from Ukrainian governmental collapse, a miscalculation or provocation in the context of the opposing Russian and American projects in the Middle East, or through “gamed” anticipation by Washington or Moscow in relation to imminent conflict in Asia.
Evidently, if conflict in Asia does come to pass, then Asia too will have become radicalised. At that point, there will be no one left to lead the exit from the abyss, and fewer still to remember how it all began. ■
Irvin Studin is president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, and editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine. His new book is Russia – Strategy, Policy and Administration