Lessons for Asia from a bad European war


Neither side is winning, two years and more after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 in an escalation of a war that had begun with the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Indeed, there are no prospects of victory. The lesson for Russia is that invasions are in herently wrong (apart from being unlawful) and that territorial expansionism does not lead to national security. The lesson for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is that its strategic expansion in Europe, which invited the Russian invasion, does not work either. Asian nations must keep these realities in mind as they navigate the Sino-US conflict centred essentially on Taiwan, because what is happening in Europe today could occur in Asia tomorrow.

Let me say again that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was wrong. International relations will simply cease to be associated with peace, stability and prosperity if a large and powerful state tramples on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a weaker neighbour at will. Certainly, states are empowered to possess militaries, but that is to protect their own sovereignty and territorial integrity, not to impinge on the free existence of others. In invading Ukraine, Moscow was emboldened by how its capture of Crimea had gone unpunished in 2014, but it underestimated the countervailing international response to the 2022 invasion. Now, it has no way of backing out without losing its strategic “face”, an outcome which is very bad for a great power.

To understand why the Ukraine War continues, it is essential to revisit its origins. It is what I would call a half-proxy war. For Nato, it is a proxy war with Russia that uses Ukraine, but for Russia, it is a war that its own troops must fight. In that sense, Nato has won a degree of success already: It needs to have no troops on the ground in Ukraine to fight Russia, but Russia must invest its military personnel and other resources heavily in Ukraine to block Nato. Indeed, Sweden’s accession to Nato in March 2024, following that of Finland in April 2023, showed how viscerally some Nordic states responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, believing that they would appear on the Russian hit[1]list sometime soon. Diplomatically, therefore, the Ukraine War has been a disaster for Russia and provided a windfall for Nato. Militarily, however, each side is bogged down in bad choices of their own making.

This war is a bad war, not only in the general sense that all wars are bad for their victims, but in the particular sense that the war aims of Nato and Russia remain unfulfilled even as the war inflicts terrible suffering on Ukraini ans. The Ukrainian social fabric is holding up as well as could be expected in the circumstances, but the war has taken a toll on Russian public life by deepening the divide between liberal and conservative nationalists in a country that was finding an inclusive democratic identity after its freedom from the totalitarianism of the communist era. President Vladimir Putin has consolidated his place in Russia’s Czarist-Leninist lineage, even as President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine strives to establish his presence in a long line of Western heroes who fought for democracy against communism and fascism, such as Winston Churchill of Britain and Charles de Gaulle of France. Those prizes are for Putin and Zelensky to win. What most of the world is interested in is the fate of innocent Ukrainians caught in the crossfire between Western expansion ism and neo-imperial Russia.

Frankly, no end is in sight. The US, whose military and political heft underpins Nato, is in no mood to settle with Russia. Why should it? After all, Americans are not paying the price, in blood, for the Ukraine War: There are no American ground troops involved. Treasure, yes, because American taxes underpin the continuation of the war. But the American taxpayer is long accustomed to financing wars abroad: Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq top the recent list. As for Russia, it cannot cut its losses and withdraw because it cannot afford to lose face, as suggested earlier.

So the proxy war will continue.

What is intriguing in all this is Nato’s role. Its website proclaims: “Security in our daily lives is key to our well-being. Nato’s purpose is to guarantee the freedom and security of its mem bers through political and military means.” On the political front, Nato “promotes democratic values and enables members to consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict”. On the military front, “Nato is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations”.

Well and good, but if Nato really stands for the promotion of democratic values as a bulwark against security threats posed by autocratic regimes, why is Ukraine not a member of Nato? It is not for want of trying. In June 2017, the Ukrainian Parliament affirmed membership in Nato as a strategic foreign and security policy objective. In 2019, a corresponding amendment to Ukraine’s Constitution entered into force. In September 2020, Zelenskyy approved a new national security strategy whose aim was membership of Nato. Had Ukraine been a member of Nato in 2022, the Russians would never have dared to invade it because, by doing so, they would have triggered Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty that enshrines the concept of collective defence, which means that an attack on one Nato ally is considered to be an attack on all Nato allies. Russia would never have gone to war with Nato (including the US) over Ukraine: The temptation of territorial acquisitions there would have been overtaken by the fear of all-out war with the West. Ukraine reiterated its desire for Nato membership in September 2022, following the Russian invasion. The 2023 Vilnius Summit saw Nato al lies reaffirming their commitment that Ukraine will become a member of Nato.

This is 2024, Ukraine is still not a member of Nato, and the Russian invasion continues. Russia would be taught its place in the world, and we could all breathe a belated sigh of relief, if Nato were to bring Ukraine under its protective umbrella now.

That outcome lies nowhere on the horizon. The Nato-Russian war of attrition in Ukraine has become a fact of international life and will stay that way unless Donald Trump becomes American President again, possibly obliges Ukraine to give up territory in exchange for peace with Russia, and end a horrible proxy war.

All this holds lessons for this part of the world. Taiwan is a flashpoint in Sino-US relations, just as Ukraine lies at the cutting edge (literally) of Nato-Russian relations. There is an important difference between Ukraine and Taiwan, of course: The former is a sovereign nation-state, and the latter is an internationally acknowledged part of One China. However, these legal distinctions would vanish if the Chinese move into Taiwan, an action that would trigger the protective provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act which would lead to American involvement and retaliation against China. Whether those measures would mean American troops on the Taiwanese ground or yet another proxy war would remain to be seen, but the strategic and economic price would be extremely high for Asia, no matter which side prevails ultimately.

So, the Ukraine War is not some faraway conflict in Europe where Asians are concerned. It is a body blow to the international order, of which Asia is an integral part. Asean member states rightly do not wish to be torn between the US and China. Any war over Taiwan would put that determination to a severe test. As a French playwright put it in a play on the Trojan War, people may not want war but war may want them. This is not to say that even a Sino-American war would split Asean, make its members take sides, and drive them into hostilities against one another. Of course not. But a replay of the Ukraine conflict in North east Asia would have punitive repercussions for Southeast Asia. The best way to respond to those exigencies would be to have any illusions that the end of the Cold War in the last century has produced peace in this century.

Peace is merely the interval between two wars.

The writer is the founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views.

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