Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

Still catching up on myself, this time a longer piece for the Straits Times about the how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen in parts of its former Soviet dominions. Varied and worried views.

Living Dangerously in Russia’s backyard

From the Baltics to countries in Central Asia, the war in Ukraine is a reminder of their precarious position amid questions about how far Putin will go in pursuit of his revanchist dreams.

Russian troops stand guard at the entrance to the village of Varnita, in Transnistria, a breakaway region in eastern Moldova, on March 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

There are many unanswered questions to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Key among them is whether Ukraine is the extent of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, or part of a longer and more ambitious path towards European dominance.

Or, placing this within a wider context, is Russian activity abroad all about meddling for the sake of continued relevance or aimed at some actual imperial gain.

This is a difficult question to entirely answer, as ultimately the only person who knows is President Vladimir Putin and he is keeping the answer to himself. But in reading his actions and how they are seen in the former Soviet space, a part of the world that has long had to live with Russia, it is possible to start to divine something of an answer.

It is worth starting by looking back at when Mr Putin came to power. When he was appointed as president of the Russian Federation in 2000, he inherited a mess from an often inebriated Boris Yeltsin, who oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia – the heart of the once mighty USSR-was plundered by gangsters and oligarchs while ravaged by Chechen terrorists.

Mr Putin set about undoing much of the damage left by Mr Yeltsin. The terrorism menace in the North Caucasus was quelled, the treasury put in order, and the military rebuilt. The stabilising of the country in the early part of his two decades in power was popular among Russians who remember the 1990s when the country tried Western liberal economic approaches and was rewarded with penury and oligarchs.

But that was not the end of it for Mr Putin. Having turned it around, he then went on to start to “grow” the country he inherited, with territory “liberated” from Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, as well as the full seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region have joined Abkhazia and South Ossetia as vassal statelets dependent (and loyal) to Moscow. Belarus is a vassal state in all but name, while the Eurasian Economic Union gives Russia a say in the economic affairs of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The old idea of revanchist Russian nationalism is a key driver of this expansion. The notion of Mother Russia as the home of all of the Slavic peoples is something that has long been seen as a goal by successive leaders in Russia. Russian nationalism, however, is something that those living in the states adjacent to Russia have also long worried about.

THE VIEW FROM CENTRAL ASIA

Its resurgence has stirred unease not only in the Baltic states and Russia’s central European neighbours but also in Central Asia.

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, an old video popped up on Uzbek social media. In it, first president (and former Soviet apparatchik) Islam Karimov spoke of his concerns about Russian nationalism, suggesting it was a greater threat than whatever might emerge from Afghanistan. The interview was from the late 1990s, a moment when the former Soviet space was wracked by various conflicts. But Mr Karimov was particularly worried about what might emerge from Moscow, something contemporary Uzbeks saw now rearing its head in Ukraine.

But while Uzbekistan has always had a somewhat prickly relationship with Moscow, it is Kazakhstan that has been particularly fearful of revanchist Russian nationalism.

Northern Kazakhstan is home to an ethnic Russian community that makes up around a fifth of the country’s population. In the past few years, the government in Kazakhstan has sought to encourage greater Kazakh national identity, rejecting Cyrillic script and encouraging more use of Kazakh language rather than Russian.

If Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not bad enough, comments by Russian nationalists have added to Kazakhstan’s fears. For instance, Mr Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the United Russia party in the Duma, once raised doubts about Kazakhstan’s sovereign status on the grounds that the “territory of Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”. His remarks prompted other like minded politicians to call for the return of parts of northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation.

Worryingly for Kazakhs, a few years ago, Mr Putin made similar comments in public which appeared to question Kazakh statehood. He praised the then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev for building something out of nothing. Praise on the one hand, but also undermining the logic of an independent Kazakh state, one with a history and existence not contingent on Russia.

The parallels with Russia’s dismissal of Ukrainian statehood are inescapable to Kazakhs who worry about Moscow’s revanchist intentions.

Tellingly, even though Kazakhstan abstained on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would not recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk. The authorities also turned a blind eye to some public rallies supporting Ukraine.

However, for all their fears of Russian nationalism, the Central Asia states still look up to Russia as their ultimate security guarantor. As the Taliban surged in Afghanistan last year, it was Moscow that dispatched forces to undertake border training exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as rushing through arms sales across the region. Similarly, when Kazakhstan was wracked with domestic strife earlier this year, it was Moscow that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to to help restore order.

Kyrgyzstan, the most democratic of the five states in the region, has also been the most unstable. Internal tensions are often fanned by Russian media or stoked by Moscow. Russia is able to make its displeasure known and continues to exert influence when it needs to – through powerful oligarchs close to Mr Putin or hard military power or its intelligence services. The Central Asians all recognise this, and are fearful of the mighty Russian bear turning on them.

At the same time, they are certainly not happy about the pattern of Moscow’s behaviour. They condemned the assault on Georgia in 2008, expressed concern about the 2014 incursions into Ukraine and have shown their unwillingness to completely toe Moscow’s line in the wake of this year’s invasion.

But there is a limit to their push back against Russia, given the precarious position they are in.

OTHER NEIGHBOURS

The Baltic and eastern European countries are in a far more secure position, given their membership in institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with its pledge of collective defence. It offers them a level of deterrence against Russian aggression that is also not available to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Moldova, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, sits on just the other side of the EU’s outer border and has a small ethnic Russian enclave in Transnistria, complete with Russian soldiers. Recent comments by Russian General Rustam Minnekayev that Moscow’s goal was to secure a corridor across Ukraine connecting to the enclave, as well as explosions targeting infrastructure in the region, has set alarm bells off in Chisinau.

While Mr Putin may no longer have sway over the Baltics and their ethnic Russian populations, he does have other cards to play, such as Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Largely known for smuggling, it is a Russian foothold which Mr Putin’s administration have threatened to use as a base for nuclear weapons should Nato expand further.

All of this adds up to a Russia which is basically interested in maintaining influence in what it perceives as its backyard, with the option of claiming them back if the context permits (or is fabricated).

From Mr Putin’s perspective, the countries of the former Soviet Union are only permitted to be independent states insomuch as he allows it. And where he has grey lines or borders, he has a space in which he can operate.

While it remains to be seen whether he is eager to court the danger that would follow invading an EU or Nato country, he certainly sees no issue in stirring trouble in any of the other countries in this space. And every so often, lash out violently to remind them about staying in line.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

More catch up posting with another interview in the wake of Sinostan’s publication. This one for the excellent Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR). Many thanks to the wonderful Ruslan for sorting it out!

How Does the War in Ukraine Affect Central Asia? An Interview with Raffaello Pantucci

Analytical platform CABAR.asia spoke with Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), about Central Asian countries in the light of confrontation between Russia and the West, the indirect impact of sanctions on the region, the role of China and the potential of the EAEU and the CSTO.


Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London. His work focuses on China’s relations with its western neighbours, Central Asia, and terrorism and counter-terrorism. His most recent book is Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022, with Alexandros Petersen). Much of his work can be found at: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com


CABAR.asia: The Central Asian states are in a difficult position because of Russia’s military action in Ukraine – on the one hand, there is no opportunity to speak out openly against the Kremlin’s military action because of the economic and political dependence of the countries in the region on Russia. On the other hand, there is the possibility of falling under Western sanctions alongside with Russia. In the light of these developments, what action should be taken by the Central Asian countries?

I think that Central Asia is in a very hard place in this context, because of all the reasons you outlined, but also because I think no matter what happens, the sanctions are going to hit Central Asia due to the nature of the connection that the region has with Russia in particular. It is almost impossible that it is not going to be affected. If we just look at labor migration, which is a really important part of the connection for the region, maybe less so for Kazakhstan, but for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan this is a critical part of their economy. That is just going to plummet suddenly in volume and going to have a huge effect and mass potential unemployment for a lot of people. So the impact is unfortunately unavoidable for the region because no matter what there is going to be an echo.

But what is interesting is the fact that the leaderships have all taken slightly different approaches to responding to what Russia has done. So as far as I can tell the Turkmen and the Tajiks have not said much. The leadership in those two countries has said relatively quiet on the conflict in Ukraine so far avoiding criticizing either on Russia or on Ukraine. The Kazakhs have done a very interesting job of actually trying to be quite proactive where on the one hand there have been some attempts to drag them into the debate, in particular from some sort of Russian media sources, but still the Kazakhs they’ve tried to step back from this.

There’s been some public protesting Kazakhstan, which the government has let happen. So obviously that shows a certain level of tacit support for the Ukrainian side. The government has sent humanitarian aid Ukrainian side as well. In addition, they’ve already shown some effects of the sanctions by stopping Air Astana from flying to Russia, which is a massive deal. But they have also engaged with Russia and abstained in UNGA votes. So the Kazakhs have tried to strike a balance, where on the one hand they’ve continued to have a relationship with Russia, but on the other hand, they’ve tried to demonstrate that they are trying to reach out to both sides. The most recent statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Vassilenko about not wanting the country to be stuck behind a new iron curtain with Russia and remain open to the west is the clearest articulation in some ways yet of the fears in Central Asia about being closed off with Russia while at the same time trying to be pragmatic and take advantage of the situation. The Uzbeks are trying something similar, but doing it more subtly. Foreign Minister Kamilov was clear about drawing the lines of where the country would not support Russia in refusing to recognize the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lughansk (a view shared in Nur-Sultan). As far as I can tell the Kyrgyz appear to be the ones who more are leaning into the relationship with Moscow, though even this is a bit clouded by some of the protests we have seen and a sense that the government is being pushed into this position. Though Kyrgyzstan has always been quite close to Moscow. In some ways, this probably reflects the overriding sentiment that exists in most of these countries towards Russia, which is one kind of concern, but at the same time, a recognition of the importance of the relationship that they do have with Moscow.

To be honest, at the moment that’s probably the best that we can expect because they are all in a very difficult position. I would like to see them more leaning into the relationship with Ukraine, because these are all countries that in many ways have suffered under Russia in similar ways, they’re all bound to Russia in similar ways and Ukraine is an important partner for lots of Central Asian countries. But at the same time, it’s clear that the leaderships across the region are different. So from my perspective, the way the Kazakhs are handling it at the moment would probably be seen as the most positive (especially given events at the beginning of the year in which they leaned on Moscow to help them resolve their domestic problems), with the Uzbeks shadowing them. But it’s still would be nice to see more frankly of them trying to show solidarity and support to the Ukrainians because at the end of the day they’re all in a very similar boat.

How would you describe the mood of the political elites in Central Asia regarding the recent events in Ukraine? How would you assess the statements of the Central Asian authorities on this issue and how the region is now perceived in the international arena?

Broadly speaking, there seems to be quite a high level of concern in Central Asia amongst the elites in so much as it’s possible to discern about what’s happened and what is of concern. In particular,  in Kazakhstan there is an underlying fear that the same that has been done to Ukraine might be visited upon them. But at the same time, they recognize the importance of the relationship with Russia. There does seem to be a level of desire to try to make sure that they don’t let this spillover too much because they do still want to have a working relationship with Russia. It’s important for them to do that. So they want to kind of find a way of striking a balance, but my sense is broadly speaking one of concern. It is, however, challenging trying to figure out what this means in practical terms going forwards.

In terms of how Central Asia is perceived in the international political arena, so far I have seen fairly limited comments about Central Asia in the international sphere within this context. I think the United States appears to be trying to reach out to Central Asia, which I think is quite positive, but I think it reflects an approach from the State Department at the moment of trying to outreach to Central Asia and trying to strengthen that relationship. So we’ve had Secretary Blinken do the C5+1 meetings. We’ve seen them condemn when they’ve been worried about what’s happening, a lot of condemnation about the rioting that we saw happening in Kazakhstan, but at the same time, a desire to reach out, that seems to be where they’re going.

We haven’t seen the Turkmen or the Tajik presidents say anything. We’ve seen the Kyrgyz president quite openly talk about leaning into the relationship with Moscow. But when we look at Tashkent and we look at Nur-Sultan, these two countries seem to be trying to strike a balance. It’s reflected also in the UN voting, where all of the Central Asian countries all seem to be trying to vote in terms of showing some sort of support for Ukraine, even if they do this in a very tempered way and try to abstain from votes rather than necessarily vote in support of Ukrainian positions.

As we know from the events in Georgia in 2008 and the current events in Ukraine, we can observe Russia’s strong measures towards countries conducting a pro-Western policy. Is there any chance that Russia might do the same with Central Asian countries? Which Central Asian country is the least dependent on Russia and can pursue a multivector foreign policy?

The difficulty that Central Asia always has with this multi-vector foreign policy concept is that for it to really work in a transformative way it would require them to change quite a lot in a more Western direction, which they are doing gradually. A greater push westward would be needed for it to work in that direction, otherwise the multi-vector diplomacy is a case of juggling between China in Russia, two powers that are always frankly going to more agree with each other than they are going to pick a side with countries in between.

The multivector foreign policy notion is one that is most credible with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

At the moment the one that everyone used to look to is the one that was doing it most effectively was Kazakhstan because the Kazakhs had more money, more power and more resource to be able to kind of strike an independent view. But what we saw after the rioting at the beginning of the year was that they leaned very heavily on Moscow. That has kind of demonstrated that at the end of the day, when the region worries about security issues, and there are a lot of security issues in the wider region, they still look to Moscow as the kind of father protector rather than Western powers or China. Something that we also saw during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. So in some ways, the whole narrative of multi-vector diplomacy has changed now from what it used to be and its credibility is diluted. This has been further complicated by events in Ukraine of course which has cast Russian power in a very menacing light once again.

If we look at what Russia is doing, I think the country that’s most understandably concerned is Kazakhstan. Because of all of the kind of underlying issues and motivations which Russia cited as reasons for its military actions in Georgia and Ukraine, you could find in Kazakhstan: there is a population of Russian ethnic communities living in the north, predominantly along the border with Russia who still speak Russian. There has been a campaign in Kazakhstan trying to de-Russify to some degree, though they put it more in light of trying to Kazakh everything – using more the Kazakh language, pushing less use of the Cyrillic script. This could be interpreted by Moscow as a policy of de-Russification (or persecution of Russian minorities), which is exactly the reason why Russia has just given for why it’s gone into Ukraine.

There has been a concern about this in the past and even if we look at what President Putin has said in some of his comments where he’s referred to Kazakhstan, as not being a country, about President Nazarbayev building something interesting out of nothing. You could take these words and interpret them in the same way that we’ve just seen them interpret their justification for going into dismember Ukraine. So within that context, Kazakhstan is the one that’s got to be most concerned about this, but at the same time, one of the key lessons I’ve taken away from what happened at the beginning of the year in Kazakhstan was that the Russians did come in and they left. They came in, they played a stabilizing role and they left.

In some ways, I think what that showed to the Russians and the Kazakhs were that Russia could still be an important security stabilizer and that was ultimately appreciated by the local government. That means that the government there is still one that Moscow would look at as relatively pliant, unlike president Zelenskiy in Ukraine or the leadership in Georgia. I think that that’s why, one of my key takeaways from the beginning of the year was that Kazakhstan is an important country for Russia in the region, but the relationship is different to that with Ukraine. I’m sure the Kazakhs are still worried about the parallels, but at the same time, the lessons from what we saw happening at the beginning of the year were that their relationship with Moscow is still one that Moscow obviously feels quite confident in and still feels that it has an upper hand on. That suggests that they’re less likely to create these kinds of aggressive Novorossiya visions into Kazakhstan than they are in Ukraine as there is less need for it.

Central Asian countries have already felt the effects of the sanctions against Russia: national currencies are devaluing, there are shortages of goods and remittances are shrinking. How do you think the economic crisis will affect the lives of ordinary citizens in the region? Could the economic and financial crisis affect the anti-Russian sentiments of the Central Asian populations, for example, by demanding withdrawal from such organizations as the EAEU or the CSTO?

I think it will impact people as you’ve already described. It’s clear that there’s already a direct impact and it will get worse because remittances will stay low and people will not be able to get jobs. It will become harder because presumably, the economic constriction in Russia will mean fewer jobs and so less need for Central Asian workers to come in. So it is a double-whammy in collapsing national currencies and lack of opportunities.

On the interesting side, some countries are still very dependent on energy and oil and gas and presumably with those prices going up, countries like Kazakhstan should benefit. The problem is that that doesn’t necessarily trickle down into everyone’s wallet. It’s really about how the governments manage that. But I could see people across the region suffering from the drop in remittances and the general constriction of the Russian economy whose close ties to the region make it hard to avoid repercussions.

Will that then lead to more anti-Russian sentiment? I’m not sure. Because I have a sense that I don’t know that people would make the direct connection in a way. It’s more a case that people will blame the sanctions rather than the Russian action that triggered the sanctions. I think anti-Russian sentiment will probably increase amongst a certain segment of the community anyway because people will be worried about what Russia might do. But I’m not sure that the economic constriction will necessarily track into that. I think it will cause more problems to local governments as they struggle to manage the fall-out.

Will it lead to withdrawal from EAEU or CSTO? I don’t think so on those either. Because I think leaving an institution like the EAEU for Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan now when the economy is bad is probably the worst time to do it. Because pulling apart something like that will be so complicated and will lead to more economic blockages that they don’t want. So I think, no, it won’t trigger that. The CSTO it’s a different organization, I’m not sure people directly make that kind of connection. If the CSTO was called to fight in Ukraine, maybe we could see people talking about that, but I have a feeling people wouldn’t leave the organization. What would happen is they would just refuse to send soldiers, as has reportedly already been the case in Kazakhstan.

Against the backdrop of a weakening Russian position, what role will China play vis-à-vis the Central Asian states? Will it undertake any measures to strengthen its position? What is the overall impact of the war on China and its foreign policy?

Within the Central Asian context, I think Central Asians will want to encourage more Chinese investment because suddenly their major economic partner is going to go through an economic recession. So for them to avoid that as well, they will want to bring something in. At the same time, it is going to be very difficult because Chinese companies will be careful about sanctions. Chinese companies will come and while they do employ some people, they’re not going to employ enough people to replace all of the jobs that could be lost from the loss of jobs as migrant labor in Russia.

There will be a desire for more China to come in, but China will only come in in the ways that it wants, which is mostly its companies focused on their investments, focused on projects that they want to do, and economic opportunities that they see. Something which does not always equate with what the local governments or populations necessarily want on the ground. China will not want to provide lots of its aid to help bail the region out. It will do what it wants to do rather than what the region would necessarily want to do. But with the crashing economies, I imagine that means certain assets will become cheaper. So you might see Chinese companies wanting to come and do projects now, which will be cheaper than if they did them before.

I think there will be an interesting question about energy because China is very interested in energy from the region and presumably those prices are going to shoot up and China will want to lobby for them to go back down again. That’ll be an interesting dynamic to watch play out.

So I think China will ultimately try to come in, try to do more, but it will do it on its terms rather than on Central Asia’s terms. That will be something that Central Asians will be frustrated by because they will want more and probably not get exactly what they want or to the level that they want, but they will be much more dependent now than they were before.

Recently there has been some talk in the West of imposing sanctions against other EAEU member states because they can almost freely import and export goods within the union to circumvent anti-Russian sanctions. How true do you think this statement is? What would be the consequences of this?

I’m not entirely clear how this necessarily plays out. I hope people don’t go down the path of sanctioning EEAU countries as well because I think then other countries will be suffering. I don’t think the Western governments would go that far. What you might see them trying to do is maybe target specific companies that are maybe using Kazakhstan as a way or using Kyrgyzstan as a way of sneaking into the Russian market. You could see that happening or sort of targeted sanctions, but I don’t think you’d see a blanket sanctioning of the whole institution because I think that from a Western perspective would look very unfair. Ultimately the West would want to help these countries and them to turn on Russia rather than push them towards Russia. That’s the more likely thing that we are going to see happen.

Could it be a kind of transit point? I think it could be potentially because I think you could see people bringing goods there and then taking advantage of repackaging, relabeling, and then selling into Russia. You could see that happening, you saw happen in the past. On the banking side, I don’t think it could quite work because, from my understanding of how the banking system works, I think the regional banks, except for Kazakhstan, probably wouldn’t be able to support a useful level of financial trade and flows. I think the Kazakh ones people will be watching them to not facilitate this stuff. So it’ll be quite difficult to see that happening.

Is there a possibility that Western international finance and institutions will pay more attention to Central Asia because of the possibility of a Ukrainian scenario? 

There have been hints from Washington at least that they are trying to pursue this kind of strategy. But I don’t know the energy that’s being put behind it and whether this will mean a kind of flow of investments into alternative projects, that is something we will have to probably wait and see. At the moment there was a lot of desire to support Central Asia post Afghanistan. I think what we saw happening in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year complicated things somewhat because it upended the order regionally a bit and made people worry about stability in the region. If those sorts of protests and violence could happen in Kazakhstan, which everyone thought was so stable, what could be happening elsewhere that we do not know about? So that will have have confused approaches to engage with the region. But I would hope that Western countries will lean into Central Asia rather than lean away as a result of what happens in Ukraine.

What forecast can you give for the next year (short term) and the next 5 years? How will Russia emerge from the sanctions, and what awaits the rest of the Central Asian region?

I think Russia is going to come out of these sanctions with a very much weaker economy than it was before. You are going to see a lot of secondary damage which Moscow is not thinking about now, but will have an impact far beyond Russian borders and in particular in places like Central Asia. And you are going to see an erosion of Russian power to some degree as well. Because I don’t think the war in Ukraine’s going to be over quickly and the more it drags out, the more damage Russia suffers. Russia will find its security forces are stretched and that will have an effect on the vision of Russian power, which taken alongside an economy which is going to constrict points to a power which seems less than it currently is. Russia will doubtless continue  to act very loud, but I think its tools will be reduced substantially.

You will see a much stronger China – Russia relationship going forwards.

You will see that showing up in a more complicated context than we have seen until now. All of that has consequences for Central Asia and could lead to a situation where Central Asians find themselves in a very trapped space because the region is essentially surrounded now by countries that are targets of Western sanctions. Admittedly the level of sanctions is different: Russia, Iran – very hard, China – not that hard, but probably going to get harder as time goes on. So, Central Asia going to find itself increasingly struggling to project out of the region and that’s going to complicate things for them.

How can Central Asia maintain a compromise approach, being a welcoming place for Western countries, without becoming trapped in the encirclement of Russia and China?

That’s going to be the real challenge for Central Asia going forward. Because if we look now we’ve had two major crises in the region in the past six months: the fall of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan. And of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the two earlier events reflect an instability that still exists in the region that could spark off in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Who knows what is happening in Turkmenistan – the economy has had difficulties and we are now seeing a leadership transition take place which as we have seen in Kazakhstan can have unpredictable consequences. Tajikistan will probably be going to have a leadership transition fairly soon as well. How will that play out? I would suspect we might see some more violence in the region. There have been shootings on the borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan again. You worry that in a region where there is all this kindling, you’re now going to have essentially China and Russia as the two powers that are kind of watching over. Russia has shown that it is not very interested in stepping into fix problems unless it’s actively asked like it did in Kazakhstan and it requires a relatively low commitment. The support they provided in the wake of the fall of Kabul was really about Moscow strengthening its extended borders rather than trying to bring stability to the region. And China has repeatedly shown how it’s not interested in committing to anything and happy to watch things play out.

All of this paints a difficult picture for the region. Economically the region is going to suffer going forwards. It’s going to be a very tough few years for Central Asia and its desire to project itself as a region that is not bound by geographical realities but can reach far beyond with its strategic vision and multi-vector diplomacy with the west is going to come under an ever tougher challenge.

Almost caught up, but then will invariably get behind, another short piece for the South China Morning Post inspired by events in Ukraine, this time trying to tackle the obsession in the west about China’s support for Russia.

How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

  • The US and EU’s condemnation of Russia and repeated calls for their allies to do the same reflects a world view in which democracies stand united against autocracies
  • In reality, drawing battle lines is far more difficult when interests and values rarely align
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The single-minded focus on China’s friendship with Russia misses the far wider range of supporters around the world that Moscow has been able to muster. It is this wider web that really highlights the difficulty the US and Europe will have in marshalling international support to condemn Moscow’s actions.

The myopia reflects the difficulty in playing the complicated game of three-dimensional chess that is international geopolitics, where relationships are coloured by shades of grey and focus on interests rather than values.

There is no doubt China has chosen to side with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine. But it is important to note that this choice has been carefully couched as not being against Kyiv, but in opposition to the US and Nato’s missteps in causing the problem in the first place by antagonising Moscow.

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Beijing’s choice is also the result of a calculation that Russia remains a critical ally in China’s wider confrontation with the West.

This framing may anger the West, but it is one that Ukraine seems willing to (at least in public) accept. In recent comments, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, described China’s position as “neutral”, while saying that Ukraine’s leader was expected to talk to President Xi Jinping soon.

China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the invasion, and there is every chance that this economic relationship will pick up where it left off should stability ever return to the country.

Such commentary stands in contrast to Kyiv’s views on India, the other Asian giant that has stood behind Moscow. As the invasion unfolded, Western leaders called on New Delhi to stand behind them in condemning Russia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government declined, leading Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha to declare he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s stance, calling on New Delhi to be “much more actively engaged, given the privileged relations India has with Russia”.

Few who had been paying attention would be surprised by India’s position. The country’s military-industrial relationship with Russia is a long-standing sore in US-India relations, fuelling concerns about defence and intelligence transfers.

Neither New Delhi nor Beijing, however, are outliers. Both have chosen to abstain in United Nations Security Council votes. And, in the wider UN General Assembly vote demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, they stood alongside South Africa, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, a range of African powers and much of Central Asia in abstaining (only a few predictable powers like North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea joined Russia in voting against the resolution).

South Africa even sought to follow up on the vote with another focused solely on the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, omitting any refence to Russian action.

But there is further complexity within these positions. While Central Asian powers chose to abstain from the UN vote, both the Uzbek and Kazakh governments have chosen to openly reject recognition of the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow has recognised, while also appearing to more actively reach out to Ukraine.

This seeming stand against Russia is one that flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s decision early this year to call on Russian forces to support the government in the face of mass protests, and the Uzbekistan government’s reliance on Russian security to help bolster their border with Afghanistan as the republic’s government collapsed last year.

Looking beyond UN voting, Russia also appears to have a number of friends in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has openly sought a closer relationship with Moscow, in large part for the same reason as Beijing – as a bolster against a confrontational relationship with Washington.

But, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both also shown support for Russia while snubbing Washington – a choice that is driven by a concern about reliability of US alliances and irritation at condemnation of their own actions (their conflict in Yemen) by the West.

The reality is that international relations are grey. Countries are driven by interests that are both short and long term. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow. The one immutable truth in international relations is that nothing is permanent.

But this is a critical problem for a West that is seeking to build a binary world of autocracies versus democracies, painting this as the defining struggle of our time. It also reflects a core tension within the approach being driven by Washington, where there appears to be a desire to create an alliance of democracies alongside a shifting constellation of coalitions focused on outcomes.

While, in theory, this is not impossible – countries are often willing to maintain contradictory policies while focusing on interests – it becomes difficult when a single-minded obsession with one adversary clouds everything else.

While American and Chinese strategic thinking may be centred on a world in which the other is the main adversary, to the rest of the world, this narrative is more complicated. And these complications do not always hold across interests, and may in fact undermine each other in crucial ways.

There is no easy way to thread this needle. But maintaining a resolute focus on interests rather than values is a disappointing place to start. This is not going to be appealing to those who want to see a world of like-minded allies or democracies ruling the waves, but is more likely to reflect the brutal reality of geopolitics, where values are not as transcendental as we might like to believe.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He is co-author, with Alexandros Petersen, of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”

Another piece for the excellent Nikkei Asian Review, this time trying to make the point that there is a missed opportunity for the west in Central Asia. It is a not a new point for me, but it does seem to be something which is all the more relevant given current events in Ukraine. The title is a bit more blunt about the great gaming element of the intended idea than was meant, the idea was really about getting the west to focus on the region and highlight the region’s agency a bit more.

Western powers should exploit Central Asia’s unease over Ukraine war

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both distanced themselves from Moscow

Demonstrators take part in an anti-war rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty on Mar. 6: Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been received differently around the world, especially in Central Asia, where the two most powerful countries have both expressed clear signs of concern at Moscow’s behavior. There is an opportunity here for the West if they have the agility to take it.

While the modern countries of Central Asia were among the last to separate from the Soviet Union, since then, they have embraced independence and sought to forge a sense of nationhood. Still, when it comes to Russia and its potential to behave like an overbearing bully, there remains a lurking sense of trepidation, even though Russia remains vital to their development, security and future.

Nowhere is this more true than in Kazakhstan, where a similar narrative that Russia has used to invade Ukraine twice and Georgia can also be applied.

In the north of Kazakhstan, there is an ethnic Russian community that makes up around 20% of Kazakhstan’s total population. At the same time, Vladimir Putin sometimes takes digs at Kazakhstan’s legitimacy as a state; a theme periodically picked up by Russian nationalist commentators and officials who like to claim that Kazakhstan or at least part of it is theirs.

While few in Central Asia were surprised by Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, this had not diminished their horror at what was unfolding there. For the region, Ukraine was an important partner as well as a fellow former Soviet state.

Central Asia has expressed concern about Russian behavior before. In 2008, they criticized Russia’s actions in Georgia, while in 2014, they sought to try to find ways of encouraging Moscow to peacefully resolve its dispute with Ukraine. In both instances, Russia sought to pressure the Central Asian powers to back its actions.

This time around, the Central Asian powers have been even more vocal. While Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have stayed predictably quiet, the Kyrgyz have made positive remarks seemingly supportive of Putin’s actions but also allowed protests against the war. But the two most powerful states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have made clear signs of wanting to highlight their independence.

Neither country has acceded to Russia’s request to formally recognize the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war, sent aid to Ukraine and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has held talks with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In Uzbekistan, while public opposition to the war has been more limited, influential Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov declared his support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Moscow has also not been oblivious to the mood in Central Asia. In mid-March, Russia held large-scale training exercises in Tajikistan, while Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov spoke at a Tashkent trade event highlighting the opportunities for Uzbekistan in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia, as well as encouraging Uzbekistan to play a more active role in Eurasian Economic Union.

Central Asians only need to look back to last August at the fall of Kabul to remember how Moscow rushed in with military aid and support to defend themselves from the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan, while it was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country during violent protests at the beginning of the year.

Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeepers are on guard in Almaty on Jan. 11: It was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country. (Handout photo from Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)   © AP

All of which makes the signals from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over Ukraine all the more striking. While the criticism may be tempered, it is nevertheless a sign that both countries are eager to show they are not in lockstep with Moscow.

The most recent sign of this was Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko telling German newspaper Die Welt last week that Kazakhstan did not want to be on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain and would welcome any companies who were finding themselves obliged to exit Russia as a result of Western sanctions.

This was an opportunistic statement and a clear message that Kazakhstan has little desire to be consigned to simply being part of the Russian space involved in a geopolitical conflict with the West. Instead, Kazakhstan wants to maintain its links with the West, something reinforced by the reforms President Tokayev has announced in the wake of the civil unrest earlier in the year.

All of this presents an interesting opportunity for Western countries if they can figure out how to take it. Central Asia’s two most influential players have hinted at a desire to assert their independence from Russia, but Western powers have largely taken their eyes off Central Asia in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This disinterest was compounded by the unrest in Kazakhstan earlier in the year, which highlighted the region’s volatility, as well as the fact that a tendency toward repression still exists.

For Western powers eager to find ways of shaping the new global order to their advantage, however, Central Asia is an interesting theater to explore. Increased Western support for Central Asia would create some complexity for Russia on its other flank while also helping encourage regional powers to continue on their stated paths of greater openness, governance and the rule of law.

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

A piece for my UK institutional home RUSI, exploring China’s relations, links and role to the current conflict in Ukraine. Suspect going to be an issue which is going to come up increasingly over the next few months, but the overriding China-Russia relationship does not feel like it is going to change much.

China’s Soft Shoe on Ukraine

Hard geopolitics dominates China’s view of Russian action in Ukraine.

Main Image Credit Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pictured in 2016. Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the West, China’s views on Ukraine have largely been seen through the lenses that people want to interpret China’s actions. Some fear Beijing will use the opportunity to do something in Taiwan, while others instead suggest that this will lead to a fissure between China and Russia as Moscow tests the international order, recognises breakaway states and causes economic chaos – all things that logically irritate Beijing. Yet all of this stands apart from the fairly blank and often confusing response we have actually seen, where Chinese officialdom initially made statements which lacked internal coherence and seemed aimed at pleasing everybody, and then latterly took a posture of blaming the US. Beijing has aligned itself with Russia from the outset, though it has repeatedly softened its line to reflect a genuine concern about a potential catastrophic escalation, a desire to appear to be trying to do the right thing, and a likely genuine wish not to actively encourage Russian adventurism.

Go back in time to 2014, and Chinese commentators were more circumspect in their response towards Russian action in Crimea. While they did not leap up to praise and support, they did not condemn, and instead offered commentary that seemed to suggest that they at least understood Moscow’s underlying concerns. From Beijing’s perspective, events in 2014 were an extension of the problem that Chinese (and Russian) officials refer to as ‘Colour Revolutions’, a refence to the toppling of authoritarian regimes by public uprisings that can be traced back to the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003. That event precipitated a similar uprising in Ukraine a year or so later (dubbed the Orange Revolution), and was followed by a similar government overthrow (dubbed the Tulip Revolution) in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This chain of events then seemed to slow until 2011 and the Arab Spring, which brought a similar wave of public protest and authoritarian overthrow across the Arab world, and even touched on China’s shores in the very limited ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

While Beijing was not ecstatic about the redrawing of borders on the basis of ethnicity and the recognition of breakaway provinces (a precedent they always fear will be used against them), it could see where Moscow was coming from and worried about the wider consequences of the Euromaidan protests that culminated in Russia’s actions in Crimea. Additionally, it had little interest in condemning Russia, an important neighbour and ally whom it recognises has a very different view on how independent former Soviet countries actually are. Back in 2014, China was preoccupied with many other issues – including a domestic terrorist problem which appeared to be getting out of control – and saw little value in becoming entangled in a fundamentally European problem. In a comment which echoes precisely what is being said today, then Chinese UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi stated that Crimea posed a ‘complex intertwinement of historical and contemporary factors’.

This stood in stark contrast to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, Beijing was irritated that Moscow had chosen to launch its incursion right when Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games (by contrast, the 2022 Winter Games had notably ended at around the time Putin decided to take action against Ukraine, suggesting at the very least a sense of diplomatic timing by Moscow), and actively worked to block Russian attempts to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to support what Moscow as doing. Led by the unassuming and consensus-driven Hu Jintao, China was a power that still framed itself as rising and eager not to make waves. In what could be read as a thunderous rebuke by the then usually mute Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed ‘concern’ about Russia’s recognition of the two states.

Cut forward to today and Beijing seems much more willing to rhetorically champion Moscow’s perspectives. In earlier statements, it appears to have tried to maintain a line which avoided praising Russia, acknowledged some legitimacy in its concerns and at the same time upheld the UN charter and its calls for the protection of national territorial integrity (a nod to Ukraine’s perspective). But in fact, Beijing said very little. Echoing 2014, MFA spokesman Wang Wenbin stated that from Beijing’s perspective there was ‘a complex historical context and complicated factors at play on this issue’.

But things sharpened rapidly. While these same narratives remain present, a more aggressive tone towards the US came in when spokeswoman Hua Chunying took over the regular MFA briefings. ‘A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral’, she said. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made explicit reference to Russian concerns about NATO expansion, suggesting it as an explanation for the conflict.

While it is no longer surprising to hear such fiery rhetoric from the formerly staid MFA, it is a clear step further than Beijing was willing to go last time. What has changed is not the partnership with Russia, which has remained a constant and strengthened during the past decade and a half, but rather the relationship with the US, which is the principal vector through which Beijing views international affairs.

Viewed in this light, the response to Ukraine becomes shaped by the wider geopolitical context that Beijing sees. There is a substantial economic relationship between Ukraine and China, with China overtaking Russia as the country’s biggest trading partner in 2019. But it is not something that is irreplaceable from China’s perspective, and there is nothing to say that China will not be able to pick up quickly in economic terms after the Russian invasion, no matter who is left in charge. Reflecting China’s willingness to accept a relatively high risk threshold in Ukraine, PowerChina agreed in late 2020 to undertake the construction of the largest wind farm in Europe at a cost of around $1 billion in the divided Donetsk region of Ukraine, near where separatist rebels controlled territory (and presumably now at the heart of the conflict). This highlights Beijing’s willingness to undertake difficult investments, which doubtless the government in Kyiv would have appreciated. It is notable that while India’s tacit tolerance of Russia has generated anger from Kyiv, there has been less comment about Beijing’s very similar messaging, although it is reported to have generated some anger towards China on the ground.

But it is highly doubtful that China will prioritise bilateral trade and investment with Ukraine over its relationship with Russia. It is equally unlikely that Beijing will decide to join the West in a chorus of condemnation towards Moscow. The wider negative geopolitical consequences fly in the face of the grand joint communique issued by Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met at the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing. While it is the source of great speculation whether Putin informed Xi when they met of what was being planned, the idea that China now feels played in some way seems unlikely. That the vast Chinese commentariat (and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) were unaware of what the leadership knew is unlikely to be a reflection of a systemic lack of knowledge, but rather suggests a closed centre around Xi that chose not to share information. Xi may have calculated that the Russian conflict would be brief, that it was not really his problem to worry about, and that it was not his place to judge what Putin saw as simply a ‘domestic’ issue.

China may not appreciate the chaos that Russia’s actions engender, but it will also conclude that there is little it can gain from trying to rein Moscow in, except to lose a partner in its confrontation with the US. In fact, there is every chance Beijing will benefit from this situation, gaining a stronger hand over its bilateral relationship with Moscow as Putin alienates large portions of the globe and sees Russia cut out of the international system. And in some parts of Chinese considerations, there may even be some thought given to the benefits that Russia’s actions might bring in terms of creating a wider distraction, exposing fissures between Western allies, providing lessons for future confrontations and more broadly creating an opportunity for China to look like a more stable actor on the international stage in contrast to Russia.

None of this is to say Beijing is pleased with being associated with a bellicose pariah, and there is no doubt that China’s calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict are genuine. Doubtless, there is some concern about the Chinese students who appear to be stuck in Ukraine. But it is also clear that hard geopolitics is prominent in China’s thinking, and its willingness to support Russia trumps such concerns. Moreover, Beijing, like Moscow, believes that things blow over. In what is almost a complete turnaround from 2008, in December last year an image emerged of the Ambassador to Syria for the breakaway Georgian Republic of Abkhazia meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Damascus, Feng Biao. The full content of the encounter is not clear, but it was a source of friction between Tbilisi and Beijing. Reflecting continued Chinese curiosity in the region, a Shanghai news outlet recently had a reporter visit, something that was reported in light of the recent Russian recognitions in Ukraine.

A final point to note is that there is little reason why Beijing would feel it is being isolated on the international stage alongside Moscow at the moment. Watch the UN meetings in the run-up to Russia’s invasion, and India’s statements echo China’s refusal to condemn Moscow. Both voted the same way (alongside the UAE), choosing to abstain on the UN resolution condemning Russian action, while Indian finance officials are reported to be examining ways they can circumvent Western sanctions to continue to trade with Russia. Chinese banks have also been exploring ways of limiting their exposure, but the larger food, finance, technology and energy deals signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing earlier in the year highlight a deep economic relationship that is unlikely to change. Neither Beijing nor New Delhi appear eager to follow Western sanctions, although China is more forthright in condemning the use of the tactic. New Delhi may have subsequently done more to try to reach out to the Ukrainian side, but it has continued to avoid any sense of condemnation towards Moscow.

China and India may in other contexts be in violent conflict with each other, but they appear unified in being unwilling to jettison their relationship with Moscow in favour of Ukrainian or Western appeals. And given their collective representation of over a third of the planet’s population, this provides all three countries with adequate cover to wait and see how things develop, while keeping a cold eye on realist geopolitics.

Almost caught up with myself now, this time with a short piece for the Times Red Box which sought to highlight the rather ill-advised comments by the UK Foreign Secretary which seemed to actively encourage people to go and join the fighting in Ukraine. Considering what we have learned about foreign fighting, the legislation that has been passed and the people who have been prosecuted for doing it (not also forgetting the optics of a minister calling for vigilantism), it seemed particularly unfortunate comment to make, and in fact a number of other senior figures have now come out pushing back on the comment. Unfortunately, I keep seeing it being referred to by people who say they want to go and fight so the damage is likely done.

Encouraging Britons to fight in Ukraine is hypocritical

Two foreign fighters from the UK asked to be identified as “Scouser” and “Jacks” pose for a picture as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The foreign secretary’s seeming encouragement for Britons to go and fight alongside the Ukrainian armed forces is a comprehensible impulse given current tensions, but is the wrong message for a government minister to be sending. The commentary creates potential legal problems, risks fostering divisions at home, fans the flames of emotion when calm is needed and is unlikely to materially help the conflict on the ground.

This is not the first time a foreign conflict has generated an emotional call to arms. Famous foreign fighters from the past include authors like George Orwell or Lord Byron.

There were the famous international brigades mobilised to fight the Franco regime in Spain in the pre-war period. There were the international Mujahideen who went to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan. During the civil wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, people mobilised from around the world to help the various governments that emerged.

More recently, however, we associate the phenomenon with those who went to fight in Syria, both alongside and against Islamic State, with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, as well as other factions who were fighting against the cruel Assad regime.

The impulse for most of those who go to fight in these campaigns is the same. A sense of injustice being committed and the world watching as nothing is being done. There are some who are simply drawn to the excitement and violence of conflict, seeking the thrill of fighting and killing. But most are drawn by romantic narratives imagining themselves as latter-day Che Guevaras.

Yet in the UK, the government has chosen to prosecute some of those who have gone to fight alongside these groups. A number of people have been jailed for having fought alongside Isis, other jihadist groups in Syria and even some who joined the Kurdish forces fighting Isis (whom the government was actively supporting).

The act of going to fight itself was not illegal but the decision to join a proscribed terrorist organisation was.

This may feel different to the context in Ukraine, but there are some worrying precedents there as well. An unknown number of British nationals have in fact already been to fight in Ukraine (and may still be). Ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas, Ukraine has been a hotspot for radicalised westerners, mostly of an extreme right-wing inclination, seeking to join a battlefield.

In Italy, people have gone to fight on both sides. Some alongside the Russian-backed separatists and others alongside the Ukrainian side. An investigation into one of these networks in 2019 uncovered a cell in northern Italy who had accumulated a vast cache of weapons including an air-to-air missile.

In the UK, Britons linked to the proscribed terrorist group National Action are believed to have gone, while a number of North Americans linked to far-right groups have tried to join the fighting in the Donbas but were turned back by Ukrainian authorities.

Nowadays it is doubtful they would be rejected, but the issues raised by their travel remain. Battle-hardened extreme right-wing group members are clearly worrying people to have running around.

And the bigger narrative issues this raises need consideration. While there is no doubt that going to join Isis is different to going to fight in Ukraine (Isis has openly spoken of attacking the UK), there are some similarities in the motivations that drive individuals.

The danger becomes that a racial analysis is used to distinguish the two. Government is seen as being eager to prosecute people who go to fight Muslim conflicts, but when it comes to European wars, they encourage it. This is hardly going to soothe tensions between communities.

We are in the midst of a major security crisis in Europe whose peak has not yet come. This is exactly the moment emotions need to be calmed rather than inflamed. And it is exactly not the moment to start encouraging activity which until now has been prosecuted and which in other contexts we would never dream of countenancing.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

Another short catch-up post for the Telegraph, something they commissioned in the wake of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. It even managed to generate a response on their letters page which is always reassuring.

Western intelligence was mocked after Iraq. With Ukraine, it has redeemed itself

An explosion in Ukraine after Russia launched its invasion in the early hours of Feb 24 CREDIT: Zuma Press / eyevine

Intelligence tends to toil in silence. The only operations we usually hear about are ones that are leaked or when they go wrong. Successful terrorist attacks, for example, are reflections of intelligence failures. In the run up to the war in Iraq, the politicization of intelligence provided cover for an ill-judged conflict and has become a stick by which intelligence assessments are regularly brandished when they seem to threaten dire events. 

Yet on Ukraine, western intelligence can be judged to have been remarkably accurate from what we have seen so far. The only gap appeared to be an understanding of what would actually stop Vladimir Putin from making his move, something that reflects an inability to see inside one man’s head.

Information gathered by intelligence is never complete. It is usually a series of fragmentary images that provide a series of snapshots of a situation. Each piece comes from a different source and has a different level of reliability which needs consideration and evaluating alongside the actual information itself. This makes intelligence analysis and assessment more of an art than science. It also helps sometimes explain failures.

In a curious twist, the intelligence this time was visible for us all to see. The massive Russian troop accumulations on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and in Belarus, alongside the Russian provocations in supporting separatist forces in the Donbas were all reported and covered repeatedly on social media

Some even made it into the mainstream press. And as concern built about what Putin was planning, it was clear that western intelligence sought to brief out and share more of the information that they had to highlight the threat that they saw.

The goal was two-fold. First, to prepare the public for what was coming, and therefore the response that would follow. But more importantly to try to signal to Putin that the west was aware of what he was up to and that his repeated public pleas that he had no intention of invading Ukraine were lies.

 The hope being that this might deter him from carrying through on what they imagined he was planning on the basis of all the activity that was visible on the ground.

The only real missing part of the picture was what Putin himself was thinking and the moment of attack. US President Joe Biden and his administration started signalling a few weeks ago that they expected an attack any moment. They could judge from the forces on the ground that Russia was now able to launch an attack at any moment. But they did not know exactly when it was going to happen. Because this information was likely locked in one man’s head – Putin’s.

This ultimately is always the problem with intelligence information. It is dependent on knowing what people are thinking, and while external indicators can show a lot (and online behaviour in particular is a huge giveaway), intent and action are still dependent on choices people make. Sometimes this is based on logic and planning, other times on emotion.

On Ukraine there is no doubt that intelligence collection was accurate. The troop numbers, the plan and the path of action was largely predicted. And what they expected has come to pass. 

The fear now is that they were entirely right. In which case, the grim plan that was revealed which spoke of lists of Ukrainians to target, incarcerate and execute, and a puppet regime to be put in place instead is also accurate. 

This may be a very public vindication of western intelligence capabilities and a rebuff to those still stuck on the failures of Iraq, but it comes at a heavy cost to Ukraine and the world.

Into a new month, and a few things left over from the last one to publish. First up a short letter for the Financial Times which got a surprising amount of resonance, which reflects the fact that size is not everything I suppose!

Am also using this moment to do a media catch up which I have not done in a while. At the bottom of this post am putting a podcast I did with Veerle as part of a project I have been working on with RUSI (and partnering with Chatham House) which looks at trying to develop an agenda for a Transatlantic Dialogue on China.

This aside, spoke to RFE/RL about China in Afghanistan and separately about the Belt and Road; to the South China Morning Post about what the withdrawal from Afghanistan means to China, how China characterises its counter-terrorism program in Xinjiang, why ISIS has not talked much about China, what China is doing in Afghanistan, and China-Japan; to CNN about the China policy that Biden inherited; to the Mail on Sunday about Jack Ma; and on the other side of my work, to the Telegraph about 10 years on since bin Laden’s death; to The National about UK air strikes on ISIS in Syria; and, finally, to Australian ABC about the excellent work of the Unity Initiative.

Letter: West needs ‘grey zones’ not red lines in Ukraine and Taiwan

From Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, London SW1, UK

A Russian navy ship is seen during navy drills in the Black Sea on April 14, 2021. © AP

Gideon Rachman (“Why China and Russia will now test Biden”, Opinion, April 20) is right to identify Taiwan and Ukraine as places where the US (and its allies) will find themselves tested by China and Russia.

Setting red lines, however, is not necessarily the answer. It might instead create a series of tests which Beijing and Moscow feel compelled to probe in creative ways.

The challenge of setting red lines is that people will tend to run towards them. Knowing exactly where the lines in the sand are drawn provides adversaries with a target. And once they have reached the line, they explore ways in which they can softly undermine it — using the very “grey zone tactics” that Rachman identifies as being key weapons in Beijing and Moscow’s toolboxes.

The net result is further confusion. If they have not clearly crossed the line by using deniable cyber tactics or proxies, what is to be done?

It may take time to clarify. But for the moment, the discussion will be about whether they crossed the line or not — with the mere debate about it suggesting they did and the west did nothing about it. No good comes of this beyond seeming to undermine western commitments.

The question is not are China and Russia adversaries in these situations. They clearly see themselves as such and continue to act as though they are. Rather it is a question of whether the west is committed to helping Ukraine and Taiwan. So far, the west has remained resolute in its support for both countries — President Joe Biden is sending delegations of close allies to Taipei while his most recent round of sanctions suggests a willingness to confront Russian behaviour. Both countries continue to be recipients of US military aid.

The only additional benefit a clear red line would contribute would be to suggest the throwing down of a gauntlet after which presumably the west will have to reply with harder force.

Far better to keep a deniable grey zone on the west’s side as well, which keeps adversaries wondering how we might respond and how far they can go. A jockeying may seem to leave things open for miscalculation, but is also likely to be the best we can hope for, short of open warfare in a geopolitical context of great power conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow
Royal United Services Institute

And now for some links to other media outputs which are online that have popped up in the past period. First up is the podcast referenced above which is part of the bigger Transatlantic Dialogue on China project Veerle and myself are working on at RUSI.

Next up a panel discussion with Turkish TRT Television looking at what Biden’s pledges towards NATO mean for Europe and international security in particular, with former NATO policy planner Dr Jamie Shea CMG and Dr Thomas Sutton from Baldwin College.

And finally, another panel with TRT, this time looking at what the UK’s new Integrated Review means with the Evening Standard’s Defence correspondent Robert Fox and former Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary Sir Simon Fraser.