In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West has rapidly closed ranks and imposed the most comprehensive set of sanctions in recent memory. Top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Segei Lavorv, have now landed on the sanctions list, while major Russian banks have been frozen out of global financial markets. Even Russia’s Central Bank is now on the hit list, with its assets frozen by the U.S.
Germany, a major investor and export partner of Russia, has even shelved the much-vaunted Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline project. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has also beefed up its military deployments and aerial presence across its eastern frontline in an effort to deter any further Russian provocations.
The ongoing conflict in Europe, however, has sent shockwaves across Asia, undermining Russia’s strategic pivot to the region. Key regional economies such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore have imposed sanctions against Russia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the main multilateral body in the region, also expressed its displeasure with Russia’s latest actions.
China, Russia’s most important strategic partner in the region, has decided to walk a tightrope by emphasizing conflict resolution and inviolability of national sovereignty of all nations rather than categorically supporting Moscow’s cause. In short, Moscow’s latest actions may have significantly undercut its ability to maximize potentially promising trade and defense relations with the world’s most dynamic region.
All Fall Down
Up until last year, top defense officials in the West contemplated a so-called “reverse Kissinger” maneuver. Back in the 1970s, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger successfully negotiated a de facto alliance with Maoist China against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. But with China becoming a global force, some Western experts and officials began to contemplate a de facto alliance with Russia in order to constrain the rising Asian power.
But this seemingly cynical strategic vision completely misread the calculus of Putin, who once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the past century. The Soviet Union collapsed nearly three decades ago – not with a bang, but a whimper. A combination of ideological rigidity, economic sclerosis, and misguided interventions overseas, most dramatically in Afghanistan, sapped the once mighty empire of both resources and willpower.
Although brave and admirable in its own right, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal reforms proved too little, too late. If anything, they even expedited the impending collapse of communist regimes across Eurasia and Central Europe. But Moscow’s tragedy proved a boon for the West, which wasted no time to create a whole new order in Europe.
As a longtime Soviet operative in Central Europe, Vladimir Putin, then an intelligence officer, painfully observed the humiliation of his cherished polity. Not to mention, the economic crises and wholesale disintegration of state institutions, which eroded the very social foundations of Russian society throughout the 1990s. Even Russia’s famed armed forces had been left in ashes, with one top defense official lamenting, “No army in the world is in as wretched a state as ours.”
Yet, more was to come. For years, Putin helplessly witnessed the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) across Russia’s borders, from Central Europe (1999) to Baltic states (2004) and Balkans (2009 onwards). Thanks to booming energy exports, the Russian leader began to steadily rebuild the country’s military capabilities.
By 2008, Putin felt confident enough to militarily intervene in Georgia and, accordingly, deter the Caucasian country’s drift towards the West. He would repeat the same drill in 2014 by annexing Crimea following a pro-West regime change in Ukraine. Throughout his two decades in power, Putin helplessly watched NATO expand from Slovenia, to Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states (2004) and Croatia and Albania (2009), Montenegro (2017), and North Macedonia (2020) most recently.
Increasingly surrounded by a “siloviki” cabal of ultranationalists, Putin has repeatedly shown his willingness to roll the dice and challenge the post-Cold War order in Europe by all means necessary. Thus, Russia’s decision to press ahead with invasion of Ukraine shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, especially given Putin’s insistence on rebooting the strategic order in Europe. The problem, however, is that Russia is now confronting a potential blowback in the East as well.
An Uncertain Fallback
To cushion its economy from prospective Western sanctions, Russia has amassed a massive war chest of more than $600 billion. Crucially, the Eurasian powerhouse has also relied on its booming economic and strategic relations with Asia as a potential fallback amid a total meltdown in its ties with the West. Almost exactly a decade ago, Russia launched its own pivot to Asia strategy, thus steadily becoming a top arms exporter in Southeast Asia and a major energy supplier to Northeast Asia, particularly China.
Politically, Putin’s combination of regular elections and authoritarian populism also proved particularly popular among leaders in major regional democracies such as the Philippines and Indonesia. And during early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia also emerged as a major source of public health assistance, even setting up joint vaccine production schemes with key regional states such as Vietnam. Nevertheless, preexisting Western sanctions hampered Moscow’s ability to become a comprehensive power in the region, especially given the limited trade and investment linkages between Russia and most East Asian countries. U.S. sanctions on Russian arms exports also drove away major potential customers, including Indonesia, which ultimately decided to ditch a major defense deal with Russia in favor of France.
The ongoing crisis will likely further undercut Russia’s ability to conduct large-scale trade, investment and defense deals with regional states, including in Southeast Asia. Major Asian economies of Japan and South Korea, two potentially large energy export markets, have followed in the steps of their Western allies by imposing comprehensive sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile Singapore, the region’s financial hub and a key Russian strategic partner in Southeast Asia, has openly criticized the invasion of Ukraine. In a particularly tough statement, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared, "If international relations are based on 'might is right', the world will be a dangerous place for small countries like Singapore,” thus his country “staunchly supports international law and the United Nations Charter, which prohibits acts of aggression against a sovereign state."
Days later, Singapore made the unprecedented decision to impose tough sanctions on Russia, including export bans and blockage of financial transactions with key Russian banks. On its part, the Philippines, which has been exploring closer defense and strategic ties with Moscow, has also joined the chorus of international condemnation against the invasion of Ukraine.
With key Southeast Asian countries reconsidering their burgeoning ties with Russia, which is now facing even more punishing Western sanctions, accomplishing major regional initiatives such as ASEAN-Russia "Comprehensive Plan of Action" will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible. During its latest Foreign Ministers Meeting, ASEAN expressed “deep concern” over the crisis, signaling a whole host of difficulties that may beset bilateral relations with Moscow.
This means Russia will likely be more dependent on China, both on the economic and strategic fronts, as it faces growing isolation in the West as well as among U.S. partners in Asia. Yet, even China, a key partner, has also refused to categorically support Russia’s latest actions by instead emphasizing the peaceful resolution of the disputes and the sanctity of sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, including Ukraine’s. Overall, what’s clear is that Putin’s latest actions will have major repercussions for Russia’s place in the world, including its until-recently promising pivot to Asia.