Tokyo Conference 2022: How should the world deal with Russia's aggression?

May 05, 2022

Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24 showed a blatant disregard for territoriality and sovereignty, thereby threatening the international order that holds these precepts so dear. The invasion continued into March when, during the first session of Tokyo Conference 2022, participants from ten of the world's leading thinktanks took part in discussions on how the world should deal with Russia's aggression.

War will continue as long as Xi Jinping's stance remains unchanged. The Russian army and treasury are drained, but no "diplomatic off-ramp" is in sight.

The first remarks were offered by James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States. He began my noting the remarkable effort made by the US and its allies to use "all measures short of the use of force to compel Russia to reverse course with its invasion of Ukraine. He noted that neutral non-allies such as Switzerland and Sweden have also presented a united front to Russia's actions ? marking a fundamental change taking place in Europe.

However, the use of economic sanctions alone has been insufficient in forcing Russia to withdraw. Lindsay pointed that the response has not been united on a global level, but more importantly, it is China's lack of participation that has reduced the effectiveness of the sanctions.

"To this point, China not only hasn't condemned the invasion, it seemingly supports it," Lindsay explained. "This is consistent with the February 4th statement that President Xi and Putin issued, stating that the strategic partnership between Russia and China has 'no limits'. As long as President Xi sticks to that position, and barring a coup in the Kremlin or a collapse of the Russian army in the field, western military resupply of Ukrainian forces and economic warfare will not change Putin's calculus."

Finally, Lindsay believes that, while short-term cease fires and truces are possible, the overall war is likely to grind on.

"The fundamental reality is that Vladimir Putin has begun a war he cannot win, but cannot afford to lose. His military strategy seems to have been to try to quickly decapitate the Ukrainian government; that clearly has failed. I would imagine that the Russians would ultimately prevail in the theater of operations they choose, but like the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia is going to discover that combat is relatively easy compared to the occupation that will follow. But for Vladimir Putin, reversing course and withdrawing forces would be an admission of defeat that could potentially doom his regime. Conversely, video of Ukrainian civilians being butchered is going to deepen opposition in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere that will make it even harder to generate the kinds of concessions needed to produce a diplomatic settlement because they will be construed as rewarding Russia for its aggression."

Lindsay noted that these issues all make it difficult to find a "diplomatic off-ramp" that will bring the crisis to a close, and asked the other participants to consider two questions.

"First, can the conflict be contained within the Ukraine?" he asked. The threat here can be seen in the attack on a Ukrainian base near the Polish border, and to Russia already blaming Ukrainian resistance in their country on the support of the US and NATO.

"The other question is whether western solidarity can be sustained over the course of a crisis that is likely to drag out for months, if not years," Lindsay said. His worry is that European countries will bear varying levels of burden due to the sanctions and refugee numbers, and he believes it likely that Putin will make use of disinformation strategies to sow doubt and increase division in Europe. This is in addition to genuine disagreements over "strategy, tactics, and timing."

"Strong political leadership and savvy diplomacy can potentially keep those divisions in check, but unfortunately, as time drags on, both of those could be in short supply," he concluded.

Russia is not as isolated from the world as some think, and sanction effectiveness is questionable. Will cutting Russia off from the international community hurt the West as well?

Next to speak was Thomas Gomart, Director of the French Institute of International Relations, who began by taking the opposite tack from James Lindsay.

"In my view, this war in Ukraine is accelerating the fragmentation of the world. I do not see unity. As it was said, it is very important to analyze which countries voted for abstention. Among them are the BRICs, except Brazil; the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and there are also some African countries that are very important in terms of energy supply, such as Algeria. So, to put things bluntly, I don't see that Russia is so isolated from the world," Gomart explained.

Gomart continued with a retrospective look at the Putin regime, which according to Gomart, "has been fueled by war since its beginning."

"In the summer of 2000, President Putin lost a nuclear submarine, then he got revenge for his military in Chechnya. Unfortunately, the way of proceeding in Chechnya was repeated in Syria, and will be repeated in Ukraine. We add the intervention in Georgia. We add the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Donbas; the intervention in Syria and we have also the use of proxies in Mali recently."

Gomart pointed out one event that perhaps foreshadowed the invasion was Russia's destruction of one of its own satellites in November.

"That gave a new dimension to this war. We are the middle of multi-domain warfare."

Gomart also believes that to a certain extent Russia is wary of the EU more than NATO, due the geopolitical efforts made on behalf of its 'Eastern Partnership.'

"I remind you that since 2009," he said. "The EU promoted its Eastern Partnership with Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan."

That partnership was seen in a more negative light by Russia however, a point illustrated by the fact that over the last 13 years, there have been six conflicts in those countries and one major war.

"This situation is extremely dangerous because we are facing the risk of a vertical escalation and a horizontal escalation. In terms of vertical escalation, there was a crystal-clear message from the Kremlin about the 'nuclear dimension' of this conflict. And for the horizontal escalation, we know that Russia has made many transgressions in the past, especially with chemical weapons."

Gomart feels that other countries must keep that in mind when considering potential escalations, particular when dealing with other domains such as outer space and cyberspace. He also wanted to touch upon potential consequences of disconnected a country like Russia from the western part of globalization.

"Russia is not Serbia. We will suffer, especially in Europe, from counter-sanctions taken by Russia. And just as Russia was completely unprepared for the magnitude of western sanctions, I do think we are unprepared for the magnitude of Russian counter-sanctions. It is a permanent member of the UNSC, a nuclear power, a space power, and highly important in terms of resources. It's about the EU and its absence of an energy policy for the last two decades, and the wake-up call will be very costly for Europe."

Gomart called for discussion among the western powers about the efficiency of sanctions, but stated that the real debate is less about efficiency and more about "the effects of the sanctions on the world."

Don't presume the sanctions are inadequate. If abstaining countries like China, India, and South Africa join in on sanctions, the global security framework can be rebuilt.

Following Gomart was Stefan Mair, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, who said that we shouldn't "disdain the sanctions" placed against Russia as being ineffective.

"I think the sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union are so comprehensive and far-reaching that they will have a significant and devastating effect on the Russian economy, and will certainly curtail the Kremlin's ability to continue its military behavior," Mair said.

The problem, he said, lies in the fact that only a small number of other countries have joined in placing sanctions.

"This is also mirrored by the fact that 35 countries abstained from the General Assembly's resolution on the Ukraine." While he expressed that it was unsurprising that China, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Central Asian countries abstained, it was disappointing states to see democracies that promote international law such as India and South Africa do so. He warned that a lack of decisive action against this type of major military aggression will result in the institutions of global governance falling apart.

He also addressed the future of the European security order, which is now becoming "decisively confrontational" after more than 30 years of working towards cooperation. The final result of Russia's invasion will have little effect on that order, too.

"There will be the creation of satellite states like Belarus, the partition of Ukraine, or its full incorporation into the Russian Empire. We will again see a sharply divided Europe, probably again separated by a kind of iron curtain, this time along the line of the Eastern borders of the European Union," Mair warned. "And we will see a massive military buildup along the dividing line, as indicated by the German government's decision to increase its military spending by 50% in the next years."

"The crucial question will be how reliable the United States will be as security guarantor in this," he continued. "A lot of it depends on the next presidential elections."

Moreover, he warned that his question can be answered by gauging the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the global security order.

"The way neutral states position themselves will very much determine whether we will see an increasingly bipolar or multipolar world order," he said. "Here again, countries like China, India, and South Africa will have to play a decisive role. If they are seen as tolerating the Russian aggression in Ukraine, we will move further towards bipolarity, which will make global institutions more and more ineffective. What that means in a time of pandemic and climate change, well, everyone knows in this room."

"If these countries can make up their minds and clearly condemn and isolate Russia," he continued. "I think we have a clear chance for effective global governance and revitalizing the global institutions."

The West must consider addressing Russia's legitimate security concerns while following international law.

The final opening speaker was Lawrence Anderson, Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He began with some insight into how smaller countries like Singapore see the current Ukraine crisis.

"Russia's invasion of Ukraine contravenes the UN Charter. It is a clear violation of international law. This is an existential issue to us. Ukraine is much smaller than Russia, but it is much larger than Singapore. A world order based on 'might is right' will be catastrophic to small and medium sized states. That is why we must strongly support the principles of the UN Charter. The sovereignty, the political independence, and the territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected," he said, before emphasizing what must be done next.

"Clearly the fighting must stop. Russia must respect international law and withdraw from Ukraine. Even if it captures Kyiv, it will be difficult for any puppet government to rule without the direct support of Russian military forces. The brave Ukrainians will fight on, aided by supplies from many countries. Russia's occupation will be costly," he said.

Anderson warned that Russia's continued presence in Ukraine will only invite further sanctions that will further isolate Russia, but noted that sanctions aren't the only cost that will be paid.

"The exodus of companies from Russia will continue. It will be a long time before foreign investors re-enter into business relationships with Moscow. Ordinary Russians will suffer serious economic hardship," he said.

 Furthermore, Anderson explained that even if Russia is able to gain control over Ukraine, going beyond will entail a direct confrontation with NATO.

Finally, he expressed his opinion on how to pursue peace.

"The war is not going well for Russia. Even if Ukraine falls, the prospects facing Russia are bleak," he said. "So, what will persuade Mr. Putin to cut his losses? It would not be wise to push him into a corner without a face-saving way out. Some have argued that NATO may have been too ambitious in its expansion. That does not justify Russia's invasion, but the West should look seriously at Russia's legitimate security concerns, even as they support Ukraine in its current struggle."

Anderson asked how Russia's concerns can be addressed without compromising sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine and the other states known as "the near abroad" in Russia ? i.e., former Soviet states.

"All sides will have to make sacrifices and endure pain and loss," Anderson concluded. "Sadly, it is Ukraine that will have paid the highest price. To achieve a durable peace, Russia must abandon its plans for violent conquest and unsettling its neighbors. The West, in turn, must have the fortitude to sustain the course for the long game. It would be a tragedy if the thirst for revenge and the love of power triumphs over wisdom and the desire for peace."

Once the four opening speakers were finished, the discussion began.

Kudo opened the discussion by arguing that allowing unilateral changes to the status quo through violent action will destroy the foundation upon which the international order is built, and asked what was needed to curb such aggressive behavior. Regarding the outrage directed at President Putin, who continues to ignore international opinion, Kudo asked if it is possible for an authoritative figure to maintain power in their own country when they do not have the support of the world. He suggested that if Putin does not thoroughly manage the dissemination of information domestically, he will surely face backlash from within, before turning over the discussion to the other participants.

Ettore Greco, Executive Vice President of Italy's Istituto Affari Internazionali, began by providing his perspective on the invasion of Ukraine and the nuclear issue.

"Putin has committed a catastrophic error in waging this war, but at the same time, everything indicates that he will continue to escalate military action. Not least because now his own political and personal fate are at stake," he said.

He then went over three main concerns that apply to this situation.

"One concern is to prevent the aggressor from being rewarded. The second should make Putin pay the highest price for his aggression; in view of sending other potential aggressors a clear message, and also Putin himself, who may have plans to attack other parts of "the near abroad" or even other areas. The third is to prevent a spillover of the conflict and avoid destructive escalation."

Greco admitted that it will be a "delicate balancing act," but noted that there has been stronger than expected resistance from the Ukrainian public, and that sanctions will have an effect in time.

He also spoke about the nuclear aspect of the conflict.

"We were all shocked by the announcement by Putin that he has placed his nuclear forces on alert. This was in my view a way to intimidate the NATO countries, and specifically the western countries, for 'interfering in the conflict,' as Putin put it," he said.

While others have threatened the use of nuclear weapons, this situation is different, Greco believes.

"This is particularly worrying because it is the first time a nuclear power making such threats has launched an unjustified war of aggression against a non-nuclear power," he noted. "This may easily lead other countries, particularly threshold countries, to come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons are the only way to protect themselves. Just the simple fact of threatening their use may have a huge impact on the non-proliferation regime."

He added that Ukraine's President Zelenskyy also said that it may have been a mistake to give up its own nuclear arsenal in light of what Russia is doing now.

Other effects are also being seen.

"For instance, we are seeing growing difficulties in concluding the nuclear deal with Iran. Before the war, there were timid efforts by the P5 to at least reach a preliminary agreement to establish new instruments to avoid nuclear risks. This could lead to a positive outcome for the Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Here Stefan Mair asked Sunjoy Joshi, Chairman of India's Observer Research Foundation, if he could provide some information about India's position regarding Russia's military invasion.

Joshi explained that he would go into greater detail on India's position during the last session, but noted that this is not the first time India has taken such a position, adding that of greater concern are the issues underlying the acceptance of the new "iron curtain."

"What worries me from the conversation that I'm hearing is that there seems to be unanimity in the fact that there is an iron curtain which has been drawn across Europe. Not just across Europe, but this iron curtain is going to be drawn right across the world," he said.

"If we are going to get into this bipolar world, then where do we go from here?" he continued. "We think, 'Yes, Putin is a madman, Putin is unpredictable.' No one expected the ladder of escalation (of this war) to be climbed so fast in such a short time. But where do we go from here? The way things are going now, if Russia is going to be completely cornered, and has to be cornered, then where is NATO in this? Where are NATO's red lines? How far is it prepared to go? Is it actually prepared to get into a direct confrontation should Putin refuse to pull back? Should the worst fears come true?"

"Both sides are getting completely trapped in their own insecurities. But how do we get out of here? (War) is not the solution. How do we remove this complete breakdown in communication which has happened?" he asked. "How do we allow (peace talks) to move forward and how do we find solutions?

Rohinton Medhora, President of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Canada, addressed the current climate before posing another question.

"We keep talking about the West's reaction being a bit of a demonstration effect to deter 'others.' I'm worrying who those others might be, and I'm guessing that it might be a short list of one: perhaps China. The question for us here is, 'Is there anything that China should be doing differently, or that the current western coalition should be enticing China to do differently to break the current stalemate?' It is a bit of a bipolar world, as many of you have put it, but it seems to me that it needn't be. The current sanctions regime, which has major outs in the Middle East and Africa and in East Asia for Russia, might change if there was some dynamic with China that could change."

Carlos Ivan Simonsen Leal is President of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil, and he noted that while everyone should be worried about a nuclear war, they should also have an eye on what will be happening in six months if no nuclear war occurs.

"We are seeing lots of tactical movements, but no long-term strategy. Russia does not have the economic clout to face both the European Union and the United States. It may win the war for a short time in Ukraine, but then it will have problems in occupying it."

He asked what the long-strategy should be, then went into further detail about the issues Russia will face.

"Russia is in deep economic trouble, and from its point-of-view, it is also facing deep geopolitical and geostrategic problems," Leal said. "But somewhere in time, you have to offer a bridge for Russia to return to a more normal state."

Regarding the consequences of isolating Russia, he believes that they will be dire.

"Russia will suffer, but so will the European economy," he said. "To that end, we are seeing a deeper phenomenon. Prime Minister Kishida pointed out that it's very important to defend the middle class in Japan because that is the basis of democracy. That is true not only for Japan; it is true for every other democracy that I know. And the middle classes are suffering."

Following Leal, Lawrence Anderson responded to some of the questions raised thus far.

"The first is the question about if we accept what Russia is doing in Ukraine as a new way of defining the world order, what that will imply in terms of other countries doing a similar thing. But it is not just about China. I mentioned earlier that it's about small states and medium sized states. Not every one of us in the international community borders a superpower with nuclear weapons, but a lot of countries border bigger neighbors. We need to follow the UN Charter, and we need to bear in mind that it's not just about China; it's about any small or medium sized country that borders an aggressive neighbor."

Anderson's second point was regarding the potential transformation in a bipolar world, and expressed that he is not convinced that it will happen.

"We are not into the Second Cold War. I think Russia wants to dispel the post-Cold War arrangements, vis-a-vis NATO and its security and influence over 'the near abroad,' and it is prepared to use force if it is necessary. But I don't think China wishes to dismantle the post-Cold War political, security, and economic arrangements. It has benefited greatly from these arrangements. What it wants is a major say in re-shaping these arrangements to acknowledge its rise as a global power," he said. "We won't see the world broken up into the old Cold War situation, but I think we will see greater rivalry in how the rules of the game will change."

Finally, he noted that China is walking a very fine line at the moment with regards to Russia.

"Beijing is much more connected into the current global system than Russia is," he said. "China knows that the US and Europe will not cut it any slack should it violate the unilateral sanctions imposed on Russia. This has implications for all of us here in Asia because our economic relations (with China) are probably number one in terms of trade and FDI flows. But there is a substantial link with the United States, and we would not want to see this quarrel between the two."

He also pointed out that China and Russia are likely looking into payment systems that serve as alternatives to SWIFT, before expressing his final point about Putin's "persistence about being in Ukraine, as well as risking permanent confrontation with the West."

"The only logical outcome of that would be having to move closer to China," he explained. "But moving closer to China would mean (Putin) would have to accept being a junior partner in that equation. And that would make him think two or three times before he made such a drastic step."

Kudo asked Thomas Gomart to wrap up the session with three questions: is this problem limited to Ukraine, how prepared is NATO to respond, and what sort of exit strategy should we be looking for?

Gomart started by pointing to Russia's long-term strategy, pointing out that since 2005 when the Netherlands and France rejected the proposed EU constitution, the Russian establishment has calculated that the EU would collapse before Russia, and even the advent of Brexit was viewed in that light.

"There is another calculation that maybe President Trump will be back in 2024, and that would create new circumstances," he added. "I think the polarization of debate in the US regarding Russia is striking, even if I think the Republican Party will move to the center to some extent."

Gomart then addressed Kudo's questions.

"I think we should be very direct. What will be the consequences of the destruction of Ukraine, similar to what was done in Chechnya during the (Second Chechen War). And what would be the consequences of the dramatic military losses on the Russian side? The figure delivered by the Russian Minister of Defense after five days of operations showed around 500 killed. This was horrifying. But it was not in a wish for transparency (that the announcement was made); I think it was made in preparation for a very quick militarization of Russian society. It is what we have in front of us. And I do think that in the next six months, the question is what will be the reaction from the US, Europe, and other countries to a level of violence which will be comparable to levels seen during the Second World War."


The Tokyo Conference 2022

Session 1 : How should the world deal with Russia's aggression?
Dates: 8:00pm-9:20pm (JST) , March 14 (Mon.), 2022
Venue: Tokyo and Online

Yasushi Kudo (President of The Genron NPO, Japan)

Ettore Greco (Executive Vice President, Istituto Affari Internazionali, Italy)
Thomas Gomart (Director, French Institute of International Relations)
Sunjoy Joshi (Chairman, Observer Research Foundation, India)
James M. Lindsay (Senior Vice President, Council on Foreign Relations, the United States)
Stefan Mair (Director, German Institute for International and Security Affairs)
Rohinton Medhora (President, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Canada)
Lawrence Anderson (Senior Fellow, S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore)
Carlos Ivan Simonsen Leal (President, Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil)

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