Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.12.17

Biden’s warning to Putin on Ukraine has Indo-Pacific ramifications as well

A Russian invasion of its southern neighbor would have strategic implications beyond Europe

the japan times on November 26, 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday reportedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin during a two-hour virtual summit that the West would impose “strong economic and other measures” on Russia if it invades Ukraine.

Putin, for his part, requested “reliable, legally binding guarantees” against further NATO expansion eastward during the talks.

In Britain, the Financial Times reported on Dec. 8 that “Joe Biden has made a significant diplomatic concession to Moscow designed to prevent an invasion of Ukraine, signaling he wants to convene meetings between NATO allies and Russia to discuss Vladimir Putin’s grievances with the transatlantic security pact.”

The Telegraph newspaper carried a similar story, saying that Biden hinted “he was ready to offer Vladimir Putin concessions on Ukraine’s membership of NATO in an attempt to defuse tension in the region.” Yet, in Japan, no mainstream media outlet, to my surprise, voiced similar observations to that coming out of the United Kingdom.

The Nikkei’s editorial, for example, just noted that the “U.S. and Russia must continue dialogue to ease tensions in Ukraine,” while the conservative Sankei and Yomiuri dailies ran these headlines: “Russian troops must leave the border” and “Russia must recognize the price of invasion,” respectively, with neither discussing “concessions.”

Likewise, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno stated in a news conference in Tokyo that “It is important for the leaders of the United States and Russia, important players in the international community, to talk directly with each other, and we will continue to monitor the situation in Ukraine, where tensions continue.”

No one in Japan thus far seems to have pondered the strategic and geopolitical implications that the second Biden-Putin summit meeting may have for the Indo-Pacific region, so I wish to share my personal takeaways from their virtual summit for Japan and China.

Did Biden make concessions to Putin? The White House flatly denied the notion.

Biden said he hoped to have a meeting at a higher level “with at least four of our major NATO Allies and Russia to discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO writ large and whether or not we can work out any accommodations as it relates to bringing down the temperature along the eastern front.”

What did the U.S. president mean when he expressed a desire to “discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO”? No wonder the Financial Times criticized Biden’s reference to finding some sort of “‘accommodation’ with Moscow in Eastern Europe,” noting that statement would certainly startle many eastern NATO members and U.S. allies.

Why does Japan appear to be indifferent? Tokyo seems to have failed to comprehend the potential danger of discussing Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion only among Russia, the U.S., and a limited number of its European allies. It could be a nightmare for some Eastern European NATO member states if they were not involved in such discussions.

For pundits in Tokyo, for the time being, it may suffice for the United States and Russia to continue dialogue over the issue of Ukraine. For those in Europe, however, such dialogue will only benefit Russia and cause a deterioration in the balance of power on the European continent, tilting it in Moscow’s favor.

Why has Putin mobilized 170,000 Russian troops along the border with Ukraine? If it is not for an invasion, it must be aimed at testing the will of NATO and that of the United States, particularly under the Biden administration, on how they will respond to a Ukraine contingency.

Now that Russia is no longer the superpower it once was and the U.S.-China hegemonic rivalry has intensified, Putin appears to be trying to feel the pulse of NATO. If the alliance shows weakness, Russia may forcibly annex parts of Ukraine again and if it remains strong and shows resolve, Moscow would be all too happy to force diplomatic concessions.

Biden seems to know what Putin has in mind. He and his advisers may have believed that they could test Putin’s will as it pertains to Ukraine through, together with some of the U.S.’ European allies, dialogue and the offering of a package deal on NATO’s future relations with Ukraine.

The Biden administration may be hoping for the following: If the package deal is reached, the United States can successfully avert conflict in Ukraine. Even if the deal is not reached, NATO can still ease tensions with Russia with the help of Washington’s strong warning aimed at deterring Putin.

Although nobody can predict what will be the outcome of such U.S. concessions, they will significantly affect the geostrategic environment surrounding the Indo-Pacific.

For Putin, if he succeeds in checking Biden, Russia may deter NATO’s expansion eastward and even gain additional Ukrainian territory. And if not, Moscow can still counter NATO and maintain leverage in the European theater by keeping Washington’s attention focused on Eastern Europe.

This would have a significant implication for the Indo-Pacific region and particularly for China because the United States may have to divert national security resources back to the European theater, giving China more breathing space in East Asia. This would also further complicate Japan’s national security policies.

For the United States, if Biden succeeds in checking Putin, Washington can comfortably continue focusing on China in the Indo-Pacific region. If not, however, the Biden administration will have to deal with two different theaters at the same time — China in the Indo-Pacific and Russia in the European theater — for years to come.

The latter would greatly benefit Beijing while disappointing Tokyo and many other capitals of the peace-loving nations in the Indo-Pacific region. I fully share the Financial Times’ concern about the U.S. concessions to Russia and will keep my fingers crossed.