When superpowers provoke one another, the innocent first to pay the price 

AS the Russo-Ukrainian war enters its third week, sparking one of the largest humanitarian crises in recent memory, the world is receiving a crash course on history, which will help us understand its context. There are a couple of notable things about this war that I would like to highlight. 

The first is that the state of international affairs is always a common space of tension. To a large extent the source of this tension lies in the idea of achieving some kind of a “world order”. The problem is, as Henry Kissinger notes, “There is no true world order. For most of history, civilisations defined their own concepts of order. Each considered itself the centre of the world and envisioned its distinct principles as universally relevant.”  

This state of tension, be it between state and state or state and non-state actors, builds until it reaches a boiling point where often, the only outcome is violence or warfare. One of the great historians of our time, Eric Hobsbawm, observed that the world is at present “engaged in what purports to be a planned reordering of the world by the powerful states”. He noted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just one facet of “a supposedly universal effort to create world order by ‘spreading democracy’.”   

“This idea is not merely quixotic – it is dangerous. The rhetoric surrounding this crusade implies that the system is applicable in a standardised (Western) form, that it can succeed everywhere, that it can remedy today’s transnational dilemmas, and that it can bring peace, rather than sow disorder. It cannot.”  

This presents us with a big question: can this be managed or is the state of warfare inevitable?   

I come with the strong opinion that no nation-state has the right to attack or invade another country based on “history” or other pretext. Respect for territorial integrity is a core principle under international law. Nation-states should not attempt topromote secessionist movements or promote border changes in other nation-states, nor impose a border change using force, as enshrined in Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter 

Having said this, I am also not ignorant of the fact that no nation will sit put when provoked, especially when it feels that its survival as a political entity is challenged. Diplomacy is a useful tool, but it can only be productive if nations are engaged in open and transparent dialogue. This is particularly important with major powers.  

Nations like India, Turkey and France are trying to use diplomacy as a tool to broker peace talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This is laudable. Whatever the outcome of diplomacy, the takeaway from the war in Ukraine is it is a result of a failure to engage in an open and transparent manner, exacerbated by acts of provocation by major powers.  

The United States subscribes to the Monroe Doctrine, which prescribes that no distant great power is allowed to form a military alliance with a country in the Western hemisphere as the Americans’ sphere of interest. It was last invoked in 1962 in what is now famously known as the Cuban missile crisis.  

President John F. Kennedy threw a naval and air quarantine around the island until the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles and dismantle all sites. The US views the Western hemisphere as “its backyard”, to crib a phrase from Professor John Mearsheimer, distinguished professor of political science at the University of Chicago.  

If the US prohibits distant great powers from coming to its backyard, Russian insecurity over efforts to expand Nato to its borders isn’t too difficult to explain. This continuous Nato expansion turned Ukraine into a bulwark and was viewed as an act of provocation. 

Russia expressed its objection to this after the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed in 2014, but the US and its allies denied that eastward Nato expansion was directed against Moscow. The war in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea are tragic outcomes of such provocation.  

Second and as an effect of Russia’s aggression, Ukraine is now the epicentre of a major humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates that nearly two million Ukrainians have fled to neighbouring countries since the start of the war on Feb 24.  

Efforts to evacuate civilians have also been disrupted by continual heavy Russian bombardment of major cities. Zelensky accused Russian soldiers of being “war criminals” for their attacks on civilians. Discussions between Kyiv and Moscow to bring about a ceasefire will continue, but before any positive outcome from these talks can be achieved, the reality on the ground remains grim. 

Russia’s unbridled assault on Ukraine has resulted in millions displaced with the UN preparing for as many as seven million refugees. Russia’s tactic of targeting densely populated areas, too, has been widely castigated as disproportionate. Ukrainians have been forced into bomb shelters and underground train stations, crowded together even as Covid-19 continues to plague a country that has only fully vaccinated about 35 per cent of the population. Many European Union nations have stepped up to accept refugees, a move I hope is mirrored by the US who has so far offered temporary protection status to Ukrainians already in the US.  

The truth is despite the many platforms we have today, the international community is struggling to protect the innocent – men, women and children – who are indeed the biggest casualties of power play. It is imminent that in the face of war, whatever the context, the innocent suffers the most.  

A concern for many of us in this part of the world is that of major superpowers and what happens if the struggle for supremacy, be it ideological or trade, moves to our backyard? We have seen some indications of this rivalry. When things get out of control, the peripheral states – including us in Southeast Asia – will suffer the most immediate and catastrophic outcomes. All our diplomatic efforts, not only by singular countries but Asean as a bloc, must be directed at preventing such a situation.  

Taking a firm stand on provocative actions made by and between major powers – whether through diplomacy, global calls for peace or outright criticism – is a good place to start. Our silence will not protect us. 

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