War starts when deterrence falls short

War starts when deterrence falls short

On Feb 24, 2022, when I heard that Russia had invaded Ukraine, calling it a "special military operation", I thought that the war would not last beyond a month.

It is with sadness that we have just commemorated the second anniversary of this continuing illegal and anachronistic war against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a sovereign state in the heart of Europe.

The Charter of the United Nations clearly states that international disputes shall be settled by peaceful means and that all states shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any other states.

In two years, over 10,500 civilians, including women and children, have lost their lives. Over 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died. Many more remain permanently injured. Schools and hospitals have been destroyed. Credible evidence has emerged suggesting that war crimes may have been committed in Ukraine. I hereby repeat the call for the return of all children deported from Ukraine back to their waiting families.

My sympathy also goes to the Russian people who have lost their lives or have been injured in this war.

In early 2022, I was impressed by the accuracy of the information gathered by US intelligence regarding Russia's military build-up and intentions. Nevertheless, as a possible lesson for the future, I will share with you today one of the things I thought may have made a difference. This concerns the effective use of deterrence during negotiations.

At the offset of the negotiation process, US President Joe Biden publicly declared that since Ukraine was not a member of Nato, the US and Nato would, therefore, not respond militarily to a Russian invasion but would only use economic sanctions.

This took US and Nato military deterrence out of Russian President Vladimir Putin's risk/reward calculations. Mr Putin was less deterred by economic sanctions alone, especially an incomplete version imposed by a few countries rather than by the UN.

Ironically, since Ukraine had been actively and publicly seeking to join Nato, Mr Biden's declared position may have inadvertently increased the incentive for Mr Putin to invade Ukraine sooner rather than waiting until after it joined Nato.

To me, a better negotiating strategy for the US would have been to remain vague on how it would react to a Russian invasion, thus keeping all options open in Mr Putin's mind. Ambiguity in diplomacy may contribute to deterrence. War begins when deterrence fails.

After the invasion began, the United Nations Security Council was unable to take appropriate action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, due to the exercise of the veto power by Russia.

Thanks to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 377 in 1950, often referred to as the Uniting for Peace Resolution, the UN General Assembly was able to consider the situation in Ukraine and passed landmark resolutions reflecting the overwhelming views of the international community, even though the resolutions in themselves, were not legally binding on member states.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine led to overwhelming international support for the US-initiated UN General Assembly resolution titled "Aggression against Ukraine" on March 2, 2022. There were 141 votes in favour, with only five against and 35 abstentions. Thailand voted in favour of Resolution ES-11/1.

However, some countries later began to reevaluate their support, believing the US just wanted to weaken Russia. This thinking was surprisingly confirmed in April 2022 when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gave press interviews in Poland after a visit to Ukraine. They both said that America's goal was to weaken Russia, thereby presenting the Ukraine situation as not a war against Russian aggression but a US proxy war to weaken Russia using Ukrainian soldiers. Some countries stated that they were not going to take sides if the war in Ukraine was only a manifestation of superpower rivalry. This became a dilemma within Asean.

In addition to voting in favour of General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1 on March 2, 2022, Thailand voted in favour of Resolution ES-11/2 on March 24, 2022, addressing the humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine. Thailand voted to abstain on Resolution ES-11/3 on April 7, which called for the suspension of the rights of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council, explaining that a decision to suspend a Member State in any UN body "could not be taken lightly" and more "careful consultations" were needed.

Thailand voted to abstain on Resolution ES-11/4 on Oct 12, 2022. This was titled "Territorial integrity of Ukraine: Defending the principles of the Charter of the United Nations." This resolution "condemns the organisation by the Russian Federation of illegal so-called referendums … in Ukraine. The Thai delegation at the United Nations explained that "condemnation", especially "during an extremely volatile and emotionally charged atmosphere", "provokes intransigence and therefore greatly reduces the chance for constructive engagement". Former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Don Pramudwinai told the press that he was troubled by the tendency for states to condemn one another in UN resolutions without any apparent attempt to work together to find solutions.

Thailand voted to abstain on Resolution ES-11/5 on Nov 14, 2022. This was titled "Furtherance of remedy and reparation for aggression against Ukraine." Bangkok wanted more details about the proposed "international mechanism for reparation for damage…"

Lastly, Thailand voted in favour of Resolution ES-11/6 on Feb 23, 2023. This was dubbed "Principles of the Charter of the United Nations underlying a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine."

Now that the third year of this war has begun, with a lot of uncertainties ahead, I hope all sides can show leadership and find a negotiated end so that an off-ramp, agreeable to all sides, can be found soon for the sake of the peoples of Ukraine and Russia, as well as for the international community at large.


Kantathi Suphamongkhon, former foreign minister of Thailand, is a member of RAND Corporation Global and Emerging Risks Advisory Board. He is a former distinguished professor of Law and Diplomacy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Do you like the content of this article?
COMMENT (23)