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The Quad Should Speak Out Against Russia’s Aggression Toward Ukraine

It’s time for the Indo-Pacific democracies to address the crisis.

By , a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A monitor displays a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi
U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hold a virtual meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Tokyo on March 12. Kiyoshi Ota/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The United States should broaden its efforts to restrain Russia from seizing Ukrainian territory by looking for support beyond Europe and NATO to its Indo-Pacific partners in the Quad, a four-state group composed of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This is especially important because China is closely monitoring the international response to Russia’s aggression and will calibrate its behavior in Asia accordingly.

The potential Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the Biden administration’s most acute foreign policy challenges. U.S. intelligence warns Russia is planning an offensive against Ukraine as soon as early next year involving as many as 175,000 troops. Such action would violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and undermine fundamental norms of international law.

U.S. President Joe Biden expressed “deep concern” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and warned the United States and its allies “would respond with strong economic and other measures” if Russia takes military action. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with NATO foreign ministers to emphasize the importance of alliance unity in bolstering Ukraine against Russian aggression.

The United States should broaden its efforts to restrain Russia from seizing Ukrainian territory by looking for support beyond Europe and NATO to its Indo-Pacific partners in the Quad, a four-state group composed of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This is especially important because China is closely monitoring the international response to Russia’s aggression and will calibrate its behavior in Asia accordingly.

The potential Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the Biden administration’s most acute foreign policy challenges. U.S. intelligence warns Russia is planning an offensive against Ukraine as soon as early next year involving as many as 175,000 troops. Such action would violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and undermine fundamental norms of international law.

U.S. President Joe Biden expressed “deep concern” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and warned the United States and its allies “would respond with strong economic and other measures” if Russia takes military action. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with NATO foreign ministers to emphasize the importance of alliance unity in bolstering Ukraine against Russian aggression.

The transatlantic democracies recognize that this situation threatens the rules-based international order, even if it does not threaten their own territories directly. The G-7 countries, which include Japan, issued a statement condemning “Russia’s military build-up and aggressive rhetoric toward Ukraine” and reaffirming their “unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

It is time for the Indo-Pacific democracies to address this crisis and recognize that Russian actions against Ukraine could have implications for their region’s security as well.

As the Biden administration looks for ways to increase pressure on Moscow, it seems unlikely the United Nations will be able to play a role, as Russia (and China) would block such action. Russia and China have repeatedly prevented U.N. action in crises, even in countries where they are not directly involved. The United States and Ukraine have no reason to expect that the United Nations will be able to help when it is Russia that is causing the problem. Washington is therefore left with regional organizations or “minilateral” groupings such as the Quad to add weight to the countries that have already taken a stand.

A Quad statement on the border situation would signal to Moscow, which still seeks to be a player in Asia, that aggression against Ukraine would have negative consequences far beyond Europe. It would also reinforce the merit and influence of the Quad grouping.

First, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would undermine the basic principles the Quad has endorsed for stability and prosperity. At two summits this year, Quad leaders issued joint statements of support for the rules-based international order and declared their fundamental stand for the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the territorial integrity of states. Although the focus of this concert of democracies is on the Indo-Pacific, what happens between Russia and Ukraine is still highly relevant to them.

Second, a Quad statement would demonstrate solidarity with European democracies and affirm that the principles of the rules-based order cannot be limited to certain regions. It would, in turn, encourage European democracies to play a larger role in protecting this same order in the Indo-Pacific, something the Quad members have been seeking. This is precisely the moment to reinforce this linkage between Europe and Asia, so that European democracies are ready to intercede in the next crisis in Asia.

Third, Quad countries have an interest in ensuring that Russia avoids further confrontation with the West and adheres, as much as possible, to the rules-based order. Many in Asia worry Russia is increasingly becoming China’s junior partner, in part because Russia has isolated itself from the West and joined China in a willingness to antagonize neighbors. The Quad should seek to prevent further Russian aggression against Ukraine, which would only lead to greater tension with the West and push Moscow closer to Beijing.

Finally, Quad countries know China is carefully watching how the world reacts to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Beijing is considering the possible use of force against Taiwan as well as its strategy regarding as many as 16 other territorial disputes with its neighbors, including on the border with India and over a group of islands with Japan. A Russian invasion of Ukraine, or even successful intimidation of Ukraine through this military buildup, could set a bad precedent for aggressive Chinese action in the future, something the Quad certainly wants to avoid.

To be sure, two Quad countries—Japan and India—may be hesitant to speak out against Russia, as it could have a short-term negative impact on their relations with Moscow.

For years, Japan has been seeking a compromise solution to its longstanding claim against Russia over the four southernmost Kuril Islands, which Moscow has controlled since the end of World War II. But ongoing efforts to resolve this dispute did not dissuade Tokyo from joining the G-7 statement calling on Russia to deescalate and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia’s recent build-up of its military infrastructure on the Kuril Islands may have further incentivized Japan to take this position.

Unlike the challenging relationship Tokyo has with Moscow, New Delhi and Moscow have relatively stable and positive relations, having just celebrated five decades since the signing of their Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation Treaty of 1971 as well as their “special and privileged strategic partnership.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hosted Putin for a friendly visit, which was long on declarations though short on time, with Putin only spending four hours in India.

India-Russia ties today are largely focused on military sales—Russia still supplies some key items to India, such as its S-400 missile-defense system—and energy cooperation. In 2019, India’s annual trade with Russia amounted to approximately $11 billion, in contrast to $125 billion with the European Union and $146 billion with the United States. Although India has consciously diversified away from its longstanding dependency on Russia for defense equipment—buying more in recent years from the United States, France, Israel, and other democracies—it would not want to antagonize Moscow to the point that New Delhi could lose spare parts or technology such as nuclear submarines that only Russia will provide.

But Russia has as much at stake as India (if not more) in a harmonious relationship, including its arms sales and other economic ties with New Delhi. It is not in Moscow’s interest to jeopardize this partnership, which means New Delhi should have some leeway with Moscow in selectively expressing disapproval of certain actions. Russia has increasingly done this with India, including criticizing India’s support for the Indo-Pacific concept and its participation in the Quad. Moreover, it should be easier for India to speak out now against Russian aggression by invoking the well-established, non-controversial principle of respect for a country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, than to have to condemn Russia later should it invade Ukraine, which India would inevitably be called on to do.

Surely, the India-Russia relationship is not so fragile that it could not withstand India joining a statement that cautioned Russia against invading Ukraine. If Washington makes clear that such a Quad statement is important to its “comprehensive global strategic partnership” with India, New Delhi will certainly consider it. A U.S. waiver of possible sanctions against India for its acquisition from Russia of the S-400 system could help smooth the way for such a statement.

Beyond these considerations, New Delhi is now locked in a bitter dispute with Beijing along the western portion of the China-India 2,100-mile border, which lacks an agreed-upon demarcation and where China has asserted other territorial claims. During spring 2020, China amassed approximately 50,000 troops and heavy artillery on the western border and made several incursions into territory claimed by India. For the first time in 45 years, the two countries came to blows in June 2020, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers. The two sides are now digging in and constructing long-term infrastructure along the disputed area.

Under these circumstances, it would be anomalous for India to be unwilling to join a Quad statement on Russia’s dispute with Ukraine that has direct consequences for India’s dispute with China, as the lack of such a statement would weaken India’s own position with China. India has expressed its ambition to be a global power, including the right to have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Washington might point out that turning a blind eye to a crisis in Ukraine that the whole world is watching would not reflect well on such ambitions.

In essence, the long-term negative impact of Russian aggression should outweigh India’s short-term concerns. And the Quad format should be more comfortable than a bilateral one for India—as well as Japan—to seek to persuade Russia not to take further military steps against Ukraine.

For these reasons, the Biden administration should push for a clear statement by Quad leaders urging Russia, in its dispute with Ukraine, to follow the very principles upon which the Quad is based: respect for the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the territorial integrity of countries. That would send a strong message of solidarity against Russian aggression and an important signal to China that the Quad, along with other major countries, condemns provocative behavior toward neighbors.

Kenneth I. Juster is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to India from 2017 to 2021.

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