Since retiring from the Russian army in 2000, Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok has been an éminence grise of military affairs, regularly popping up on state television to give his analysis. He has been at it too long to be too afraid of the Kremlin. In February, he ridiculed as "fantasy" the idea that Ukraine could be easily conquered. On a primetime Rossiya-1 TV show earlier this week, he went further . "We are now in total geopolitical isolation," he said. "We don't want to admit it. But practically, the whole world is against us."
The host, Olga Skabeyeva, confronted him immediately. What about India and China, she asked: aren't they worthy allies? "I'm looking at the bigger picture," he replied. So is Joe Biden . This morning, he lands in Seoul as part of a five-day trip to salute the Asian flank of the new anti-Putin alliance. His visit makes a point that has not been lost on Colonel Khodarenok: this war is not (as Moscow TV so often says) Russia vs Nato, or Russia vs "the West". Putin has unwittingly created something far wider and more potent: a global alliance of democracies.
The sudden cohesion in Europe and rejuvenation of Nato has been remarkable . The end of Swedish and Finnish neutrality is as big a change as any seen in those countries in the last generation. But perhaps the most consequential changes are those taking place in East Asia, with Japan rearming and other previously neutral countries standing up to be counted, imposing sanctions and taking sides. Just as Biden wanted.
"In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment," he said in his recent State of the Union speech . He's certainly right about the end of neutrality. Sweden and Finland both accepted that there could be no fence-sitting while Ukraine fought for its life. Even Switzerland is moving away from neutrality, discussing military exercises with Nato. Micheál Martin, Ireland's taoiseach, says Dublin's position of neutrality could change at any time.
But Asian states who were neutral (or, at least, very quiet) throughout the Cold War are now rallying to the democratic cause, volunteering for economic pain by joining the sanctions to an extent that, still, hasn't been properly appreciated here. Japan's exports to Russia are down 36 per cent, South Korea and Taiwan's by more than 60 per cent, the same level reported for Finland. This comes at a cost, but it's one Ukraine's Asian allies are willing to pay.
For Japan, all this is a massive upheaval – bringing a sudden end to a ten-year strategy of improving relations with Russia with various investment deals and endless summits. But Tokyo is now slamming sanctions on Russian companies and Putin's cronies. Japan's Prime Minister puts it simply: if Russia is planning "unilateral change to the status quo by force" that raises obvious threats to Japan's northern islands that Moscow has long laid claim to. And, needless to say, Taiwan .
Singapore hasn't imposed sanctions on anyone since Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, but is imposing them now. Its prime minister recently explained why: Russia's invasion represents an "existential" threat to this tiny nation. If the international rules-based order is supplanted by a new system where the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must, then Singapore is there for the taking. The Asian democracies are fighting not so much for Ukraine but themselves.
After all, who keeps the peace now? International law – a sketchy concept at the best of times – depends on the UN, whose five-member ruling council includes Russia and China. The UN still works as a forum for protest (the Pacific Islands were queuing up to sign its motion condemning Ukraine's invasion, mindful of their vulnerability) but it's not enough. The G7 and G20 don't quite cover the alliances that are now taking shape. No one's even sure who, if anyone, should be in charge.
As commander-in-chief of the world's largest military, Biden is the obvious candidate. He's doing his best: his aides say the theme of his Asia visit is what the world can look like "if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road". It's an odd phrase. The UN is supposed to decide the rules of the road – but its authority may never recover from Russia's descent into rogue-state status. So under whose auspices do these open societies now get together? It still hasn't been agreed.
The big problem is India . It's a democracy, but one that gets most of its military kit from Russia and has been pretty supportive of Putin in recent months. It's also a member of "the Quad", a group put together by Japan (with America and Australia) to counter China. It's hard to convert this into an anti-autocratic alliance if India is one of Putin's last allies. Biden hopes to woo India with a $500 million defence package. But switching sides might be a bit of a push for an India that has always seen Moscow as the more dependable ally.
The White House says that Biden's trip to Asia is intended to show that "democracies can deliver" – but this, as he knows, is still a horribly open question with India's allegiance in doubt. Boris Johnson is still very optimistic, thinking that Narendra Modi will soon realise that he'll be isolated – that a new alliance is taking shape, and India will eventually have to be part of it. And that there's too much at stake not to take sides.
So the countries that are joining the Western anti-Putin alliance are – for now – East Asian. Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan together speak for 9 per cent of the world economy – about half the size of Europe, so quite a reinforcement.
Having Asian democracies rally to Europe's defence isn't something that politicians here demanded or even expected. But a new alliance has taken shape nonetheless – one that sees things not as West and East but about the free world and its enemies.
When the Ukraine conflict ends, a great many things will have gone forever. The old idea of "the West" may be one of them.
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