Do buffer States actually work?

Famously both China and the Soviet Union (including modern Russia) have started entire wars just to protect their “buffer States” from not being buffer States (China in the Korean War, Russia invading all sorts of Eastern European countries).

But I’ve always been curious, do buffer States even work? Is China somehow better protected from the West due to the fact North Korea still exists? If Ukraine actually falls to Russia eventually, would that protect Russia at all from future Western aggression? It seems to me that buffer States have lead to more wars than they actually prevent.

I don’t know much about the whole Chinese situation, but in the case of Eastern Europe & the USSR, it was a case of extreme paranoia brought on by the Soviet experience in WWII.

Believe it or not, they were absolutely paranoid and afraid of another invasion from the West. Their offensive military doctrine and general military posture was one of paranoia and a thinking that if they looked like they would attack, we (the West) wouldn’t.

So as a result, they maintained hegemony over the states they’d “liberated” during WWII, i.e. Eastern Europe, in hopes that if there was another Western invasion, most of the fighting would be done in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc… or in the West, and not in the USSR proper.

The really absurd part was that meanwhile, we were taking their propaganda seriously and looking at their military doctrine, and assuming the exact opposite- that they were going to attack the West.

So we faced off against each other, each expecting the other to attack, but neither with any real designs on actually attacking. NATO doctrine was pretty clear about this- for the most part, offensive operations weren’t really fleshed out much in the NATO doctrine- it was all about defense vs. massive armored forces (i.e. the Soviets). Soviet doctrine was basically a fleshed out version of what they did in WWII- combined arms offensives and a sort of pre-emptive attack mentality.

The point isn’t that buffer states prevent wars. It’s that buffer states mean you’re fighting those wars on territory other than your own. Where the enemy is killing people and wrecking infrastructure that you don’t much care about.

There was a rueful semi-tongue-in-cheek comment during the early phases of the Cold War that France intended to defend Europe to the last German. IOW, as long as we’re fighting the Soviets on German soil that’s OK. It’s only if they got past the Rhine into France that France & NATO had a real problem.

The Soviets thought similarly. A battle in Poland, East Germany, or Czechoslovakia is much better than a battle in Byelorussia or the Ukraine SSR which in turn is much better than a battle in Russia proper.

As long as your buffer states aren’t economic / security basket cases in their own right they’re valuable enough for what they are.

If you assume you’re not going to be the aggressor in a future war, it’s pretty much a given that the aggressive enemy attacking you is going to succeed in driving some distance into your country before you can muster the time & forces to stop them. And then pushing them back out will be a long difficult slog. See current Ukraine vs. Russia for a clear example of this reality.

So if you can arrange things in advance so the first couple hundred or more miles of territory the enemy must advance across and hold is not yours, before they can even touch the territory that is yours, so much the better.

Obviously this was a LOT more true back with e.g. WW-I level tech where the ability to project destruction much beyond line of sight of your army was absent or fledgling. The practical utility of buffer states declines to the degree your opponent can bring the war to your homeland dozens, hundreds, or thousands of miles ahead of their own army’s front lines.

Back in the day. Britain and France kept Siam as a buffer state between their South and Southeast Asian colonies, deciding not to invade it. Seemed to have worked well. The one small point where the two did touch, Burma and Laos, was an annoying flashpoint for them. Otherwise, it worked pretty well. Thailand is today proud that they were able to keep the “evil empires” of both at bay, but the truth is their freedom was only because it was in both sides’ best interest not to co-opt Siam.

And Siam/Thailand alsi brings up that “buffer states” don’t even have to be specifically aligned with one side or the other: as long as they limit the different sides’ movements, they can be notionally neutral.

Another one:

“What is a tactical nuclear weapon?”
“One that blows up in Germany.”

The Siam situation is interesting in that by that point in the development of East Asian colonization, France & UK were essentially status quo powers. They were each content to leave Siam alone as long as the other was. If either had tried to overtly influence their government or invade, there would have been a counter invasion from the other side. Both recognized they had more to lose contending agasint each other over Siam than they had to gain.

Maybe in the 1960s NATO & the Warsaw Pact were content to sit tight. For now. But nobody on either side thought this was a stable situation for 10, much less 100 years. Something was going to give somewhere.

Russia now is very self-evidently not a status quo power. They are actively remaking borders as we speak. Buffer states serve a very different purpose then.

The West is to blame for some of this during the Cold War. They made huge investments (often with no financial return) in creating democratic “showcases” right on the edge of the Iron and Bamboo curtains; West Berlin, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. to show people in Communist countries how much better their circumstances could be under liberal democracy. The USSR tried the same strategy in Latin America by showering Cuba with resources.

Seems like East Germany was pretty happy to join West Germany, and Hong Kong residents pretty upset at rejoining China.

Perhaps I have a narrower understanding of the concept of a buffer state than is prevailing in this thread, but I would not regard the two Germanies or the non-Soviet Eastern bloc countries during the Cold War as buffer states. To me, the term implies neutrality - a buffer state is not just geographically between two major powers, it’s also not in an alliance with either of them. A classic example would be the Benelux countries as buffer states between Germany and France in the time up to 1914 and again up to 1939. And this example also illustrates the limited usefulness of buffer states: In both cases, one of the first actions of Germany when hostilities with France began was to occupy Belgium, to circumvent the French fortifications along its border with Germany.

Exactly. That’s why Russia and China don’t want any affluent democracies on their borders,

But then, you annex the buffer states, either officially or de facto by them becoming so entangled with your own country, and now you need buffer states for your buffer states. Think of Russia’s claim that they’re annexing Ukraine because Ukraine was about to join NATO, and it’d be intolerable to have a NATO state directly bordering Russia… except that, if Ukraine were to become part of Russia, Russia would have NATO states directly bordering it.

And this demonstrates what the whole buffer state thing is really about. It’s always been about imperial aspirations. Yes, an empire needs a buffer state. No, they were never planning on leaving the buffer where it was.

All this stuff about Russia being a paranoid, defensive-oriented hermit kingdom, bruised by its rough treatment in WW2, is the oldest and fakest kind of Russian propaganda. Never forget that Russia kicked off WW2 by colluding with Germany to divvy up Eastern Europe among themselves. Russia had no ideological beef with Germany; the reason they came to hate one another is they saw Hitler as a partner (or at least an instrument), and he stabbed them in the back. This isn’t the act of a turtle kingdom.

Anyway, long-winded way of saying that “buffer state” is a propaganda lie intended to legitimize a posture of opportunistic expansion. Fascist states should never be given buffers. The purpose of buffers is to enslave the people within them and then expand that sphere of slavery outward.

Actually, it’s the Mongol conquest that scarred them. Which makes their current alliance with China rather puzzling.

That was 700 years ago, give or take. You’d think they’d be over it by now. My guess is that scars from the Crimean War haven’t healed… that Light Brigade thing still hurts, especially the poem.

If you find that puzzling, then you’ve missed the point. The point is that Russia is lying, and always has lied, about their motivation for waging war. In the deep past, of course, there were legitimate security threats (Mongols etc). But in more recent history they’ve always been fighting either to expand their empire, or to settle old grievances that are often related to religious supremacy.

Actually I shouldn’t over-emphasize Russia lying about “security concerns” because those aren’t Russia’s main lies. Russia’s deepest lies are intended to “prove” that the targets of Russian invasion have somehow deserved it by mistreating Russia in the past. It’s Western appeasers, wrongly interpreting these grievances as “security concerns”, who are the biggest help to Russia in legitimize what are transparently imperial ambitions.

And Siam did not escape wholly intact. The borders encompassed Cambodia and Laos until France took them away from Siam. That was under King Chulalongkorn, the little boy in The King and I, today considered the greatest king ever, although that he lost so much territory under his reign is conveniently swept under the rug.

Beau of the Fifth Column (that liberal redneck gonzo journalist whose videos get linked a lot around here) argues they don’t make much sense today, due to air power. So, if you wanted to actually go to war with a country, you’d just fly straight there. No buffer states would really help.

The actual deterrent is nuclear weapons, and the fact that a country is more likely to use them if they feel an existential threat.

For sure both long range air power and nuclear weapons alter the traditional calculus of the “buffer state” as a term of art in international relations.

But also for sure even here in 2023 it’s darn handy to have a couple to few hundred kilometers of fully neutral or even nominally friendly terrain between your land that you really care about and that evil enemy bent on conquest.

Nobody really likes having their neighbors and allies attacked and overrun, but far better them than yourself. International realpolitik is a very utilitarian business.

More than air power, there is also the concern of SIGINT. An enemy on your border has pretty good electronic visibility into air defenses, troop movements, as well as more opportunity to monitor traffic & attempt to break any any encryption or encoding.

However it’s more important to understand the Russia never wanted Ukraine as a buffer state. Russia has always wanted to dominate Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics, and as much of Europe as possible). Russia’s “security concern” is that it desires at all times to maintain the most favorable conditions for conquest.