“I have decided to undertake a military operation,” ominously declared President Putin early morning on February 24. Soon explosions were heard at multiple places in Ukraine, much to the dismay of India and rest of the world. This nightmarish scenario could not have unfolded for India at a more inopportune time. India had been urging all sides to step back and engage in a patient and constructive dialogue. No one however was in a mood to pay much heed.
Contrary to suggestions in some quarters, India is anything but a fence-sitter as she has considerable skin in the game. India has invested a great deal of political capital in forging close and fruitful relations with Washington and Moscow. First Soviet Union and now Russia have stood by us in our hour of need. Ties with the US have expanded dramatically in almost every sphere of activity. India is loath to see either of the partnerships getting impacted. As it is, India and the world are still grappling with the impact of the dreadful coronavirus pandemic, which has snuffed out millions of lives, pushed hundreds of millions back into poverty, resulted in huge unemployment with trillions of dollars lost due to economic contraction.
Meanwhile, China has blown up the edifice of mutual trust and cooperation meticulously constructed by both sides over a four-decade period. Having tried and failed to take India by surprise in the eastern Ladakh region, it has amassed some 60,000 troops and heavy armament along the Line of Actual Control. Pakistan continues to wage its proxy war against India and Afghanistan has fallen yet again to the murderous Taliban hordes of ultra-radical Islamists.
Notwithstanding assurances to the contrary, Russian Blitzkrieg has at least three strategic objectives. One, to carve out a buffer zone between Russia and Ukraine comprising mostly of Russian-speaking people possibly all along the near 2000-km-long land border. Two, to destroy Ukrainian military and critical infrastructure to the extent that future leaders would think twice before seeking NATO membership. Three, to convey to the West particularly Washington that Russia will go to any extent to protect its flanks against NATO expansion.
It’s often asked why now and why was Russia silent for more than two decades as NATO expanded eastwards. The simple fact is that post-1991 Russia was demoralised and weak both economically and militarily. The US on the other hand was the sole superpower in a unipolar world between 1991 and 2008. Russia protested in 1999 and 2004 but could not do anything much. The seeds of the current highly avoidable conflict were sown in 2008 when NATO at the Bucharest Summit opened its doors for Ukraine and Georgia at American insistence.
A furious Russia warned NATO that its red line was being crossed but as stated by Putin in his address to the nation on February 24, “NATO ignored principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe … adopting a contemptuous and disdainful attitude to our interests”.
There is no justification for western hubris in pushing Russia into a corner. All the same Russian aggression against Ukraine cannot be condoned, least of all by India, regardless of how it is framed. It establishes a dangerous precedent and whets the appetite of a powerful nation to wage armed aggression against another state to change boundaries as per its liking.
No wonder, Russia found itself practically isolated at the UN Security Council on February 25, and vetoed the US-sponsored draft resolution deploring the Russian invasion and demanding immediate withdrawal of its forces. The motion garnered the support of 11 of the 15 member states. India, China and the UAE abstained.
Explaining its abstention India regretted that the path of diplomacy was given up, underlining that no solution can ever be found at the cost of human lives. “The contemporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, international law, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” New Delhi called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and resumption of dialogue.
A day earlier, on a backfoot, President Biden tried his best to sound tough and presidential but his rhetoric lacked conviction. His reiteration that the US would impose crippling sanctions but not confront Russia militarily and confine itself to protecting NATO territory was a bit perplexing as the objective would have been served better by maintaining strategic ambiguity. The Ukrainian president pleaded for urgent military assistance, rightly maintaining that sanctions were not going to deter Putin. Instead, both Biden and Boris Johnson offered their prayers, sympathy and moral support to Ukraine. In short, once again the West hung the hapless people of a nation under siege out to dry.
Some things just do not add up. The West dangled the carrot of potential NATO membership in front of Ukraine for several years. Kyiv was cheered when it defied Moscow. Even in the recent days and weeks, mixed signals were given out by different NATO capitals. Once the conflict broke out, all 27 NATO countries that Volodymyr Zelensky approached turned him down. Cynics may be forgiven to conclude that Kyiv was set up to fail. It has been forced to bear the burden of its geographical location and sacrificed at the altar of big power politics. Like it or not, the world is anything but equal and the Monroe Doctrine of big powers having their sphere of influence is very much alive.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was perhaps the first world leader to speak to President Putin on February 24 after the commencement of hostilities and was briefed about the recent developments regarding Ukraine. “Prime Minister reiterated his long-standing conviction that the differences between Russia and the NATO group can only be resolved through honest and sincere dialogue. He appealed for an immediate cessation of violence, and called for concerted efforts from all sides to return to the path of diplomatic negotiations and dialogue”. The two leaders hold each other in high regard and hopefully their confabulations would have a positive outcome soon.
That said, there is no avoiding a deeper rupture of relations between Russia and the western world at least in the short to medium term. Geopolitical contestation will get sharper and cooperation in addressing global challenges like climate change, pandemics, terrorism may be paused. The possibility of a new Cold War with China and Russia pitted against the West seems high. American attention may get diverted from the Indo-Pacific region to Europe. If it does take its eyes off China, the momentum in strengthening QUAD cooperation could be lost.
Regardless of how this situation pans out, it may not any longer be business as usual for India with Washington or Moscow. Responding to a question if India was in sync with Washington, President Biden noted that: “We’re in consultation with — with India today. We haven’t resolved that completely”. Clearly, there are expectations from India to take a tougher stand on Moscow. The chances of getting a CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) waiver for the import of S-400 missiles from Russia have receded further. Russia too will have expectations from India. Harmonising these counter pulls will be anything but easy.
The author is Former Envoy to South Korea and Canada and Official Spokesperson to the Ministry of External Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.