Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Ukraine crisis: can India keep walking the balance?

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Ukraine crisis: can India keep walking the balance?

What makes India’s balance of relations difficult?

Two months after the US first warned the world Russia was planning to invade Ukraine, and after weeks of denying he had any plans to do so, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a military operation on Ukraine, one which could change the course of the world, or simply end up repeating history.

Here is the sequence of events:

For the past month, Russia has sent close to 150,000 soldiers to its border with Ukraine, and then another 30,000 to Belarus to the north for military exercises in February, something US and EU have warned was a precursor to an invasion.

  • Russia already has troops to the South in Crimea
  • On February 21, President Putin announced he was recognising two states or oblasts of Eastern Ukraine- called Donetsk and Luhansk in what is known as the Donbas region. Under the previous Minsk agreement that had been negotiated in 2015, these oblasts had been promised full autonomy, and a special status, but Ukraine had not implemented these.
  • Next Putin said he would send in Russian peacekeepers to the areas, in order to protect people in these areas from attacks by Kyiv.
  • On February 24, Putin announced military operations, which included airstrikes on several Ukrainian cities, especially targeting Ukrainian military facilities. According to Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky, 140 military and civilian Ukrainians were killed in the first day of strikes, but the Ukrainian army was fighting back. War had begun.
  • As thousands of civilians are fleeing cities and running to bunkers and bomb shelters, India has launched an operation to help evacuate its citizens too- about 20,000 that remain in Ukraine. After air routes closed, the government is making arrangements to bring them over land to Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovak republic and then fly them back home.
  • At the end of the week, the United Nations Security Council held a vote on a resolution brought about by US and dozens of UN members, that sought to condemn Russia’s actions and called for an immediate withdrawal of troops, but this was predictably, vetoed by Russia. India, China and UAE all abstained from the resolution, while the other 11 UNSC members vote for. The US says it will continue to raise the issue, next in the UN General Assembly.

What does Putin and the Russian government say they want?

  • Ending discrimination against Russian speaking Ukrainians who live in the East, whom Russia claims are being targeted in the new republic. In July 2021 Putin wrote an essay entitled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, which explained his vision of their common past
  • Security guarantees from NATO countries that they will stop the groups expansion eastward- Specifically, Russia says it is reacting to Zelensky’s announcement that Ukraine could join the NATO defence alliance-
  • Guarantees that weapons and missiles aimed at Russia would not be deployed by NATO in Russia’s neighbourhood
  • Ukraine would declare itself as a neutral country, modelled on the Finnish declaration of neutrality- Many have even felt the declaration, and non-NATO status could have staved off the war. As we discussed in WV #48, Russia has long felt that Western countries took advantage of the Post Soviet collapse, and enlisted 14 other neighbours and former Soviet States into NATO since 1997, breaking an agreement or “Founding pact” that NATO and Russia signed.

In response the US and its NATO allies – UK, European countries prepared a massive package of sanctions, including banning banks, putting sanctions on Russian lawmakers, stopping all exports, freezing Russian assets etc – US President Biden said their aims were to:

  1. Limit Russia’s ability to be part of the global economy- adding Russia to countries like Iran and North Korea
  2. Stop their ability to finance the Russian military
  3. Impair Russian ability to access technology

However, while the US and EU say these measures are unprecedented, the fact is that they have announced many such measures in the past as well. Russia’s actions on Donetsk and Luhansk also fully mirror its past actions, all under the Putin presidency, driven by a sense of grievance about broken promises and the NATO threat to Russian security, as well his desire to restore Russia to some of its old glory.

  • In August 2008, Putin sent troops into the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after Georgia sent troops to try and control them. The Russo-Georgian war lasted just a few days, and Russia now treats the two enclaves as independent states.
  • In March 2014, after a referendum in the Southern Ukrainian enclave of Crimea which voted for reunification with Russia, Putin sent troops to annex Crimea, until all hostilities were ceased and a status quo frozen until the issues over Donetsk and Luhansk were resolved.
  • And now in February 2022, 8 years later, Putin is repeating those very actions.

On each occasion, the United Nations has criticised Russia, refused to recognise the change in borders, but eventually, Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council has vetoed any action against it. After the Crimean action- the G-8 expelled Russia from the grouping of the worlds most developed nations.

What are India’s stakes ?

Officially, the Foreign secretary has said, India is involved in the Ukraine situation.

  1. Member of the UN Security Council this year- unlike the last time with Crimea.
  2. A country with major economic stakes in the region- given trade, pharma exports, and defence parts imports from Ukraine.
  3. About 18,000 Indian medical and engineering students based there, and another 2,000 citizens working in Ukraine.

But there is more that makes New Delhi’s balance of relations much more difficult:

  1. India and Russia have a deep historical relationship, and India is dependent on Russian military hardware, parts and technology for the foreseeable future.
  2. The standoff with Russia could see India being sanctioned by the US if it continues with the S-400 missile system deal, but also could extend to future defence purchases.
  3. Further sanctions could affect India’s other trade with Russia, plans to expand energy deals.
  4. Pressure from the West on Russia will move it closer to India’s adversaries, China and Pakistan, as the meeting between Pakistan PM Khan and Putin this week showed. After Crimea, China had bailed out Russia from crippling sanctions by signing a $400 billion gas deal.
  5. The tussle between Russia and the West takes the focus away from India’s primary concerns in its own neighbourhood, and the Indo-Pacific policy. As External Affairs Minister Jaishankar visited Germany and France this week- he attended panels and conferences on the Indo-Pacific, but each was overshadowed with events in Ukraine.
  6. Not voting with the west to condemn Russia’s actions will alienate the Modi government from Western capitals, just as it seeks to strengthen ties with US, UK, EU.

Clearly, despite its distance from the conflict, India cannot disengage from the conflict in the Ukraine. Some more book recommendations, in case you have read those in our previous episode –

  1. The Ukraine crisis: Ukraine’s and Russia’s Civil Divorce and the Uncivil War by Alexander D’anieri releases this month, and promises to be very timely.
  2. Two books by Timothy Snyder who wrote : On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. This one in 2019 is more pertinent to the issue: The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.
  3. For those interested in the past: A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West by Ronald Asmus is good, as is.
  4. Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin by Ukrainian studies professor and leading authority on the region Serhii Plokhy , whom I have recommended before for The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union .
  5. Two books on Putin – one is The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia by Angus Roxburgh, former BBC reporter and also an advisor to the Russian government in 2006. And one that is out this year, The Age of The Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World by Gideon Rachman.

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