The last few months have witnessed a sharp escalation of tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border, as also, more recently on the Belarus-Ukraine border and in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. In his end-of-the-year interaction with the Press on 23 December 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared that he does not wish a conflict with Ukraine. But, he asserted that he urgently desired security guarantees from the West and also assurances that Ukraine will never be admitted as a member of NATO. He also demanded that there should be no further eastward expansion of NATO.
A silver lining in the increasingly darkening war clouds on the Russia-Ukraine horizon appears to be the furious travels by a large number of European leaders to capitals in Europe, USA and Russia. Recent days witnessed the travel by French President Macron to Moscow and Kiev. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently visited Kiev, Brussels (for discussions with the NATO Secretary General and NATO members), and Warsaw. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz flew to Washington DC on 6th February and is scheduled to travel to Moscow and Kiev next week. Discussions in the Normandy format comprising of representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France have been revived after a hiatus of 2 years. Although the discussions so far have not yielded any positive results, the mere fact that the parties have not stopped talking gives rise to a sliver of hope that diplomacy might still be able to yield the desired results.
Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops and military hardware including tanks, artillery, and armored troop carriers at the border with Ukraine, stoking fears of an imminent invasion. Russia has staunchly denied this. In more recent weeks Russia has deputed another 30,000 troops on the Belarus-Ukraine border for military exercises and drills. Ukraine has criticised Russia’s latest drills in Belarus and in the Black Sea, as being part of a “hybrid war” which had made navigation in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov “virtually impossible”.
In addition to demanding that the West deny NATO membership to Ukraine as well as to other former Soviet republics like Georgia and Moldova, Russia has urged the US and Europe to roll back military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. Some of these demands were categorized by the US and NATO as “unacceptable” and have been rejected by the US.
The current denouement appears to be the culmination of events that unfolded in March, 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia, or possibly even before that when the Russia-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed and forced to flee to Russia in February, 2014. The question that seems to be haunting the world particularly Ukraine, the US and Europe over the last many months is the contours of Putin’s game-plan in this theatre.
How should India Respond?
India and the United States enjoy a comprehensive, global, strategic partnership, covering almost all areas of human endeavor, driven by shared democratic values and convergence of interests on a range of issues. With Russia, India shares a special and privileged strategic partnership. Russia has been a longstanding and time-tested partner for India.
In a procedural vote on Ukraine at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 30th January, 2022, India abstained without taking the side of either US or Russia. China was the only country that voted with Russia while ten countries supported the US, and three, including India, abstained.
In his Statement, India’s Permanent Representative to the UNSC advocated the ‘’immediate de-escalation of tensions taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries.’’ India strongly advanced its ‘’considered view that the issue can only be resolved through diplomatic dialogue.”
By abstaining in the UNSC vote and staying neutral, India is not abdicating its responsibility. On the contrary, by advocating the path of dialogue and diplomacy, India is pushing for peace, security and stability for all countries concerned.
Both Russia and the US are highly valued partners of India. It is not judicious to take sides under the current circumstances. India should continue to adopt a balanced, neutral approach as it has done so far.
In addition to the imperative necessity of maintaining a balance in our relations with our two most vital partners, India is mindful of the fact that it cannot support the coercive, military takeover of a country’s territory by another. India is under continuous pressure from China which is making illegal demands on its territory, not only in Ladakh but even in the eastern sector where China lays claim to 93,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh. On the western front, India faces similar pressure on its territory from Pakistan. Hence, territorial integrity and sovereignty is sacrosanct for India.
The Way Forward
It would appear that Putin’s muscle-flexing and brinkmanship has already achieved for him the most fundamental of his demands of denying NATO Membership to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. In unmistakable terms Russia has drawn a red line which the West would be loath to cross in the near and mid-term because they have been made aware of the unacceptable consequences that could follow. Over the last few months, Putin has singlehandedly directed the pace and direction of events in the region. It will depend on him to extricate Russia from this situation at a time of his choosing without losing face or credibility.
India should continue to advance the cause of arriving at a peaceful solution acceptable to all sides through deliberations and discussions. A conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with the latter supported by the US and Europe, is in no one’s interest.
The only country that is benefitting from this intensifying confrontation in Ukraine is China. Over the last two years, China had emerged as the most pernicious risk to global peace, security and stability because of its aggressive stance in the South China Sea and against Taiwan, persecution in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, incursions against India, its deplorable role in spread of corona virus etc. For the last several months on account of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the threat emanating from China has been put on the back burner. Xi Jinping has been able to consolidate his power and authority by virtue of the comprehensive support he received from Putin at the Winter Olympics. Biden’s distraction in Europe could embolden Xi Jinping to launch a peremptory attack against Taiwan in the near future and annex it by force.
Keeping the above in view, it behooves upon the US and Europe to try and reach a mutually acceptable understanding with Putin as early as possible. The US could, short of making Ukraine a NATO member, provide it with all military support and hardware that might be required to effectively protect and defend itself against any onslaught by Russia, should such an eventuality occur. The message should also be clear that another action like the 2014 annexation of Crimea will not be tolerated and would immediately trigger an appropriate response from Ukraine’s allies.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.
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