• 25 September, 2023
Geopolitics & National Security
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Ukraine – The Perils of Neutrality

Dilip Sinha Sun, 06 Mar 2022   |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not going as planned. President Zelensky refuses to flee. The former comedian is standing up to Russia and Putin does not find his new act funny. The longer Russian troops take to conquer Ukraine the fiercer will be their attacks and more gruesome the civilian casualties. Putin has raised the stakes to catastrophic levels by threatening to use nuclear weapons.

Putin’s invasion is highly unpopular in the world and there is good reason to believe that the Russian people are also not happy with it. There have been demonstrations by Russians in St. Petersburg and Putin has had to enact a law imposing imprisonment for such opposition. In the UN General Assembly, only four countries stood by Russia – Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea. Three-fourths of the members supported the resolution against Russia. India, however, abstained on three resolutions in the United Nations.

Putin has justified his “special military operation” by invoking the right to protect the Russian minority in Ukraine and citing the threat to Russia’s security if Ukraine were to join NATO. The former emanates from the concept of R2P and the latter from the idea of sphere of influence. R2P – responsibility to protect – was developed in the West and exercised by it on a few occasions. Russia never supported the idea and, after the Western invasion of Libya in 2011, it refused to let the Security Council endorse any further “humanitarian intervention”.

Spheres of influence were drawn up by imperial powers till as recently as in Yalta in 1945, towards the end of World War II. In 1962, the US objected to the stationing of Russian missiles in Cuba and in the subsequent negotiations agreed to withdraw its own missiles from Turkey. All big powers have claimed spheres of influence to buttress national security. Putin’s arguments also draw strength from the past abuses of international law by the US. The list of countries the US has invaded or intervened in is long and it has little moral authority to sermonise others. When the cold war ended, the United States had agreed that it would not extend NATO into East Europe, but it soon went back on its word.

However, there is little point in debating the case on its merits. The real issue is that ever since Putin rebuilt Russia and rejuvenated its foreign policy, the West has been wary of him. It had allowed Russia to slip into the Soviet Union’s seat as a permanent member of the Security Council without so much as a vote in the General Assembly in the hope that it would be a loyal camp follower. In the first two decades, Russia allowed the US to take military action in a number of countries with Security Council authorisation. It used the veto only six times, as against thirteen times by the US and five by China in this period. This changed after the West’s invasion of Libya in 2011. Russia refused to let the Security Council authorise any coercive action in Syria. It vetoed more than a dozen Western resolutions against the Assad regime.

If the US found this galling, it was positively infuriated when Putin skilfully annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. It imposed sanctions on Russia and was on the lookout for an opportunity to settle scores. Putin has now given the US an opportunity as golden as its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Biden has taken a leaf out of Reagan’s book on the Afghanistan war. He has declared that he will not send American troops to Ukraine or even enforce a no-fly zone on the plea that this will escalate the conflict. This means that Biden wants to make the Ukrainians fight Russia just the way the Afghan mujahideen did. He intends to bleed Russia in a slow war of attrition.

India is in a bind on Ukraine and is unwilling to take sides. It has never supported either R2P or spheres of influence but it is convinced that its national interest lies in not abandoning Russia. Its faith in Russia’s ability and willingness to help it is as deep as its distrust of the US. India’s military continues to be heavily dependent on Russia for weapons and spares and it fears that condemning Russia will affect supplies. When the Soviet Union disintegrated its defence supplies broke down and India faced a serious crisis. Unable to build its own defence manufacturing industry, it gratefully turned back to Russia when Putin restored the Russian armament industry.

There is also a persistent belief in India that it needs Russia’s veto in the Security Council. The Soviet Union used its veto six times between 1957 and 1971 to protect India from hostile resolutions on Kashmir, Goa and the Bangladesh war.

However, India’s neutrality is not being viewed with any sympathy in the countries which supported the resolutions against Russia. This is compounded by some Indian political observers, never averse to taking up a debating challenge with Americans, jumping to Putin’s defence. Defending a weak case requires counterattack and these observers are busy recounting America’s misdeeds and intrigues. It is not surprising that India’s neutrality is being seen as condoning Putin’s invasion and a throwback to its anti-America days.

India must understand that this is not merely a matter between Russia and the US. Putin has few supporters left in the world and India is going against world opinion by not taking a stand against him. Russia has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a smaller country and unleashed a humanitarian tragedy. There is no reason for India to besmirch its reputation by sitting on the fence.

Even if one were to argue that India should be guided its self-interest, it is difficult to understand how this is served by sticking to a former super power that is now heavily dependent on China. Russia’s dependence on China will increase with the new sanctions imposed by the West. India would be naïve to believe that it can bank on Putin to support it against China. For the past few years, it has wisely and painstakingly cultivated relations with the Quad and the countries of Southeast Asia to meet the China threat. By not condemning the invasion India is jeopardising its relations not only with the US but also a host of other major countries of the Asia-Pacific.

As for Russia’s defence supplies, the sooner India ends it the better. India cannot hope to become a world power with foreign weapons. The opportunity provided by this crisis to build India’s defence manufacturing should not be missed. Russia’s arms manufacturers will be hit by western sanctions on critical technologies and financial sanctions. This will certainly affect supplies to India. A senior officer of the Indian Air Force has found it necessary to reassure the country that the disruption will not affect us “significantly”.

India should also ensure that it never isolates itself so badly that it needs Russia’s veto in the Security Council. This veto came at a high price in the past and will become costlier as China’s influence over Russia grows. After 1971, India has not run the risk of being out-voted in the Security Council. However, if its obsession with Putin persists it may once again find itself isolated and exposed.

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Author
Dilip Sinha joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1978. He was India's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and earlier to Greece. He also served in India’s missions in Islamabad, Dhaka, Cairo, Bonn and Brasilia. He was head of the United Nations and the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran divisions in the Ministry of External Affairs. He worked in the Prime Minister's Office during the term of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.  He was also Chairman of the Manipur Public Service Commission.  He is author of Legitimacy of Power – The Permanence of Five in the Security Council, published by the Indian Council of World Affairs.

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POST COMMENTS (3)

Kalidan Singh

Mar 14, 2022
Good points. We will pay for neutrality. The entire cost of it is inestimable in the short and long run. We have been here before; we have fought Pakistan in 1971 when US, and UK not only supported their slaughter of Bangladeshis, but threatened to nuke us. That reality will repeat. But this is today, and we are wondering: 'how would US, UK, EU, others who stood up and imposed sanctions on Russia, and stood up with Ukraine, now alter their relationship with India given that we refused to take sides.' We should wonder; the answers are not easy. But we know what will make it easier. A strong economy requires Indian manufacturers to compete in open markets without relying on governmental protection to peddle shoddy, overpriced goods to Indians - is a start. Nothing happens until the government cuts down the bureaucracy, removes legislation, and allows Indian businesses to function in a corruption free environment. Our culture of corruption is a bigger threat to us than Pakistan. Why the government, even in the private sector, privately owned businesses do not pay their suppliers without hefty bribes to those in the purchase department. We cannot move goods from Kolkata to Delhi without making 15 stops to pay cops, government officials, local goons; and they can delay shipment as they wish. No economy can progress with this kind of corruption, and power of bureaucrats to stop economic activity. We will always be vulnerable to actions of the first world, when we are drowning in hubris of our creation (70% of our defense equipment is antique and does not work; our logistics are pre-historic in speed and efficiency, and we cannot move our arms to any front to aid our boys). Our hubris should concern us. No one in the world who mattered is unaware that we sent a MIG 21, without knowing the radio would be jammed, to deal with a threat across our border. Where were our Sukhois, Mirages, even Jaguars (all 40 some years old)? The truth is, corruption and bureaucracy have produced a military that is focused on counter insurgency, but equipment and training are severely lagging (much of allocated funding is stolen, feeds corruption, and leaves our boys vulnerable in the front without equipment, gear, arms, munition, communication). No one questions the bravery and heart of our boys, I question the morality of our culture. Today, we cannot really defend ourselves, we deter no one, yet we talk like we are a first world power. We are not. Everything good in Indian defense is going to happen in the future, it just never ever emerges. We have zero influence on the world, I will be satisfied if we have fuller influence on our own defense.

Girish

Mar 07, 2022
The author has not explained how india could survive in defense matters if it goes against Putin. Still 70 % of our weapons are Russian origin and rely heavily on Russ for spares. Also Russ May start arming Pakistan if india goes against Putin. That is another problem for india. Going against Putin will be fatal but going against the west is also dangerouus. So wat is india to do? No clear answer.

mukesh.naik

Mar 07, 2022
Sir, It looks like max damaged at Ukraine's Military Sites has be done and most of Sea ports and Nuclear plants are in control of Russia Putin must go for talks and negotiations to ensure that ceasefire is imposed from both sides. India must continue with the stand taken till now and if feasible should indulge or mediate directly or indirectly. Post resolution of this present crisis hope we are prepared for the drastic change in World Power Transition which almost look like has started to take shape. This crisis is been an very important learning phase and we need to be well prepared for future world order changes without compromising on our national security interest.

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