Ukraine crisis: How confrontation between Putin’s Russia and Biden-led West will impact India’s foreign relations

India is close to all the major global players — Russia, US, EU and Ukraine — hence it cannot afford to take sides

Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh February 02, 2022 10:16:55 IST
Ukraine crisis: How confrontation between Putin’s Russia and Biden-led West will impact India’s foreign relations

File image showing President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange' on16 June, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. AP/Patrick Semansky

The last time conventional troops advanced into Ukraine, it was in 1941 and they were led by the famed Panzer divisions of Germany in Operation Barbarossa. Initially, the Germans were greeted as liberators by some of the Ukrainian populace. In Galicia especially, there had long been a widespread belief that Germany, as the avowed enemy of Poland and the USSR, was the Ukrainians’ natural ally for the attainment of their independence. The illusion was quickly shattered as the Nazi army unleashed a trail of destruction, including the killing of a large number of citizens, displacing millions, ethnic cleansing and enslavement.

The Red Army subsequently turned the tables with their counter-offensive and Ukraine remained an integral part of the USSR even providing two of its leaders — Nikita Khrushchev, who was born just east of the Ukrainian border and headed its Communist Party for many years from 1938, and of course, Leonid Brezhnev, who was born in Ukraine and served under Khrushchev in the propaganda department and later, in 1939, as a regional Party Secretary.

Today the situation is vastly different: Ukraine is independent, while Germany and Russia remain on different sides.

Germany is now part of NATO and disinclined to provide combat troops to defend Ukraine, whereas Russia clearly sees the expansion of NATO into what it considers its strategic space as a red line. The question which is uppermost in every analyst's mind now is whether Moscow is willing to use military force to secure its interests across what it believes it should be its unquestioned sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and beyond and will the Western powers defend a country not part of NATO.

As per various published reports, when Mikhail Gorbachev was discussing the reunification of Germany with Helmut Kohl, he was promised by various leaders including the then US Secretary of State, James Baker, that NATO would not expand to the East. In fact, these promises were central to President Vladimir Putin’s speech at Munich Security Conference in 2017 when he stated that the West was reneging on verbal commitments. “And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today?”

In April 2021, Russia mobilised tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, indicating to the West that an invasion might be imminent. Even larger moves began in November, prompting the more recent fears of war. In the summer, Moscow quietly pared back gas exports to Europe, pushing prices higher. Finally, in December, Russia proposed a treaty with the US and NATO that would redefine power in Europe.

Ukraine crisis How confrontation between Putins Russia and Bidenled West will impact Indias foreign relations

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, on 18 January, 2022. AP

The US and its allies are unlikely to agree to those, which include a pledge that Ukraine and other Soviet states would never join NATO and withdrawal of NATO forces from former Eastern Bloc nations. The Russia-proposed agreement on security guarantees with NATO states, among other things, that today’s alliance member countries withdraw all NATO-deployed weaponry that was not there as of 27 May, 1997, thus restoring the 1997 configuration of the Russia-NATO balance. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999; Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Estonia became members in 2004. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020. Russian proposals mean that all these countries would have to effectively renounce all military protection extended to them by the North Atlantic alliance, a highly unlikely proposition. Putin is sidelining the Ukrainian leadership and talks are focussed with the US, while Ukraine now finds itself at the centre of a much larger confrontation.

As Russia demonstrated in Kazakhstan recently, it can also move fast to take advantage of events. The recent protests there were largely sparked by domestic anger over fuel price rises, themselves an unintended consequence of Russia’s energy policy. But Moscow was swift to take advantage of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) between post-Soviet states including Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus. The last country offers an opportunity for positioning more troops. Moscow has demonstrated its ability to take military decisions and affect deployments at lightning speed (e.g., in Syria and Kazakhstan). In 2008 during the Russia-Georgia War, Moscow began using force to prevent NATO expansion.

The build-up of forces on the Ukrainian border has been visible for months now.

There has been no deception that contradicts a secretive and agile approach to military operations. Russia has made itself a defining player in several conflicts, principally Syria and Libya, while defence exports and mercenaries such as the Wagner Group boost its influence around the globe. The ultimate audience, for this, is usually domestic – Putin needs to keep the Russian people, institutions and power brokers believing he is strong, and the others weak.

By framing the Ukraine face-off as a confrontation of “great powers”, Putin has made sure Russia is once again treated as a major power. He has put more of the onus on the US as a key interlocutor for settling the dispute, sidelining President Zelensky; and engaging in a largely bilateral discussion with the US. Maybe the US focus on the Indo-Pacific to contain China and the pullout of troops from Afghanistan has been perceived as an opportunity by Russia to force it to pull back in Europe.

The latest military and political escalation by Russia near Ukraine’s borders is therefore not solely about Ukraine. As it also offers Russia a unique chance to achieve closure on issues that they haven’t been able to resolve for the last twenty years, in particular NATO’s dominance of Europe since 1991. For the Kremlin, the escalation is about carving out a new geostrategic role for Russia in the revised world order. Ukraine is the area where they are able to project power, to demonstrate its ability and willingness to use force, without risking a full-blown military confrontation with the West. The clarity in its red lines is being revealed. In 2014, Russia waited for the Sochi Winter Olympics to be over before annexing Crimea, now the games are in Beijing and conclude on 20 February, it is therefore unlikely that President Putin will upset the schedule of the games.

The immediate fallout would of course be economical; there is little doubt that this would permanently end chances of the opening of the Nordstream pipeline, a long-term Kremlin project that it hopes will give it much greater leverage over mainland Europe in the coming decades. The EU as a whole is heavily dependent on the Russian supply of natural gas, which was 39 percent in 2017. The largest importers of Russian gas in the European Union are Germany and Italy, accounting together for almost half of the EU's gas imports from Russia. A conflict in Ukraine has the potential for major disruptions to the European energy market. There is a mutual dependence: Russia depends on revenue from Europe, while Europe depends on Russian energy. Coupled with this oil prices would increase thereby affecting a large number of countries that are still weathering the effects of the pandemic.

Ukraine crisis How confrontation between Putins Russia and Bidenled West will impact Indias foreign relations

File image of US President Joe Biden. AP

Sanctions is another tool in the hands of the West including targeted sanctions against certain oligarchs considered close to the Russian leadership which will quickly be imposed leading to more disarray in the intertwined world of global trade. President Joe Biden has promised to impose “severe costs” for a Russian invasion — including cutting Russian banks off from the global financial system. But if Putin responds with gas cutoffs, that could spike energy prices, drive inflation, and undermine Europe’s economic recovery.

But how will a contest far away from our borders affect India? The fact is that India is close to all the major players — Russia, US, EU and Ukraine — hence we cannot afford to take sides. As a responsible nation of growing stature with political and diplomatic linkages with the parties involved, we need to seize this opportunity by trying to broker a settlement between the various nations.  Though agreements will be hard to negotiate, given the deep divisions, India will benefit from a reconciliation.

India has an inventory of over 60 percent of arms which are of Russian origin and include T-90 tanks, BMP-2 ICV’s, AD systems, missiles, SU-30 and MiG 21 aircraft, attack helicopters, aircraft carrier, submarines and ships, and more recently manufacturing the AK 203 Assault Rifle.

Both countries are also jointly producing the BrahMos missile which is also being exported to the Philippines. In fact, Russian arms and equipment has been the mainstay of our forces post-1965. India cannot afford to slacken its relationship with Moscow while their weapon platforms continue to serve as the backbone of Indian defence forces. Tensions in Ukraine resulting in sanctions will therefore have a direct impact on the availability of spares and replacements as well as new equipment being inducted in all domains which will have a direct bearing on our operational preparedness.

The imposition of CAATSA with regard to the S-400 missile systems is another possibility. Irrespective of the stance being taken by the Biden administration presently, public opinion may force a tougher line to be taken. US Defence Department spokesman Ned Price recently stated: “Whether it is India, whether it is any other country, or any other country, we continue to urge all countries to avoid major new transactions for Russian weapon systems.” The unvarnished fact is that India cannot afford to face a situation where it is forced to cut defence ties with Russia.

Ukraine crisis How confrontation between Putins Russia and Bidenled West will impact Indias foreign relations

S-400 missile system. Image courtesy News18 Hindi

China, of course, is another matter. Growing confrontation between the West and Russia will surely push Putin to embrace China more openly. President Xi Jinping has been quoted by state television as saying after his conversation with President Putin: “At present certain international forces are arbitrarily interfering in the internal affairs of China and Russia under the guise of democracy and human rights.” This will have an effect in the subcontinent and may also lead China to drawing its own red lines over Taiwan.

India considers the maintenance of its close relationship with Russia as an imperative in view of the confrontation it is facing from China. During the 2+2 Defence and Foreign ministerial dialogue, India mentioned “extraordinary militarisation” in its neighbourhood and “unprovoked aggression” along its northern border as some of its chief challenges.

As regards the US in case there is a confrontation, America may not understand the reasons for India’s neutrality, thereby forcing it to take sides. It will bring contradictions in our relationship to the fore, even as our convergences on China have been growing. India did not join the Western powers’ in condemning Russian intervention in Crimea. In November 2020, India voted against a Ukraine-sponsored resolution in the United Nations that condemned alleged human rights violations in Crimea. India advocates “sincere and sustained diplomatic efforts to ensure that issues between Ukraine and its neighbouring countries are resolved through constructive dialogue.”

The other issue is whether the American focus on Europe emboldens China to take advantage of the situation. A weakened US capability in the Indo-Pacific due to greater resource allocation in Europe doesn’t bode well for the region. China of course has historically always believed in seizing the moment as has been demonstrated by their actions in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis and in 2020 during the pandemic, both defining events globally.

President Putin is making it clear that he wants regional Western influence rolled back; he may be emboldened by the fact that the Americans have recently pulled out of Afghanistan and have not confronted a peer enemy. A decisive period of conflict now being panned out is the confrontation before a potential engagement of forces.

The Russians are well aware that ‘no plan survives contact’, hence the conflict may pan out in a different manner than perceived. However, in case, negotiations are successful in diffusing the crisis then it will be a win-win situation as Russia will see sanctions imposed post Crimea eased, the EU will not feel threatened by cutting of oil supplies, and the Russian embrace with China could loosen. India no doubt will prefer convergence rather than divergence between its ‘comprehensive global strategic partner’ and ‘time tested friend’.

The author is an Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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