We cannot overlook genuine Russian security concerns that were flouted with disdain
The entire world is focused on the Ukraine war. Over the past month, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Donetsk, Sumy etc have become household names. One unique feature of the crisis is that what is being fed to people around the world 24/7 is facts and opinions filtered through the Western prism. The Russian media has been blanked out leaving the story one-sided. While nothing can justify the human misery and tragedy caused by the war, we cannot overlook genuine Russian security concerns that were flouted with disdain by NATO, leaving Russia little option. From a Russian perspective, the increasing shadow of NATO and EU on Ukraine were clear red lines and existential threats and Russia was pushed too far. Russia compares its action in Ukraine to how the US would react if Mexico moves towards entering into a military alliance with Russia or China.
By reiterating spelt out conditions for the cessation of hostilities, backed up by a gradual, well-measured upping of the ante, Russia has made its resolve amply clear. It is turning out to be tougher and may take longer than what they had estimated, but the Russian message is unambiguous. They will do whatever it takes and are prepared to go the full distance to achieve what they set out to achieve. It is also evident that Russia will avoid occupation of cities, but will cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and resort to relentless, systematic, clinical strikes at value targets.
The Ukraine crisis cannot be seen in isolation. It needs to be viewed in the backdrop of the ongoing jostling for a new world order in a scenario where the US has been steadily losing its shine. The Presidential election fiasco and its ignominious exit from Afghanistan have further damaged US credibility. China, although still some distance away, is fast catching up with the US. Russia’s stature has regained a lot of lost ground. The Western democracies are facing economic challenges and are losing appetite for wars. Australia, South Korea and Japan have their security and economic challenges. Countries like India, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam etc are exploring new horizons. A great deal of churning is taking place in the context of world order.
Despite the collapse of the USSR, instead of winding up, NATO pounced on the opportunity provided by a weak Russia and expanded eastward from 1990 to 2014. NATO’s track record since 1990 and their recent overtures about taking Ukraine into their fold left no one in doubt about their motive. Ukraine was only a tool. Russia was the target. Volodymyr Zelensky was misled to believe that NATO and the EU will reciprocate Ukraine’s eagerness to join NATO by intervening militarily in case of a Russian invasion. Zelensky addressed the US congress, European parliament and parliaments of the UK and some other EU members, making a fervent appeal for NATO membership and direct military intervention by NATO. Although he was given standing ovation as an expression of solidarity after every address, the US – West combine steered clear of any direct military involvement and limited their support to supplying military hardware like shoulder-fired air defence weapons and enlarging the list of economic sanctions against Russia. Zelensky’s appeal for imposing no-fly zones over Ukraine had no takers. NATO’s dilemma was even more evident from the prompt US rejection of Poland’s proposal for transferring Polish MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine through the US.
Countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa have avoided jumping into the fray. India displayed its influence on the warring parties by evacuating Indian citizens against all odds. The evacuation was significant considering that, at places, a cease-fire was secured over specific areas covering evacuation routes of Indian citizens. India has also provided considerable humanitarian assistance and has repeatedly called for an end to the crisis through negotiation.
Instead of getting involved in the fighting directly, the US and the West have unleashed the biggest propaganda campaign and a ‘Sanctions War’ against Russia. Difficulties faced by EU members like Germany to decouple from their energy dependence on Russia expose the limitations of economic sanctions. Some of the landlocked oil refineries in the EU are almost entirely dependent upon Russian crude supplied through pipelines. It is intriguing that while they justify their continuing crude import from Russia on the plea that they have no alternative, they express dismay at India’s meagre oil import from Russia!
China solidly stands behind Russia while at the same time reiterating the need to respect the territorial integrity of nations and bringing an early end to the conflict through negotiations. China stands to gain the most from the crisis and its fallout.
Ukraine crisis has given the world a good measure of the effectiveness of various global alliances. Left to themselves, the West today has very little appetite for war. Japan has taken note of the perils of over-dependence on others for its territorial integrity. Israel feels vindicated about its investments in self-reliance for its national security and survival. Iran and North Korea are more convinced than ever about the need to acquire nuclear capability. Taiwan will reexamine the adequacy of US security guarantees. It was the US that prevented Taiwan from acquiring nuclear weapon capability; Taiwan was forced by the US to shut down their suspected nuclear weapons program in 1977 and again in 1988 after Col Chang Hsien – Yi, who was reportedly in charge of Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program, defected to the US. If Taiwan picks a leaf out of the Ukraine crisis and goes nuclear, China would be forced to reassess its ‘national reunification’ aspiration. In the larger context, such an eventuality may bring greater stability in the South China sea. Saudi Arabia and UAE have shown the will to pursue what is in their national interest and resist being dictated to. India has demonstrated strategic autonomy in its foreign policy and has reiterated that its foreign policy is based on India’s national interests alone and not dictated by any ‘camp’. While the West and US may be irked, China would have read the significance of India’s refusal to be pressurised by the West & US. Despite its noisy and chaotic nature and incoherent appearance, Indian polity, cutting across political parties deserve credit for not discarding strategic autonomy and consistency in India’s foreign policy approach over the years.
The erosion of the United Nation’s relevance continues on a sharp downward slope. NATO, if it survives in its present avatar, may be forced to undertake a major overhaul.
In the backdrop of what has been discussed so far, the statement “When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills” made by Chinese premier Li Keying at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in January 2015 sounds very appropriate, especially for India. What could be these windmills in the Indian context?
For a start, India and China can come together to resolve the ongoing Ukraine crisis. They are best placed to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv. It is also a fact that a weak Russia is not in the interest of either India or China.
BRICS holds the potential to be a formidable economic alliance and grow in strength and influence and may even welcome countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia into its fold. QUAD, on the other hand, despite its tremendous potential, would require the US to reorient its approach to flourish as an alliance.
Recent events have demonstrated how supply chains, digital networks and global financial systems are unilaterally weaponised to squeeze a country. Globalisation, paradoxically, seems to have made the relevance of India’s Atma Nirbhar policy more pronounced.
The ongoing world order tussle allows taking a fresh look at improving India China relations. Afghanistan is an issue that provides a great opportunity in this regard. An Afghanistan in turmoil is detrimental to the interest of both India and China. Afghanistan has been ravaged and dumped in our backyard. It is in dire and urgent need of humanitarian assistance and sustainable economic revival. These two factors are also prerequisites for ushering instability in the country. Considering China’s economic prowess, India’s credibility and track record, and the combined political clout of the two countries, a joint India China approach stand the best chance of being well received even by the ruling Taliban dispensation. Afghanistan is well endowed with huge unexplored mineral wealth. The mining sector offers the potential to lay the foundation for sustainable, long term economic revival of Afghanistan. Projects aimed at monetising their mineral wealth could be an ideal win-win proposal for all parties. In this context, reviving the Mes Aynak Copper mine project which lies to the South East of Kabul provides a tailor-made starting point for a joint China – India project. Pakistan and Iran may also be incorporated into the process. Apart from building confidence between the Asian giants and stabilising Afghanistan, it also holds out the possibility of restoring stability in the whole region. Working together can bring about steady improvement in the relations between India and China. Once a thaw in relations is achieved, the two neighbours may explore out-of-the-box solutions such as adopting a ‘joint ownership’ model for resolving some of the territorial disputes along their borders. A closer India – China – Russia and a stable, peaceful South and Central Asia can only bode well for the world order.
This article first appeared in The Week