This week on Worldview, we discuss Russia-NATO tensions over Ukraine — how close is the world really to open war in Europe, does diplomacy have a chance and how is India affected?
If you thought we could start a new year without COVID or an impending international conflict, think again.
As we speak, Russia has reportedly amassed about 100,000 troops at its border with Ukraine, and another 30,000 are in Belarus for massive war exercises. NATO- the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries are also deploying troops to their Eastern flank countries- like Romania and Poland- the U.S. is sending 3,000 more troops. Meanwhile, diplomacy to avert a full crisis is on as well- and amidst visits including US officials in Europe, the British PM in Ukraine, the Hungarian PM in Moscow and another possible Biden-Putin calls….all eyes on the next round of Normandy talks, expected in Berlin- where Russian and Ukrainian security advisors will meet, along with German and French advisors for talks on de-escalating the situation.
How is India affected by this situation?
After remaining quiet for more than a month- India made two statements last week on the Russa- Ukraine tensions- appealing for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. At the United Nations, India abstained from a procedural vote on whether to discuss the situation- a vote that Russia lost- with a U.S.-led group of 10 countries agreeing to the discussion. India’s vote was seen as a play to both sides, but it came after Russia-India consultations in Delhi, and was seen as a tilt towards Moscow.
New Delhi’s greatest concerns are:
1. World War scenario: Any conflict- where the U.S. and its European allies are ranged against Russia will impact the whole world- economically and in terms of security, and India, as a partner to both Moscow and Washington will either have to take sides, or be prepared to deal with unhappiness from both sides.
2. S-400 delivery and US waiver: The crisis comes precisely as India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system is under way- and New Delhi hopes for a waiver of U.S. sanctions on this. Conflict will complicate both the delivery of the system, and the possibility of a presidential waiver.
3. Moves focus from China: Just as U.S. and Europe had grown more focussed on their Indo-Pacific strategy that puts India centre-stage, and India grapples with Chinese aggression and land-grab at the Line of Actual Control, and 100,000 troops along the boundary on both sides, the world’s attention is diverted from China to Russia.
4. Brings Russia China closer- the Crisis will make Moscow more dependent on friends like China, and build a regional bloc of sorts that India is not a part of. In Beijing this week, the future seems evident- as India has announced a diplomatic and political boycott of the Olympic games- while Putin, Central Asian Presidents, and Pakistan PM Imran Khan are all in Beijing to stand in solidarity with Xi Jinping.
5. Energy crisis: In any conflict- Europe worries Russia will turn down gas and oil supplies- driving energy prices up. Already tensions have pushed oil prices up 14% in a month past $90 and analyst say they could hit $125 a barrel if the situation is not resolved.
6. Indians in Ukraine: As India’s UN envoy pointed out in his speech- India has more than 20,000 nationals in Ukraine, mostly medical students, as well as business professionals in the field of pharma, IT and engineering- and the government is concerned about their safety in the event of a crisis, although MEA says it is not at present evacuating citizens.
So let’s look at what led to the situation: At the heart of the situation is history; a history that spans centuries…but we will look at the more recent history.
- In 1991, after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union into Russia and 14 independent countries, Russia feels the West took advantage of its weakness to bring many of its near neighbours into its military alliance.
- In just a few years by 1997- NATO expanded to 16 new countries in the region, including those like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that share borders with Russia in 2004 (MAP1)
- With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power in 1999, Russia began to regain its strength as a global power, and the U.S. and other NATO members- like Canada, France, Germany and other European countries began to worry about Russian expansionism once again
- In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea- the southern region of Ukraine, after what he accused was a western sponsored overthrow of the Moscow friendly Ukrainian president in mass protests at the Maidan. After a year of violence- cross border shelling and action between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militia, there was a ceasefire- negotiated as the Minsk agreement, and U.S. and Europe also responded with- crippling financial sanctions- including some which have affected India. An estimated 14,000 people including 3,000 civilians have been killed since 2014
What does Russia want?
- Talks to discuss implementation of previous commitments on NATO expansion
- NATO troops moving out of Post-Soviet States
- A commitment that Ukraine will not be given NATO members
- Security guarantees for the future
In addition- as the German naval chief who visited Delhi last month and was subsequently sacked for his comments , said Putin demands and deserves respect.
What do US and European states that form NATO want?
- Russian troops to pull back from borders
- Russia to stop war games in neighbouring countries like Belarus
- Willing to discuss security guarantees, but no commitment on independent states joining NATO - according to a letter leaked to a Spanish newspaper
- Wants guarantees that Russia will not invade Ukraine- Russia has said it has no intention to —but troops amassed are worrying
Clearly, an all- out war can easily be prevented at this stage through diplomacy, but it is necessary to consider the risks attached to having tens of thousands of soldiers ranged at the borders. In addition to wanting peace, India has to consider how any conflict will change the regional allegiances and the balance of power in its own neighbourhood carefully.
To begin with it is necessary to study Soviet and post-Soviet history to understand the underpinnings of the crisis- remember, as we speak of English books here, there will be an inherent western bias in some of them.
- Red Famine : Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum is a critique of Soviet policy, which she claims wanted to subdue Ukrainian independence by starving the soviet state. Applebaum has more recently written Twilight of Democracy- about Poland and other authoritarian trends, which is a riveting read
- Collapse : The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok is a widely acclaimed description of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, written by a Russian professor in the U.K.
- Borderland : Anne Reid has a longer look at Ukrainian history including its treatment at the hands of the Nazis, and the Stalinists.
- The Gates of Europe : Serhii Plokhy on The History of Ukraine
- War with Russia ? In 2018, Russian expert Stephen Cohen wrote this percipient book on events from Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate- worth reading
- Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands is an account of the Maidan protests in Kyiv and the Crimean crisis by Richard Sakwa
- We have in previous editions given a whole range of books on India-Russia relations, and I would re-endorse the latest compendium of India’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Covid world by Amb Surendra Kumar