Suhasini Haidar

Extreme outcomes in the Great Game over Ukraine


The shooting down of the Malaysian airplane is one of the most horrific consequences of the latest version of the “Great Game” being played out in the world. While the US and Russia trade charges on just who was responsible for the targeting of the plane, even whether it was the target, the sad truth is that it is Ukraine that is suffering the consequence of being coveted by two world powers as a sphere of influence.

The trouble in Ukraine, as it was laid out on newspaper front pages, began with the Russian annexation of Crimea, an autonomous region of Ukraine this year. As the world watched, pro-Russian separatists first took military control of the state on March 1st, and then held a referendum where participants voted to merge with the Russian Federation. Of course, there is a much longer history that dates far back to even the 18th century, and even the current crisis actually began with protests that Russia accused the West of backing, even as the Ukrainian government sought to enter into an association agreement with the European Union. When the Ukrainian president stepped back from that agreement, all hell broke loose in his country.

As Russia raged about the possibility of NATO forces entering its own backyard, the West has played it as a Russian intervention into a neighbouring country. India, after a brief attempt at siding with Russia, when former NSA Menon recognised “Russia’s legitimate interests” in the country, has chosen to refrain from commenting any further. But it should be clear from all available intelligence so far, that the Malaysian Air MH17 wasn’t a specific target. As a result, the victim of the missile attack could have as easily been a Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, or even an Air India flight that were all seen on the radar not far from where MH17 was hit. What’s more, Prime Minister Modi and President Putin’s planes were also not far outside the danger zone, and certainly travelled inside the very same air corridor as MH17 did that day. “It’s a nightmarish scenario,” admitted Ukraine’s Ambassador Oleksandr Shevchenko in an interview to The Hindu, “That the PM of India could have been anywhere near such danger. It just proves that terrorism doesn’t limit itself to the borders of any country, and India should recognise that too.”

What the world needs to recognise, however, is what this latest part of the conflict is doing to the Ukraine. To begin with, the country has been at the brink of economic disaster for a while, and was clutching at straws between an IMF bailout of $17 billion and a Russian loan of $15 billion last year. However, the last few months of fighting and instability have hit its ability to even try to repay those loans, and the IMF now estimates the Ukrainian economy will shrink 6.5% this year. What started out at the US and Russia’s battle for influence over the new government has now pitted Ukraine’s weak government against its all powerful neighbour, and Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies, and Ukraine’s decision, in the aftermath of MH-17 to halt all trade with Russia will only further weaken the economy. Ukraine depends on Russia for about 70% of its gas, and the US decision to put more sanctions on Russia because of its role in Ukraine isn’t likely to help that situation. Finally, the downing of MH-17, that has led to all flights over Ukraine being re-routed, and flights into Kiev being cancelled will deal yet another blow to the country’s depleted coffers.

For the subcontinent, the scenario could begin to resemble Afghanistan’s predicament over the centuries. Afghanistan was seen once as the gateway between Central Asia and India, and became the scene of bitter spy wars between Russia and Britain. In the past century, it was the cold war battleground between the US and the Soviet Union, and more recently, as the place Pakistan most wished to oust India’s influence from. What it resulted in, is a complete destruction of its economy and its societal structure.

No doubt, the comparison between Ukraine and Afghanistan ends quite quickly. No one is expecting Ukraine to head where Afghanistan went, and it is hoped the big powers will pull back from pushing Ukraine over the brink of their conflicting ambitions. But the principle Peter Hopkirk noted in his foreword to “The Great Game”, his account of the Russian-British proxy war over Afghanistan, “The headlines of today are indistinguishable from those of a century ago. Little appears to have be learnt from the past. The Great Game never ceases……” Indeed, it just looks for new playgrounds and battlefields.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 2:00:40 PM |

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