After weeks of ratcheting tensions, and frenetic diplomacy across Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin has played a major move by announcing formal recognition for the Donbas region enclaves (Oblasts) of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine, one which changes the course of the present diplomatic efforts. To begin with, the recognition of the two separatist groups that control parts of the Donbas region as governments signals that Russia is no longer interested in talks on the basis of the “Minsk accords”. The agreements — negotiated in 2014 and 2015, but never fully implemented — had secured a “special status” for the Donbas enclaves. Mr. Putin has also ordered Russian “peacekeepers” into the region, a move that could spark off conflict with Ukrainian troops. Mr. Putin may claim that his move is far short of the “invasion” that the U.S. and its NATO allies have been warning about, and should not incur any further hostilities from Ukraine. In doing so, however, he has put paid to all hopes that the threat of conflict would recede once the tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Ukraine border, and in Belarus for military exercises, withdrew. Finally, his move is a clear sign that the situation is not going to be “managed” or “handled” without NATO sitting down to serious negotiation over the security guarantees he has been demanding for two decades, and some discussion about how to regulate the expansion of NATO to Russia’s neighbouring countries and the heavy presence of western troops and weapons in the region. The ball is now in the court of the U.S. and its European allies to decide whether they would react with sanctions, military action, or return to the diplomatic table.
For New Delhi, the escalation in tensions comes at a particularly sensitive time: External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has been travelling to Germany and France, and while he has tried to shift the focus of his European interlocutors to the Indo-Pacific, it is Russia’s actions that dominate the conversation. In addition, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is visiting Moscow, the first by a Pakistani PM in over two decades, and New Delhi is watching the new ties closely. The timing of the tensions is all the more inconvenient, given that the delivery of Russian S-400 missile systems is underway, and the U.S. administration is still to decide on whether to waive or impose CAATSA sanctions against India. As a result, India’s statement at the UNSC that appealed for diplomacy and de-escalation, while making no critical comment about Mr. Putin’s announcement is not just an assertion of India’s traditional principled position, or a study in pragmatism but also a reflection of the difficult position New Delhi finds itself in over the conflict, which appears to have now entered a new phase.