Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which began from the third week of February, shows no sign of ending. It has, in the meantime, led to a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions. The number of refugees streaming into countries adjoining Ukraine has revived memories and images of the vast numbers who sought refuge in Europe following the wars in Syria, Iraq and North Africa at the turn of the century. No one would have anticipated that a similar situation would arise just a few years later in Europe. The number of refugees has already approached, and possibly even crossed, the two million mark; and this is apart from the several thousands who have been killed inside Ukraine. It is a vivid demonstration of the callousness of human nature, more so considering the underlying cause of the conflict.
It is most surprising that nothing concrete is being done by powerful nations in Europe and across the world to try and end the conflict through a process of reconciliation and negotiation. What the conflict, though, has exposed is the irrelevance of the United Nations in dealing with situations of this kind — becoming in many ways a modern day variant of the ill-fated League of Nations created at the end of the First World War.
More an economic concern
The primary concern of European nations and the United States appears to be the economic impact of the conflict — rather than the human costs involved — consequent on the ongoing war in Ukraine. The International Monetary Fund has already issued a warning of the serious global impact of the war, which includes a surge in energy and commodity prices, and being taken seriously by the U.S., almost all European nations and many countries across the globe. Leading western economists have been pontificating on the economic consequences of the war, and the ways and the means to reduce its impact. Similar concerns about the human costs of this unnecessary war are nowhere to be found. Least of all to be found are suggestions on how best to end the conflict, or at least bring about a truce to reduce the human toll that keeps steadily rising.
Debating the sanctions route
It may appear tendentious to think that there are leading elements in the West who believe that by waging a prolonged ‘sanctions war’ against Russia of the kind currently being pursued — rather than seeking a compromise by which to end the genocide in Ukraine — an option had become available to checkmate Russia, which under Russian President Vladimir Putin was posing a threat to the West. Russia deserves to be rightfully condemned for being in violation of the United Nations Charter and invading Ukraine.
There are, however, far more efficacious means to checkmate Russian moves than persisting with a prolonged period of ever widening economic sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s economy. This may be an ideal way to achieve a ‘regime change’ in Moscow, getting citizens to rise against the regime due to the shortages and other restrictions imposed by a ‘sanctions’ regimen. It is, however, not the best way to end a conflict in the shortest possible time, and avert a greater human tragedy that a prolonged conflict entails. Sanctions, no doubt, do and will affect Russia and its economy, but it has had little impact on Russia’s war effort. Meanwhile, Ukraine, or more particularly the citizens and the residents of Ukraine, are innocent victims of the tussle between the West and Russia.
For the present, each new sanction only strengthens Russia’s determination to compel Ukraine to cut its links with the West. No country within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or even those outside it, is at present willing to send forces in support of Ukraine. Waiting for the eventual collapse of the Russian state while leaving Ukraine and its citizens to the not-so-tender mercies of the Russian juggernaut is tantamount to becoming an accessory to genocide. While concerns that the conflict in Ukraine may lead to a nuclear conflict do appear exaggerated, what is taking place is a tragedy of a kind that should not befall any nation.
There are, no doubt, certain special circumstances that make the problem inherently difficult and complicated. Ukraine, for instance, is not just another country as far as Russia is concerned. It was part of the erstwhile Soviet Union till 1991, and even at the time there were inherent tensions in the relationship. Ukraine in turn has long struggled with ethno-linguistic tensions encompassing western and central Ukraine and the Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine. Western Ukraine is also largely Catholic while the east is largely Russian Orthodox. Even after its split from Russia in 1991, Ukraine has had problems in maintaining a semblance of neutrality between Russia and the West.
Aggravating the situation is the fact that Ukraine was, in a sense, a child of a series of ‘Colour Revolutions’ that shook parts of the Russian Empire in 1991 — when Russian influence was at its lowest ebb after the Second World War. Matters got further aggravated when a pro-Russian President of Ukraine — who was elected in a relatively fair election — was ousted and had to flee the country. Following this, Russia intervened and annexed Crimea and took aggressive measures to reinforce Russian influence in Donetsk and Luhansk, regions of eastern Ukraine which have large Russian populations.
The ties between Russia and Ukraine are thus in a sense both historical and political. The declared ambition of NATO is to deter Soviet expansionism and, hence, any nation becoming a part of NATO is deemed by Russia to be anti-Russia. Russia has, from time to time, made it apparent that under no circumstances would it countenance NATO membership for Ukraine, and that this would be perceived as a hostile act towards Russia.
The politics of the war
As of now, Ukraine has become a pawn between Russia and the West. The war over Ukraine is, furthermore, a reflection of the prevailing myopia of current leaders who seem doomed to repeat past follies. An extension of NATO by the inclusion of Ukraine at this time — a country with a complex history and polyglot composition — was hardly a compelling necessity at this juncture, but badly misreading the situation (for even as far back as 2007 at the Munich Security Conference where I was the Indian delegate, Mr. Putin had made it amply clear that ‘NATO extension... represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust’). Since then, Mr. Putin has given no indication whatsoever of any change in his attitude on this issue.
This misreading of Mr. Putin’s personality has been a cardinal error, and Ukraine is paying a very heavy price. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who openly flaunts his pro-West inclination, is hardly a match for President Putin in terms of strategy and tactics.
While Mr. Zelensky employs grandstanding as a strategy, Mr. Putin is a born fighter. Anyone who has had an opportunity to interact closely with Mr. Putin would never have attempted to challenge him in the manner that Mr. Zelensky has been doing these past few weeks. Currently, an unlikely hero to his fellow countrymen, he could well go down in history as someone who has caused the ruin of Ukraine. Had he had played his cards properly, he could have prevented the situation from reaching the present impasse and still maintained Ukraine’s independence. To say the least, this is extremely unfortunate for Ukraine, and much of the world as well.
Press the pause button
A change of tack is clearly called for. At this time, the cardinal objective should be to save human lives and the existence of Ukraine. Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO, which are in any case a distant dream, need to be put on the back burner. For the present, any extension of NATO further to the east should be given up, and, instead, an effort made to rebuild some of the bridges that existed between Russia and the rest of Europe at the beginning of this century. Alongside this, the West should hit the ‘pause button’ on initiating ‘Colour Revolutions’ which have led to more conflicts than peace in Europe or elsewhere. More than anything else, leaders of nations and countries need to understand and assimilate the lessons of history, to avoid the kind of critical mistakes that have been evident during the current Russia-Ukraine crisis and war.
M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal
- The primary concern of European nations and the United States appears to be the economic impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict
- The need to break the cycle of conflict and end the death of innocent civilians is the most vital issue at this juncture.
- The West should hit the ‘pause button’ on initiating ‘Colour Revolutions’ which have led to more conflicts than peace in Europe or elsewhere.