Globe-changing reverberations of the Ukraine war
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The vision of a multi-polar world could fade away soon with rivalries in a new Cold War becoming sharper and the gulf in mutual understanding widening

September 29, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 12:45 pm IST

Members of the United Nations Security Council listening to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting at the United Nations Headquarters to discuss the conflict in Ukraine.

Members of the United Nations Security Council listening to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting at the United Nations Headquarters to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. | Photo Credit: AFP

The justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February will long be debated. Every big power has fears of being surrounded. On its historically vulnerable western front, Russia had one supportive neighbour, six North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) adversaries, and two who are ambiguously inclined, while Ukraine’s relations with the European Union (EU) and NATO were always a matter of contention. After the Putin-Biden Geneva encounter in mid-2021, the high intensity of interactions between NATO members and Russia raised hopes of a detente, but Russian President Vladimir Putin chose invasion over negotiation, ignoring the degraded and inexperienced state of his armed forces, Ukraine’s military being the biggest in Europe with 2,00,000 men, 6,00,000 reserves, 1,000 tanks and 130 aircraft, Ukraine’s willingness to resist, and NATO’s determination to punish Russia.

The West’s hypocritical sanctions

Ukraine has been massively assisted by NATO weaponry, training, communications, satellite and human intelligence, reconnaissance, information processing systems and total control over the global media. While the World Bank is slow to help devastated war-torn nations such as Yemen and Afghanistan, it rushed $4.5 billion to Ukraine, while the International Monetary Fund came up with $1.4 billion. The West fails to understand how hypocritical its sanctions appear. For example, the United States exerted much effort persuading India and others to boycott Iranian and Venezuelan oil, only to try to get those shipments back on the market after its opposition shifted to Russia.

For its confused objectives, poor strategy and weak logistics, Russia has paid a high price, militarily, economically and diplomatically. More human losses have already been sustained than during its 10-year intervention in Afghanistan. The war has also caused huge devastation in the most industrial parts of Ukraine, with over 10 million persons crossing to neighbouring countries and over seven million internally displaced.

Actions and counter-actions

The current Ukraine counter-offensive that claims to have retaken 6,500 square kilometres and driven Russian forces back to the Kharkiv border, led to the announcement by Mr. Putin of holding a referendum in the occupied provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson (on joining Russia), mobilising 3,00,000 Russian reservists, and threatening to use nuclear weapons. Ukraine and NATO regard these actions as evidence of Russian weakness, noting that an army in retreat loses morale rapidly, and Russian public opinion is highly prone to mood swings.

Mobilisation is something the Kremlin wished to avoid, correctly fearing there was little Russian appetite to fight, especially against fellow Slavs. Experts believe the additional manpower will not offset the intrinsic weaknesses of the Russian forces. Mr. Putin’s tactic through referenda to define parts of Ukraine as Russian — like Crimea — will remain unrecognised, though Russia controls most of Luhansk and Kherson, about 80% of Zaporizhzhia and 60% of Donetsk. Nearly 8,00,000 new Russian passports have been issued in Ukraine over the past two years.

In 2020, Russia declared it would use nuclear weapons in four instances: if alarmed by an incoming missile; subjected to attack by weapons of mass destruction; suffered damage to infrastructure that housed its nuclear arsenal, or when conventional war threatened the existence of Russia. Mr. Putin now interprets the current war as an existential struggle in which Russia would make use “of all weapon systems available to us”. Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads, of which 1,588 are deployed operationally. There has been vigorous western pushback to Mr. Putin’s threat, pointing out that no such thing as a limited nuclear war could exist.

Washington has declared that it will accept no compromise, and is ready to continue the fight until the last Ukrainian if necessary. This disincentivises Mr. Putin, for whom any peace deal is acceptable only if it includes the lifting of all sanctions. Big powers, fearing loss of political legitimacy and strategic status, have always proved unwilling or incapable of ending wars even at great cost to themselves and the victims, even though they knew victory was beyond them.

What are the consequences of the first major armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War? A country devastated by Russia would remain hostile; resistance instigated by the West will continue, making life in the absorbed enclaves difficult. Mr. Putin’s objective of ensuring Russia’s security will remain elusive. If the war drags on, it will suit the West, just as prolonged American entanglement in Afghanistan suited its adversaries. Under pressure from both domestic anti-war activists and ultra-nationalists, Mr. Putin will suffer reputational damage internationally and domestically. Therefore, even a Russian face-saving outcome could prove pyrrhic.

Today’s world is “shaped by raw power politics, where everything is weaponised”, as the EU Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell put it, when major powers are divided, the international community polarised and protectionism rampant. Rivalries during the new Cold War would be sharper than its predecessor, particularly through the menace of nuclear arms because the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will come under huge stress to stay relevant. Elements of western coercion on a massive scale, covering energy, sanctions, finance, banking, cyberspace, digital technologies and social media, signal the weapons of the future.

Where China and India stand

The Russian invasion leaves China in a complicated predicament; Beijing could enlist Russia as a junior partner or buttress it even though China thereby risks confronting its major trade partners, the United States and the EU. As the only permanent member in the UN Security Council not directly involved in the war, China enjoys both leverage and self-interest in shaping the outcome of the conflict, considering the politico-strategic ramifications on its own future. But it has no history or experience of peacemaking or mediation.

The strength of nationalism, based on ethnicity, culture, religion, history and language, will grow. The Ukraine war will lead to major economic shifts. States suffering from western sanctions or affected collaterally will seek alternative financial and monetary platforms beyond the control of Washington and Brussels in order to bypass current transnational financial arteries and challenge the dollar as a reserve currency. Fragmentation of the monetary and financial order should be anticipated, including increased protectionism and a retreat from globalisation which will severely depress the growth of world trade. Clashing self-perceptions by both the West and Russia that are messianic and self-righteous, make the gulf in mutual understanding unbridgeable. Russia declares an intention to shift to an eastward orientation advocated by ideologues of Eurasianism such as Aleksandr Dugin, but rebalancing would be difficult in view of Russia’s major security concerns and the cultural preferences of its élite.

As for India, the diminution of Russia as a partner will set back its longed-for multi-polar world and its security in terms of political support and collaborative projects in defence, space and nuclear energy. However, the expected turn to the U.S. would come at the cost of greater expense and greater conditionality.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

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