Several weeks into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has become a virtual proxy war with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) providing military assistance to Ukraine to persist in its fight against Russia, the fog of war has not lifted. Some direct talks between Russian and Ukrainian representatives have taken place but these have been of little avail. At this point it seems unlikely that an end to the ongoing humanitarian disaster is in sight.
Boost for the U.S.
It is increasingly evident that this is a war that nobody wants, least of all the Ukrainians or even the Russians; yet no one seems to be making the right moves to end the conflict. For NATO and its allies in Europe, this is not a conflict they wished to wage at this time. For the U.S., however, the unity displayed by NATO currently has been a major boost, reinforcing its belief that European security is inextricably linked to a strong and united NATO. Whether with the help of NATO, the U.S. has succeeded in isolating Russia in Europe is still an open question, but the U.S. can feel satisfied with the outcome as of now.
In the meantime, the carnage in Ukraine continues. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, for his part, might claim that he is ready to discuss neutrality, even as Russia, while continuing with its military operations, has been sending out feelers that it could consider limiting the conflict. However, in effect the two antagonists appear to be talking past rather than to one another.
What is more unfortunate is that the world is standing by, allowing the conflict to continue — with the West encouraging rather than restraining Mr. Zelensky from ‘baiting’ Russian President Vladimir Putin. Neither the United Nations, nor any of the major countries, have seriously explored any peace moves, nor followed up on what Mr. Zelensky means when he says that he is ready to discuss neutrality. To an outsider, it looks as if Ukraine has become a pawn in the power game between the West and Russia.
Seize the chance
If indeed the world is approaching a tipping point, then what is needed is less, not more, of the kind of grandstanding employed by Mr. Zelensky (occasionally laced with a demand for direct talks with Mr. Putin), or the charade of negotiations that are currently taking place between Ukraine and Russian negotiators. It may be too much to expect the Russian side to demonstrate proper contriteness for the unfortunate killing of thousands of civilians, but pressure should be brought on Russia to try and enter into more realistic negotiations with Ukraine. The West also needs to play a more active role, and try to devise a ‘Peace Plan’ taking advantage of the occasional statements made by both sides about their willingness to halt the conflict.
The crying need today is for a peace plan which even if it does not fully satisfy the requirements of either Russia or Ukraine — and obliquely that of the U.S. and the West — will at least ensure a cessation of hostilities and prevent the conflict from becoming further enlarged, resulting in a wider conflagration involving more countries and more powers. It should not prove too difficult, or beyond the realm of possibility, to arrive at a peace arrangement or devise a plan, that would accommodate Ukraine’s professed need for neutrality (with or without assured guarantees) and Russia’s concern about the further Eastward push of NATO (that implicitly threatens Russia’s security).
Working out an arrangement down to the smallest detail would, however, entail a great deal of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ by interlocutors acceptable to both Russia and Ukraine, who also have the necessary ‘gravitas’ to undertake such a task. Speed is of the essence, as with each passing day, the risk of a wider conflagration increases. The world is not bereft of individuals who can play a critical role as interlocutors at this time, but it demands both honesty of purpose and the will to overcome the odds.
The use of sanctions
To begin with, the West should reconsider its current obsession with imposing additional sanctions on Russia, in the expectation that this would lead to the collapse of Russia and an end to the ‘regality’ of Mr. Putin. It might be argued that there is greater merit in imposing economic sanctions on a country than in launching an all-out war.
Notwithstanding this, and despite the pressure that sanctions have put on the Russian economy (its economy is expected to plunge by anything between 12% to 15% over the next few months), the jury is still out on whether economic pain of this kind would lead any country — at least in the short and the medium term — to alter its mindset. Iran is a classic instance.
In the meantime, several well regarded economists have come out with their views regarding the ‘unintended consequences’ of the overuse of sanctions. Their refrain is that “the over use of economic weapons could reverse the process of globalisation that has allowed the modern world to prosper”. Similar concerns exist about the fragmentation of the global payment situation. Certain experts have again warned that the sanctions regime placed on Russia, unless calibrated very carefully, could exacerbate food shortages in low income countries. The short point is that economic sanctions, while seemingly an excellent option, can also have deleterious consequences for much of the world.
It would also be interesting to speculate on some of the spillover effects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Indisputably, Russia’s inability to coerce Ukraine into submission within a very short time frame has dented Russia’s image as also that of its vaunted military machine. While many explanations for Russia’s slow advance in Ukraine may be forthcoming, what must have surprised, if not shocked, Russia is that the 30-nation NATO should have displayed this degree of cohesion in the face of the Russian onslaught. This would have been a wakeup call for Russia, and a clear boost to the efforts of the West to contain what it perceived as Russian neo-imperialism.
What is ahead for Russia
If Mr. Putin’s effort to ‘correct history’ was the trigger for the Ukraine crisis — one that did not quite follow the script he had hoped for — there could be a similar and equally less palatable fallout for the West as well: more specifically, the U.S. and its hopes to reclaim global leadership. According to many analysts, one fallout of the current conflict in Ukraine is likely to be a further cementing of the already deepening Russia-China strategic relationship, which has been in evidence over the past several months. The degree of unity displayed by the West, and the determination to stand together, is expected to result in taking the existing Russia-China relationship to the next level, approximating to what existed prior to the Great Communist Divide in the early 1960s. Some analysts even argue that a clue to this can be found in some of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent utterances, wherein he has talked of the need to revive the spirit of the Korean War of the 1950s.
Several possibilities arise if the Russia-West divide was to crystallise along the current lines. Almost certainly, one will see a reshaping of the world energy map, if current embargoes on Russian oil and gas were to continue.
Oil flows to Europe would thereupon come mainly from West Asia and the U.S.; in turn countries such as China and India may become major importers of crude from Russia. It is uncertain at this time whether this would be a practicable proposition over the longer haul, but new permutations and combinations are certain to take place.
Next, even as China and Russia relations become further strengthened, the question before India would be how it should position itself. Till now, India had taken a consistent stand of not criticising or condemning Russia on any account, including its invasion of Ukraine. This was largely based on India’s long-term defence and other relationships with Russia. This could undergo changes. One might also anticipate a further churn in the politics of West Asia — where the Abraham Accords in 2020 seemed to bring a certain degree of normalcy and stability. Iran’s posture and politics will also play an important role in shaping the politics of this region.
One thought that cannot be dismissed as being entirely frivolous is whether repeated accusations levelled by the West against Mr. Putin of attempting to use nuclear weapons to devastate Ukraine, are a prelude to, or a curtain raiser, for experimentation — more importantly, preparing the public to consider removing the current taboo regarding nuclear weapons. Repeated references, without providing any evidence, would seem to suggest that this might possibly be a smokescreen for such experimentation. For instance, it may not be too outlandish for both sides to consider the use of miniaturised nukes with precision (drone) delivery mechanisms. If the Russia-Ukraine war were to persist, one could even envisage the possibility of the use of micro nuclear payloads mated to miniaturised precision delivery mechanisms. One hopes that before this, saner voices across the world would prepare the way for a peace package in Ukraine.
M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal