In a bid to isolate Russia, the world has imposed some of the most wide-raging sanctions seen in recent times, as the war in Ukraine enters the eighth day. But why has the international world order failed to prevent the war? To discuss the implications of Russia’s war on its neighbouring country, Asoke Mukerji and Mohan Kumar look at the human cost of the war in a conversation moderated by Suhasini Haider . Edited excerpts:
Looking at Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and the unprecedented sanctions and measures taken by Western countries, would you say the international post-world war order has failed?
Asoke Mukerji:The international order, created in 1945, rested on certain assumptions and obligations. The assumptions were that the international order would prioritise peace and development. And that there would be institutions — not only the United Nations (UN) as a universal institution, but the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) as three pillars — to sustain the peace and to provide mankind with a framework for sustainable development.
In 1946, the first jolt to this vision came with the Cold War, which I would date to Winston Churchill’s speech at Fulton, Missouri, where he talked about the “Iron Curtain” descending on Europe. When the Cold War ended, and the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union dissolved itself, there was an expectation that we would go back to the vision of 1945. But unfortunately, the U.S. and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] chose a path of containment and confrontation with Russia, which began to react to this after the NATO planned to include Georgia and Ukraine [in the alliance]. I’m not justifying what is happening; I’m saying there is context to it. And then, after endorsing the Minsk agreements, why did the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) not enforce it? I think this is the failure of the UNSC and the failure of European powers, which are equally responsible as the U.S. for carrying on with NATO in the 1990s.
Mohan Kumar:Such things have happened in the past. But two wrongs don’t make a right. This is the lowest point ever reached by the UNSC in terms of not being able to agree even on the most fundamental things. And I think it is also a reflection of the fact that we do not have a settled international order. We are moving from something like a unipolar moment to a very messy multipolar world order, which is yet to take shape.
Is Russia’s bombardment of Ukranian cities a violation of the UN Charter? And if the UN is so ineffectual, is it time to review it?
AM:It is a violation of the Charter. The violation of the territorial integrity of states and the sovereignty of states is one of the principles which binds the UN. Indians were one of the first victims of the violation of this principle in January 1948 when our territory was occupied by Pakistan. While today Russia has vetoed this resolution in the UNSC, which was co-sponsored by about 80 countries, not very long ago, the U.S. also vetoed a resolution condemning Israel’s activities in its occupied territories. Two wrongs never make a right, I agree, but it’s important to look at how we can move to bring back the vision of 1945. The Ukraine crisis should actually act as a catalyst for the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to agree on convening a general conference to review the Charter, because if there are issues with the veto, this is the place with the legal framework to do it.
MK:I think it’s long overdue. I see very slim prospects of that happening. There are no angels in this conflict. My deepest worry is the total irrelevance of the UNSC to the ordinary person in Ukraine. How does it matter what the UNSC does, if it is not going to protect your life, which is precious? I looked very closely at the Sino Russian joint statement (February 4, 2022). And the statement is all about preserving the existing world order. There is not a single word about UN reform in that statement. We’ve seen the UNSC, which is completely paralysed. I agree that this is the perfect moment to reform it. But if you asked me whether I would wager it will happen, my answer would be no.
Are we seeing a complete breakdown of the world order and the global economic order, given the kind of sanctions NATO countries are employing to “isolate Russia”?
MK:I think the global economic order is sought to be rearranged. These are the most wide-ranging sanctions that I have seen, but there are some loopholes. The energy exports from Russia are not forbidden for two political reasons. One, Europe will suffer and Germany will suffer if that happens. And two, the U.S. is heading towards a mid-term election, and I don’t think the U.S. would want gas prices to go up. You can deal even with Gazprom, provided you process the payment through non-American banks. Yes, there are some asset freezes and travel bans against individuals. There is the sovereign debt rating of Russia, which has been reduced to junk status overnight, because otherwise the sanctions would have meant nothing. But Russia controls supply chains in metals like titanium, palladium and neon. In other words, Russia is a full spectrum commodity superpower. So, it is not going to be that easy [to isolate it]. The sanctions are devastating. But I think the Russians are fully prepared for this. And we have to see whether China will come to the rescue of Russia or not.
AM:I’m not an apologist for Russia, but I do want to make this point that it’s for the first time that an initiative has been taken to weaponise the entire economic sector through the use of such wide-ranging sanctions. There are even calls from some Western nations to remove Russia from the WTO. The second point is the sanctions, which are not supported by the UNSC. They are unilateral sanctions. And when we look at unilateral sanctions, we have to make up our mind whether we as a country which fought against colonial rule and became independent will today accept the extraterritorial application of domestic laws of other countries. This is a political question. So, I think we have to actually call out these things.
Do consistent abstentions at the UNSC, the UN Human Rights Council and the UNGA behove India’s aspirations as a global leader?
AM:I think India’s abstentions are in India’s interest. We have abstained to create room for diplomacy. There is no military solution that can be sustained on the ground, it has to be a diplomatic solution, a political solution. And who will bring this political solution? You need a grey area for diplomacy to find solutions. I think that this point of ‘you’re with us or you’re against us’ does not hold water in terms of what the role of elected members of the UNSC is on issues of war and peace.
MK:I don’t feel that abstention comes with negative connotations of sitting on the fence. I think there are circumstances where abstention is a positive, strong decision. I think the larger issue is how effective the UNSC itself is. And if it doesn’t reform itself, I’m afraid the world will look at other things. You will have a brief period of time like this when people unilaterally do whatever they want to do, but then the world will seek a new order.
Isn’t there another message sent — that countries will keep their nuclear weapons, no matter what the UNSC says? Iran and North Korea have been isolated but not attacked, whereas Ukraine and Libya, two countries that gave up nuclear weapons, have been invaded.
AM:That’s a very valid point. Just six weeks after the UN Charter was signed, the first nuclear bomb was used by the U.S. on Japan. And therefore, it was not part of the Charter when the Charter was conceptualised, but it has definitely become a reality of our lives. And then the sleight of hand in which the nuclear weapon states derailed the negotiations on nuclear disarmament and brought in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to give themselves the right to have nuclear weapons in perpetuity while the remaining countries of the world, as you said, are dependent on guarantees of protection. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and even Belarus were persuaded by the U.S. and the Russian Federation to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee. So, I think that Ukraine and probably other countries will very likely be rethinking their options.
MK:I agree, horizontal nuclear proliferation is a real challenge. The NPT has to be rewritten. This inability of multilateral institutions, whether it is WTO, the UNSC or the NPT, to rewrite the rules will make them irrelevant if they continue to be discriminatory. The UNSC has become irrelevant. The NPT has become irrelevant. The WTO has become irrelevant. And that’s why people are signing bilateral free trade agreements left, right and centre. So, it is a real challenge because this kind of a synchronised crisis can be found in all multilateral institutions which were set up in the aftermath of World War II. They have to be redesigned. That is the existential challenge for multilateralism.
COVID-19 had already dealt a blow to multilateralism, given refusals by big powers to waive patents, provide access to vaccines, etc. Have the Russian actions on Ukraine and Western sanctions now dealt a death blow to the UN?
AM:Well, probably not a death blow, but a major blow to the UN structures as they are today. But I would say that these actions also open the door to reinvent the UN. To do that, countries like India have to take a much more visible leadership role to articulate what the other issues are on the multilateral agenda, which also need to be looked at.
MK:This crisis provides an opportunity to change the structure, but the window is going to be very brief. The current structure means that the P-5 [China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.] veto-holders believe that the veto is what saves them from international scrutiny and for being able to do what they do and get away with it. And they will not give that up. Even so, there is this brief window given the Ukraine crisis, and India has nothing to lose and everything to gain by using this window, using the available instruments, going to the court of international public opinion and making our case strongly for a seat on a reformed Council.
I don’t feel that abstention comes with negative connotations of sitting on the fence. I think there are circumstances where abstention is a positive, strong decision.