By Zakir Hussain
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has reached to disturbingly an alarming level now even as embattled Ukrainian president reportedly agreed for talks in Belarus. However, it’s yet to be seen how the situation unfolds in the days to come.
The western powers, when expected to respond militarily, opted for the economic and political sanctions. Why the US-West backtracked is another story but visibly Europe does not want to bear Putin’s brunt, while the US appeared to save its energies for China in the Indo-Pacific.
President Putin’s warning to the neighbouring East European countries of dangerous consequences of joining NATO, shows that Russia is prepared for anything and everything, including the use of nukes. Fresh reports have claimed that President Putin has put the nuclear deterrent force on alert.
Moscow also understands the consequences of staying longer in Ukraine. So, whatever will happen in Kiev will happen swiftly and conclusively.
If no effective deterrence comes from the US-Europe, obviously mainland China will benefit the most from this crisis. Without firing a shot Beijing has conveyed to Taiwan that Taipei has to fight its own war if it commits the same mistake which Ukraine did. Taiwan does not match Ukraine in any proportion. Territorially, it is too small and, strategically, it is least significant for Europe’s energy, security and stability.
Kiev has the same religious semblance, same white race and carries far more significance to build a firewall against Russia in Europe. Shale gas deposit in Ukraine is another element which is seen as a substitute to Russian gas. Moscow meets 40% of total Europeans gas requirements and 20% goes via Ukraine. Whereas Taiwan is a faraway ally, it carries some ideological commitment of the US but that too is not so strong as Washington has for Israel. While the Europeans are in dilemma about Chinese economic potential, which they require the most.
In the current Indo-Pacific milieu, Taipei seems more as a scapegoat to control mainland China.
What about India?
Questions have been raised about India’s stand specially by experts who harp for a close relationship with Washington. This appears absurd. Before answering this, one must ask why the world has divided solidarity and why the Biden-administration refused to send military help when everybody was hopefully waiting for?
India has two strong alibis to remain neutral on the Ukraine issue which has been interpreted as pro-Putin. First, Russia is a time-tested ally. India cannot forget what Moscow did in the UN in the 1971 war. Second, how to handle the geo-political challenges that arose after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and moreover, the lukewarm response of the US-West to Chinese aggression on its Western border. These two reasons are enough to understand India’s current stand on Ukraine.
Thus, experts feel that India may adopt a balancing dichotomy between military and economic policy towards Russia. Militarily it may continue to maintain its strategic neutrality, while economically it will be forced to follow the global norms as its larger economic interests are associated with the US-West and their allies. India is on a fast track of early harvesting of the Free Tarde Agreements (FTAs) with Australia, EU, the UK and voluminously increasing its trade, investment and energy ties with the US. This is not possible without following the new economic norms against Russia set by these countries. Politically, India can manage its strategic neutrality but it will be a tough time to steer its economic diplomacy.
US, Sanction and Russia
Unlike Iran the US sanction on Russia has not proved so effective. Moscow has been under economic sanctions since 2014 but instead of being crippled, its economy became more resilient and self-reliant.
In the political domain, sanctions on Moscow introduced a new culture of strategic engagements. It brought Beijing and Moscow further closer, making Moscow economically dependent on Beijing, while countries like Turkey, India, China took independent measures to strengthen their defense mechanism and ignored CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanction Act) and went ahead to purchase the S-400 missile defense batteries. The two-day state visit of PM Imran Khan to Russia amid the Russian tanks rolling in Ukraine is also interpreted as shifting Pakistani base to Moscow, especially in view of the dilly dallying of the US-West to legitimize the Taliban government. PM Khan’s visit to Moscow, first in 23 years, is also interpreted as a security hedge against Iran and possibly anti-Islamabad government coming to Kabul. Experts view that continued instability in Kabul will definitely bring the old bad days for Islamabad and potentially jeopardize the Taliban-Pakistan bonhomie. Islamabad also bets on Moscow against hostile India. Russian power will be more decisive in reducing trust deficit and bring all three, China, India, Pakistan on a negotiation table than US-West.
The US should have focused more on the psyche of regional politics than the global. Although Russia has lost its world power status, its strategic importance in some regional pockets (Middle east, Central Asia, South Asia) has considerably increased in recent years. Further, Moscow’s closeness with Beijing has made the duo more effective in handling their common interests in both economic and politico-strategic spheres. Thus, forcing the countries to either remain silent or ally with Russia despite being worldwide condemnation for its military action in Ukraine.
What is the future?
A natural question comes to mind: Is it the last adventure of Russia in Ukraine? Will it remain confined to Kiev or spread to other countries? President Putin has unnecessarily issued a stern warning against the neighboring East European countries of joining NATO? And why did India not behave as expected by the US-West?dfa
Obviously, this is neither the last Russian adventure in Ukraine, nor will remain confined to Kiev only. Sooner or later, others will also be charmed by NATO. Now, Moscow has to understand why its periphery is interested in joining NATO and how long it can stop them through such interventions, while what options Moscow has to stop NATO’s charm offensive?
Definitely, the military is not the solution. This might result in two grave consequences. First, continued military operation will force these countries to acquire deterrent weapons, including nuclear terrorism. On the pattern of AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific, the US may allow limited proliferation in the region as well. Second, the region will become a quagmire and sup all capabilities and energies of Moscow, leading the US-West to succeed in their objective of surrounding Russia with belligerent states and building strong buffer zones.
Experts feel that repetition of such events will soon plunge the world into the Second Cold. However, chances are least. The big issue is which country will join the Cold War when Covid-19 has thrown all major economies in shambles which could only be revived when there is a global cooperative mechanism. Being the largest trader of the world, China won’t limit its market access by joining the New Cold, while the US will never push China to that limit.
These medium-term perspectives underline that this is the right time for Moscow to develop a sustainable security that even if any neighboring country joins any organizations including NATO, its national interest is not affected. Moscow has to overcome the NATO DILEMMA.
The way Afghanistan and Ukraine have been handled; it has changed the global narratives of allies and enemies. Every country is now strengthening its defense mechanism because it has to fight its war alone. India is not the exception. Russia seems to be more effective in reducing the trust deficit in Central and South Asia and prevent any kind of misguided flashpoints.
This stands true to the religious communities as well. Compared to others, Muslims need to be more alert and responsible towards their actions, especially when the barb of Islamist terrorism has considerably weakened.
Author is a Delhi-based analyst. Views are personal.