For India, an aggressive Russia does not cause concern; many here believe it to be a more reliable and effective check on China than the United States, writes Amb Dilip Sinha (retd) for South Asia Monitor
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken Europe and jolted the unexpectedly smooth expansion of the West into East Europe. As expected, India abstained on the US-sponsored resolution in the United Nations Security Council condemning Russia. However, in the debate, India said that it was “deeply disturbed” and concerned for the contemporary global order based on the UN Charter, international law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries of East Europe eagerly joined NATO to forestall a return of Russian forces. Russia grudgingly tolerated this for the countries that were not part of the Soviet Union, starting with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999. But it sat up when the former Soviet republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, did so in 2004 and when Ukraine initiated the process four years later Russia started resisting. It would not tolerate American missiles so close to its border.
It is well known that in 1962 when Russia tried to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, the United States blockaded the island. The standoff ended when Russian agreed to withdraw its missiles. What is less known is the trade-off under which the US agreed to withdraw its missiles from Turkey, a NATO member.
Ukraine has been the centre of intense rivalry between the two superpowers. Russia was also concerned about the safety of Russians, who constitute about a fifth of Ukraine’s population, and fomented secessionist movements among them. In 2014, it occupied Russian-majority Crimea and sealed its annexation with a referendum. Rebels gained control of the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, bordering Russia. Earlier this month, Putin recognised their independence.
Russia has called its invasion a “special military operation” to “protect” the Russian minority in Ukraine. This harks back to the concept of R2P, the responsibility to protect, developed in the late 1990s by some western think tanks. R2P was invoked by Western countries in several military invasions after the Cold War, though it has fallen into disuse lately.
New lease for NATO
Western countries had been warning of Putin’s invasion but were still caught unprepared when it came. They have now declared their unwillingness to intervene militarily, which dispels fears of a conflagration of the conflict but leaves Ukraine at the mercy of Russia. Zelensky’s earlier bravado now looks naive as he is compelled to seek talks with Putin. Putin, who has been accusing him of reneging on the Minsk Accord to give autonomy to the Russian-majority regions, will be in no hurry to bail him out. Regime change, another favoured Western concept, will be at the top of Putin’s agenda. He will install a more pliable ruler in Kyiv and make him recognise Russia’s annexations of the seceding regions.
Putin seems to be on his way to winning the first round of this war. But this will trigger developments that will soon start hurting Russia. NATO aspirants, which include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Macedonia, will redouble their efforts and the existing members of East Europe will seek more NATO presence.
Putin’s invasion has given NATO a new lease of life. The United States will increase support to anti-Russian elements in Russia’s soft underbelly in the Caspian region and Central Asia. The West’s economic sanctions will drive Russia closer to China and increase its economic dependence on it. Russia’s global image will also take a hit for attacking and breaking up a small country. No country likes secession, least of all China, which has still to recognise Crimea’s annexation.
Russia more reliable?
A resurgent Russia has enthused many people, particularly in India, who had grown tired of American military adventures. For India, an aggressive Russia does not cause concern; many here believe it to be a more reliable and effective check on China than the United States. Whatever the merits of this view, there is one scenario that may seriously trouble India. This is the possibility of the US wooing China to break it away from Russia just President Richard as Nixon did half a century ago. China will become even more aggressive and demanding if it finds both the US and Russia seeking its support.
The Ukraine crisis has once again exposed several uncomfortable global realities, such as that Europe remains the world’s most volatile hotspot and that the UN Security Council is irrelevant to international peace and security. It also reminds us that military invasions are not a thing of the past and big powers cannot always be relied upon to come to the rescue of small countries.
The most useful lesson India can draw from all this is that it should get down to strengthening its defence manufacturing industry on a war footing. For its security it can depend neither on allies nor on the Security Council.
(The author is a former Indian ambassador. Views are personal)