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US President Barack Obama refuses to term it a new Cold War, but it feels like one. Russia and the US have been at loggerheads for months after a pro-Russian president in Ukraine was replaced following protests by a regime keen on drawing close to the West. Moscow responded by annexing Crimea in the face of international condemnation and it has been arming rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The US and EU first tried lighter sanctions, targeting individuals and entities close to the Kremlin without jeopardising Russia’s oil and gas exports to Europe. The shooting down of MH17 by Russian-backed rebels has, however, hardened European attitudes, in ways that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not have anticipated months ago. On Tuesday, the US and EU imposed new sanctions on Russia, warning Moscow that destabilising Kiev or other neighbours will bring heavy costs to the economy. The new sanctions do not prohibit energy imports from Russia, but they constitute a significant escalation of pressure on Mr Putin’s regime, targeting banks, its oil industry and the defence sector. Russian access to European capital markets will be curtailed and Moscow will not able to import energy related tech.
Few expect this crisis to blow over soon. The sanctions will hurt Russia but that may not deter Mr Putin from retaliating. The situation is awkward for countries like India that want close ties with all sides. New Delhi has strong multifaceted ties with Washington while relying heavily on Moscow for weapons and energy imports. Unhappily for New Delhi, the latest confrontation ensues just as it is looking to rebuild ties with Washington through the ongoing visit of US secretary of state John Kerry. Timing is sometimes everything in international affairs. States may profess to act on national interests, but difficult conversations at critical junctures can alter policy outlooks. India and the US will thus need to negotiate their differences over Russia carefully. Washington will seek New Delhi’s compliance with a ‘rules-based international system’; it will want to know where New Delhi’s interests lie at a time when the American writ no longer runs in the world as it used to.
India will maintain that affirming ties with both means offence to none. New Delhi refrains from publicly counselling any nation these days. But Indian mandarins may remind the Americans that Mr Putin’s policies originate in the ‘shock therapy’ administered by international financial institutions that devastated the Russian economy in the 1990s — and also the US’ insensitive handling of relations with nations along the former’s periphery. New Delhi should also tell Mr Putin that aiming for the dismemberment of Ukraine is no way to get even with the West.