By invading Ukraine, Russia crosses a line
First, the aim was protecting the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. Then, it was supporting separatist leaders and enclaves in eastern Ukraine. On Monday, the goal shifted to recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the Donbas region as independent republics. It then rapidly expanded to extending the territorial claims of these new, so-called, republics to areas still under the control of the Ukrainian government. This was accompanied with the deployment of troops in the two provinces. And finally, on Thursday, it became a mission to overwhelm all of Ukraine, including its capital Kyiv, through a military invasion.
With that final act on Thursday, Russia, led by its president Vladimir Putin, left no one in doubt that its overall political objective was taking Ukraine under control and ensuring a pliable regime in Kyiv that would report to Moscow. Its method was “military-technical”, to borrow a phrase the Kremlin has been consistently using through this episode, which, in real terms, meant the use of overwhelming force against a much smaller neighbour. And, its message to the rest of Europe and the world was that the Russia of today was no longer the Russia of 1991, and it would do all that was needed to restore parts of the Soviet arc of influence, especially in its close proximity.
As this newspaper pointed out on Monday, Russia has legitimate grievances. The end of the Cold War transformed a bipolar order in Europe into an almost unipolar order, where the United States (US) and its allies pushed the frontiers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) towards the east. Russia was uncomfortable, and consistently objected to the security alliance coming close to its borders. The West should have taken Russian grievances into account. The US also did not anticipate, or deliberately ignored, the implications of its deep political and military engagement with Russia’s immediate neighbours. To the generation that ruled Russia -- which had not overcome what it saw as the humiliating defeat at the end of the Cold War and retained the vision of Russia as a great power and a civilisational State -- this was hard to digest.
But with an outright invasion of Ukraine, which followed Putin’s speech earlier this week that dismissed Ukraine’s statehood as fiction, Russia has crossed a line. It has violated the principle of respect for the independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of a State which is a recognised member of the United Nations, and whose sovereignty Russia too has recognised for the past three decades. It has opened up room for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine, for even though Russian forces are likely to overwhelm Kyiv quite rapidly, Ukrainians are unlikely to accept Russian supremacy without putting up a fight, one that the West has openly said it would back. It has possibly triggered the first steps of what will be a long saga of human suffering. It has destabilised the world economy, for Russia was fully aware that its steps would invite severe sanctions, which, in turn, will have an impact on energy and food prices and Russia’s economic engagement with the rest of the world. And, it has transformed Europe, almost 80 years after World War II ended, into a new battleground where hard power, rather than international norms, is the guiding mantra.
While Russia will prevail in the short-term, especially given the lack of appetite in the West to engage in a new military conflict, its invasion will have strategic and economic consequences. For India, in particular, the balancing act between maintaining close strategic ties with the US – which it sees as the most important strategic relationship, especially in the wake of the Chinese aggression – and maintaining its privileged partnership with Russia, which is both a major supplier of defence hardware and a supporter on international platforms, will get more difficult. Maintaining ambiguity will lose Delhi credibility and friends in the West; speaking up for values will lose Delhi goodwill in Moscow and alienate Putin and the Russian security establishment.
The fact that Russia’s closest friend at the moment is China doesn’t help. So far, Moscow has not let its proximity to Beijing affect ties with Delhi, but if Delhi lets its proximity to the West affect its position on Russia, the situation may well change. On the other hand, seeking a US executive waiver on the acquisition of the S-400 missile systems will become more challenging for India, given the strong bipartisan mood in Washington against Moscow. The more immediate impact for India will, of course, be economic, as it grapples with higher energy prices – which will affect the ongoing economic recovery – and comes to terms with the new wide-ranging sanctions that will inevitably affect Russia-India economic ties. But while doing a careful cost-benefit assessment, India must let it be known that it is opposed to the unilateral use of military force and violation of sovereignty, for these principles are central to a rules-based order that India seeks in its own region.