What India can learn from the Ukraine crisis
As India seeks to equip itself to deal with the emerging strategic flux engendered by Ukraine, the right lessons need to be internalised in relation to strategic communication and national security
The Ukraine crisis has crossed a critical point with Russia following up its recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk with a full-fledged invasion to “demilitarise” Ukraine. This decision by Moscow is a rejection of the inviolability of national borders in Europe as agreed to in the Helsinki agreement of 1975 and a major challenge to the global order.
Contestation about post-Cold War central European territoriality and resurrecting a burnished Russian past is at the core of the Ukraine crisis. The United States (US) and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies are in a huddle and sanctions have been imposed on Moscow. The different strands of the run up to World War II and the German belligerence of 1939 are being recalled even as the US and NATO review military options in the face of the dire Vladimir Putin warning against any “interference” in support of Ukraine.
But conflict over territorial transgressions is not limited to Ukraine. As much as the tense US-Russia relationship dominated the proceedings at the recently concluded Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2022, the troubled India-China relationship over contested territoriality also came into sharp focus. The deliberations at the conference mark a definitive punctuation in Delhi’s assessment of Beijing’s border transgressions.
At MSC (February 19), external affairs minister (EAM) S Jaishankar noted that the bilateral was going through a “very difficult phase” after Beijing violated border agreements — the reference being to the Galwan incident of June 2020. He added, “The problem is that for 45 years there was peace, there was stable border management, there were no military casualties on the border from 1975.”
Apropos the Galwan clash, the EAM noted that there were agreements with China not to bring military forces to the Line of Actual Control [LAC], and the Chinese “violated those agreements”. Taking umbrage at this, China’s Global Times noted (February 20) in a caustic manner, “New Delhi may try to exploit the force of the international community to embolden itself and further play with fire on the border issue. Such a dangerous tendency is what China needs to be wary of.”
The manner in which the Ukraine crisis has unfolded could be described as an extension of the hybrid warfare model that Moscow, on Putin’s watch, has successfully honed — from Syria to Kazakhstan and now central Europe. The leavening of military muscle with a robust information campaign and the resolute exploitation of suasion that does not rule out brinkmanship tactics, offers certain cues for India in relation to the discord with China.
While the Indian Army has considerable experience in confronting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along LAC in the military domain (from October 1962 through the 1980’s that include Sumdorong-Chu and now Galwan), China’s current hybrid model — that combines rapid building up of infrastructure, selective demographic leverage, enabling domestic laws and shaping of the popular narrative by occupying the “victim-perch” through an innovative information campaign — is a new ballgame.
India has been reticent in this regard, and the post-Galwan information canvas is illustrative. By early 2021, after the initial setback where Indian soldiers were killed (as also PLA personnel) and the kinetic developments around the Pangong Lake area, India chose to forfeit certain tactical advantages with an expectation that this would create the necessary politico-diplomatic framework for negotiations. More than a year later, that hope has floundered on what India perceives as Chinese intransigence. Beijing claims the reason is Delhi’s lack of sincerity.
Regrettably, the strategic communication about the Galwan setback and the status of LAC has been below par as far as India is concerned. The Modi government chose to obfuscate the grave challenge to national sovereignty by asserting that “no Indian territory had been lost” (June 19, 2020) and this has been the emphasis for the domestic audience, given the perennial electoral compulsions related to the image of a strong government zealously defending national sovereignty and honour.
Thus, at an election rally in Hoshiarpur, defence minister Rajnath Singh claimed (February 4) that “not a single inch of land” was allowed to be occupied by China in Galwan, leaving the average citizen confused about the border violations ascribed to the PLA. Senior military veterans who served in Ladakh aver that China is now physically closer to its 1959 claims along LAC.
Regarding the current status of LAC and India’s post-Galwan tactical position and patrolling constraints, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran notes, “I would not say that India has forfeited its right to patrol certain areas in eastern Ladakh, but it is undeniable that Indian troops are being prevented by Chinese troops from accessing areas that they were routinely patrolling on a regular basis before the Galwan clash. This remains the situation in the Depsang Plains, the Hot Springs and Gogra regions. We may argue that India has not conceded any territory in terms of giving up its claims but the situation on the ground is that there are areas over which we no longer have physical access.”
Contested territoriality is only one manifestation of the troubled India-China relationship and as India seeks to equip itself appropriately to deal with the emerging strategic flux engendered by Ukraine, the right lessons need to be internalised in relation to strategic communication and national security.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal