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The Ukraine standoff: How should India respond?

The current denouement appears to be the culmination of events that unfolded in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia (Image courtesy: Ministry of Defence, Ukraine)

Over the last several weeks tensions have rapidly escalated along the Russia-Ukraine border. In his end-of-the-year interaction with the Press on December 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that he does not wish a conflict with Ukraine. He asserted that a confrontation is not his [preferred] choice, thereby implying that he could resort to such action if his demands are not met. A silver lining is the slew of meetings scheduled between Russia and US, NATO and OSCE in the coming days to peacefully resolve the issue. India believes that a conflict between Russia and the West on the Ukraine issue will be ruinous for all countries concerned as well as for world peace and security. 

During his press interaction, Putin demanded an urgent response to security guarantees that he had proposed from the West, along with an assurance that Ukraine will never be granted NATO membership. He also insisted that there should be no further eastward expansion of NATO and that military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe be rolled back. Some of these demands have been categorised by the US and NATO as ‘’unacceptable.’’

A hopeful sign in the increasingly darkening war clouds on the Russia-Ukraine horizon is the number of meetings scheduled in the middle of next month viz between US and Russian representatives on January 10, between Russia and NATO officials on 12th January and between Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States, on January 13, in Geneva. This abundance of meetings gives rise to some optimism that the stakeholders might be sincerely interested in reaching a negotiated and peaceful settlement.

Current Situation

Russia has accumulated thousands of troops and military hardware including tanks, artillery, and armoured troop carriers at the border with Ukraine over the last many weeks, fuelling fears of an imminent invasion. Estimates indicate that 100,000 soldiers in around 100 battalion tactical groups have been deployed by Russia. Russia has, however, been adamant in denying that it is planning to attack Ukraine.

Putin has made it clear that he will not allow Ukraine to become “anti-Russian.” In July 2021, he penned an article explaining his views of the two countries’ shared history, describing Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” who effectively occupy “the same historical and spiritual space.”

Also Read: Putin’s India visit – A shot in the arm for India-Russia ties

The current denouement appears to be the culmination of events that unfolded in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The Russian speaking community in eastern Ukraine also established its own autonomous state called Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014. Ukraine could not stop this as opposition from the US and its Western allies remained confined to mere protests.  The West is determined that it will not allow anything similar to happen in 2022.

For the US and EU, Ukraine is a crucial buffer between Russia and the West. Russia considers Ukraine’s membership of NATO as a “red line” as this would expand the US-led military alliance right up to its doorstep. In the past, Putin has warned the West that Ukraine’s membership of the alliance “would be a hostile act toward Russia.” In August 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia, which was intended to demonstrate Putin’s willingness to use force to secure Russia’s interests.

Putin believes that Ukraine’s presence in the Russian camp is essential for Russian and regional security. Russia massing of troops along Ukraine’s border is a signal that Putin will consider an invasion unless Ukraine and the West back off.

Russia-Ukraine Connect

Russia and Ukraine share a 1,974 kms land-border as well as deep cultural, linguistic, economic and political bonds with each other. Putin has persisted in calling Ukraine “Little Russia.”  In July, 2021, Putin wrote an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, in which he argued that both nations are "one people."

There appear to be both geopolitical and historical reasons behind Moscow’s endless pressure on Kiev, which was the birthplace of the first Russian state in the 9th Century.

Beyond the emotional and psychological determinants, there is also a demographic imperative, which is considered significant by Moscow. At least one-third of the Ukrainian population, mostly living in the eastern part of the country close to the Russian border, speaks Russian and feels Russian. This community favours closer ties with Russia.

US President Joe Biden has warned Putin of “severe consequences” if Russia invades Ukraine. Though Biden has ruled out putting American troops on the ground, he has threatened “economic consequences like you’ve never seen.”  Almost simultaneously, the foreign ministers of G-7 countries warned Russia of “massive consequences and severe cost” if Russia were to invade Ukraine.


How should India respond?

India and United States enjoy a comprehensive, global, strategic partnership, covering almost all areas of human endeavour, driven by shared democratic values and convergence of interests on a range of issues. With Russia, India shares a special and privileged strategic partnership.

Both Russia and the US are extremely valuable and vital partners of India. India needs to do everything possible not only to maintain but to further expand its relations with both these countries. It would not be prudent for India to take sides on this issue. India should continue to adopt a balanced, neutral approach as it has done so far. It may be recalled that India, along with 57 other countries, had decided to abstain on the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 on "Territorial integrity of Ukraine" in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. This Resolution was adopted on March 27, 2014 with the support of 100 countries. Only 11 countries supported the Russian action in Crimea!

In addition to the imperative necessity of maintaining a balance in our relations with our two most vital partners, India needs to be mindful of the fact that it cannot support the coercive, military occupation of a country’s territory by another. This is equally true of declaration of independence by any country as a break-away unit with military support from another power. India is under continuous pressure from China, which is making illegal demands on its territory, not only in Ladakh but even in the Eastern sector where China claims the 93,000 sq kms of Arunachal Pradesh as its own. On the Western front, India faces similar pressure on its territory from Pakistan. Territorial integrity and sovereignty is sacrosanct for India. This is one of the most significant reasons, in addition to some others, that India opposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative as its flagship project as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, which is an area illegally occupied by Pakistan. It is also for this reason that notwithstanding India’s excellent relations with Russia, it has not recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia as a result of the military conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. Similarly, in spite of India’s extensive and wide-ranging relations with the US, India has not recognized Kosovo which declared its independence from Serbia with steadfast US support in February, 2008.

The Course Ahead

India should encourage and try to convince Russia and the US to reach a compromise in the forthcoming meetings in Geneva in January, 2022. A conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with the latter supported by the US and Europe, would be in no one’s interest. The US can, short of making Ukraine a NATO member, provide it with all military support and hardware that might be required to effectively protect and defend itself against an onslaught by Russia, should such an eventuality occur. The message should also be clear that another action like the 2014 annexation of Crimea will not be tolerated and will immediately trigger an appropriate response and come at an unacceptable price.