The last several weeks have witnessed a severe exacerbation of tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border. In his end-of-the-year interaction with the Press on 23 December 2021, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that he does not wish a conflict with Ukraine. But he urgently desires security guarantees from the West and also assurances that Ukraine will never be admitted as a member of NATO. He also demanded that there should be no further eastward expansion of NATO.
A silver lining in the increasingly darkening war clouds on the Russia-Ukraine horizon appears to be the scheduled meeting between US and Russian representatives next month in Geneva.
Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops and military hardware including tanks, artillery, and armoured troop carriers at the border with Ukraine over the last many weeks, stoking fears of an imminent invasion. Russia has staunchly denied this. Speaking to the media on 23 December, Putin reiterated that this is not his [preferred] choice, thereby implying that he could resort to such action if his demands are not met.
In addition to demanding that the West deny NATO membership to Ukraine as well as to other former Soviet republics, Russia has urged the US and Europe to roll back military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. Some of these demands have been categorised by the US as “unacceptable”. Putin has accused the West of trying to make Ukraine “anti-Russia, constantly beefed up with modern weapons and brainwashing the population”. This is in sync with his earlier statements indicting the West for increased tensions in Europe.
The current denouement appears to be the culmination of events that unfolded in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The question that seems to be haunting the world particularly Ukraine, the US and Europe over the last many months is the contours of Putin’s game-plan in this theatre.
For the US and EU, Ukraine is a crucial buffer between Russia and the West. As tensions with Russia rise, they are increasingly determined to keep Ukraine away from Russian control. Efforts to induct Ukraine into NATO have been ongoing for many years and seem to have picked up pace recently. Russia has declared such a move a “red line” as this would expand the US-led military alliance right up to its doorstep. In the weeks leading up to NATO’s 2008 summit, Putin had warned US diplomats that steps to bring Ukraine into the alliance “would be a hostile act toward Russia.” Months later, Russia went to war with Georgia, seemingly showcasing Putin’s willingness to use force to secure Russia’s interests.
Putin believes that Ukraine should be in the Russian camp, deferential and submissive to it. This, he feels, is essential for Russian and regional security. But instead of aligning itself with Russia, Ukraine has tilted toward the West, including the removal of a pro-Russia leader in 2014. Russia massing of troops along Ukraine’s border is a signal that Putin will consider an invasion unless Ukraine backs away. Russia has already annexed the Crimean Peninsula in a 2014 military operation.
Russia and Ukraine share a 1,974 km land border as well as deep cultural, linguistic, economic and political bonds with each other. In many ways, Ukraine is central to Russia’s identity and vision for itself in the world. Putin has continued to call Ukraine “Little Russia”, quoting former Russian general Anton Denikin. In July, Putin wrote an article, “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. In his annual state of the nation address in 2005, Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy for the Russians. When Ukraine was being buffeted by the anti-Russian, pro-EU Orange Revolution in 2005, Putin commiserated with the “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen [who] found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory”.
Beyond the emotional imperatives, there is also a demographic consideration, which matters greatly to 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. A more nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking population in the west of the country has generally supported greater integration with Europe, while a mostly Russian-speaking community in the east has favoured closer ties with Russia.
US and EU officials have said that they would impose hard-hitting sanctions on Russia, the likes of which it has not seen before, in the event of military action by it on the Ukraine border.
Even if Russian troops don’t invade, Putin could gain from the confrontation, by intimidating the US and Western Europe into backing away from Ukraine.
What should be India’s response?
India and the 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 highly valued partners of India. It would not be judicious to take sides under the current circumstances. India should continue to adopt a balanced, neutral approach as it has done so far. It would be recalled that India along with 57 other countries had abstained in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea on “Territorial integrity of Ukraine” which was adopted on 27 March 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 the 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 km 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. It is for this reason that notwithstanding India’s excellent relations with Russia, it has not recognised 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 recognised Kosovo which declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008. The US has stood solidly behind Kosovo since it separated from Serbia.
The Way Forward
India should encourage both Russia and the US to try to reach a compromise with a mutually acceptable agreement in the forthcoming meeting in Geneva next month. 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 would immediately trigger an appropriate response from Ukraine’s allies.
The writer is executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.