The resignation of the German naval chief, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, over remarks on Ukraine at the Manohar Parrikar IDSA in Delhi displays the sensitivity of the West to Russia’s build-up along the Ukraine border. During his interaction at the institute, the German naval chief had stated that Ukraine would not regain the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. He had further stated that Putin deserved respect and that it was important to have Russia on the side of the West to counter a rising and belligerent China. He implied that China was a greater threat and the Russian challenge over Ukraine could be contained by give and take.
The Vice-Admiral spoke of global reality with bluntness, but the same was not in consonance with diplomatic niceties. As a policy, Germany is standing by NATO against the Russian military threat to Ukraine but will not supply arms to Ukraine on the pretext that it does not seek to inflame tensions further. In 2008, Ukraine was promised membership in NATO, but no date was set. This was reiterated in the June 2021 Brussels summit. Even within Ukraine, support for joining NATO only increased after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Sanctions imposed by the West for this incident, including ousting Russia from the G8 grouping, continue at present.
The West has been giving conflicting dates on when Vladimir Putin may possibly invade Ukraine, which Russia has been denying.
The majority perception is that it would possibly happen after the Beijing Winter Games at the request of China. The US has ordered all families of its personnel deployed in its embassy in Kiev to withdraw. NATO has alerted troops, pumped Ukraine with weapons and threatened Russia with crippling sanctions in case it moves forward. Ukraine, on the other hand, has been insisting that war is not imminent. Its defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, stated that war is unlikely in the near future. It is evident that for the US an invasion of Ukraine is a red line that will be retaliated against.
The question remains on whether Putin is seeking concessions from the West involving Russian security, or desires to grab Ukraine? Taking over Ukraine appears unrealistic as Russia would face an insurgency, fuelled by the West ensuring its forces remain embroiled in Ukraine for perpetuity. It would also possess an economic impact. Sanctions on Russia would dent Russian oil and gas supply to Europe. Further, it would unite the US and EU, which appear to be drifting apart.
Talks between the US and Russia have currently stalled, though both sides remain in contact. The Russian demand has been that NATO withdraw from Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, nations which were a part of the erstwhile USSR. A further demand guarantees that Ukraine, Georgia or Moldovia would never be a part of NATO. Finally, missile systems would be withdrawn from Eastern Europe. The US has refused these demands. In response to the Russian stand, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken said, “We understand Russia’s concerns about security, we also have our own concerns which we are ready to discuss.”
As a group, the EU felt ignored over direct US-Russia talks, as they were the one’s directly involved. The strategic autonomy of the EU came under question. There are also internal divisions within EU nations over Russia. In Germany, there is a split between pro and anti-Moscow groups. The Nord Stream 2 Gas pipeline ready to supply gas from Russia to Germany would be impacted. Within France also there are pro and anti-Russia groups. The NATO chief in response to Russian demands stated that it “does not seek confrontation but a dialogue-based resolution”. Currently, Russia supplies one-third of Europe’s gas and one-fourth of its oil.
In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis was triggered by insecurity within the US of Soviet nuclear missiles being deployed in Cuba. The US was willing to escalate to secure itself from Soviet missile threats. Russia recently repeated a similar threat when its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, stated that he could “neither confirm nor exclude the possibility of Russia sending military assets to Latin America if the US and its allies don’t curtail their military activities on Russia’s doorstep”. This was termed a “bluster” by the US. In the current scenario, the expansion of NATO towards Russian borders is a threat that Russia seeks to avoid. Deployment of NATO missiles on its periphery reduces reaction time and becomes a permanent threat. For Moscow, erstwhile USSR nations are a buffer which it wants to maintain.
Officially, the US will display a firm stand against Russia, refusing to bend and make guarantees, while seeking a diplomatic solution, aware that apart from sanctions there is little which it can do if Moscow decides to invade. It will not risk escalation as many EU nations desire peace. Currently, Russia holds the cards and is seeking security guarantees.
Emphasis on containing Russia is moving global attention from the Indo-Pacific. As Brahma Chellaney stated, “The contrast could not be starker: Biden terms Russian buildup near Ukraine border into a global crisis but is mum on China’s frenzied Himalayan build up which threatens to unleash war on US’ strategic partner, India.”
India has close defence cooperation and diplomatic ties with both Russia and Ukraine. Currently, the largest defence contract with Ukraine is upgrading India’s approximately 100 AN 32 aircraft. India has also procured gas turbine engines for naval vessels from Ukraine. During the Aero-India exhibition in February 2021, Ukraine claimed to have signed agreements valued at more than $70 million with Indian companies. India’s strategic proximity to both the US and Russia is well understood. Hence, there was no ambiguity when the US spokesperson stated that it would welcome India’s role in de-escalating Russia-Ukraine tensions.
India and Russia have never commented on actions adopted by the other. However, escalation over Ukraine and possible sanctions would have an adverse impact on India. Currently, 65 percent of India’s defence equipment is of Russian origin and deals for additional procurements are on the table. Sanctions, if imposed, would be far more severe than CAATSA, impacting Indo-Russian defence ties, including procurement of spares and new equipment. India’s defence deals with Ukraine could collapse. There would possibly be a surge in global oil and gas prices as Russian supplies to Europe would be curtailed.
With global emphasis on Ukraine, China would enhance its threats to Taiwan. Indian forces, too, would need to be on watch to curb any Chinese misadventures along its northern borders. In case tensions continue to simmer with no forward or rearward movement of Russian troops as also no solution on the horizon, China would no longer be the primary nation on the global radar.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.