On this ninth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as this column goes to press, the situation on the ground is still fluid and volatile. Finding accurate news is difficult, given the information war that has been unleashed by the Western governments and media. But it is reliably learned that Russian troops are now probably in Kyiv, after intensive shelling of the capital. Earlier in the night, Russian forces targeted the training centre of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Southeastern Ukraine. At the same time the refugees pouring out of the besieged and beleaguered country has exceeded 1.5 million.
The invasion of Ukraine has, once again, made us realise how history, for the better or worse, is often shaped decisively, even disastrously, by single, strong leaders. Whether it is Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Xi, or now, Putin. We might have caught a glimpse into the mindset of Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia for over 20 years if we listened to his address on 24 February on the eve of the invasion. He said that Russia was not safe because of the “constant threat” from Ukraine.
For a moment, let us imagine that Canada or Mexico were fully armed with nuclear missiles pointed at the major cities of the United States. Which US president would tolerate such a threat at its borders? The charismatic Kennedy certainly did not, even when it came to arming Cuba. So, despite whatever we may say about the sovereignty of nations or the sanctity of borders, great powers will do what they must to retain or strengthen their position in the world. If not, why did the world stand by and watch when China gobbled up Tibet, a country of 1.228 million sq km, and over 1/3 the size of India? China continues to flex its muscles in the South China Sea and on our Himalayan borders, grabbing an inch here and a yard there, with the world doing little to stop its expansionism.
Clearly, therefore, when it comes to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the so-called free press of the West has allowed itself to become voice not so much of the people but the representative of US government interests and propaganda. From the days of Bill Clinton, the US neglected, side-lined, and humiliated Russia, trying to reduce it to a deindustrialised and tech-starved backward region in the world, reliant only on its commodities and oil reserves.
But Russia, as an untouchable or pariah state does not help US or European interests as much as Russia as a fully-integrated and respected member of the world order. A former superpower, obviously, cannot tolerate enemy NATO missiles pointing at it from an erstwhile satellite and member the USSR, its neighbour and cultural cousin, Ukraine, which earlier housed the largest arsenal of its nuclear warheads outside Russia. By pushing and needling Russia so much, the West, led by the US, may have gone too far.
Now, by adopting a belligerent and uncompromising rhetoric, in addition to ratcheting up its propaganda war, the US is making its original mishandling of Russia even worse. Urging Ukrainians to fight till the end is foolish if not harmful to the Ukrainians themselves as is hiding or misreporting on Russian advances and military might during the invasion. Depicting Putin as a madman or villain will not help the West’s cause either. Kherson has already fallen as has Mariupol, a strategically significant port. As for Kyiv, it is up to Russia how soon they want to take over the capital and at what cost.
In all, Western propaganda, with its so-called free press almost completely aligned to the interests of their respective states, is, after all, not to be believed in war time. I remember vividly how till the very day of the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam war was being incorrectly reported by leading media houses. Similarly, in recent times, whether in Serbia-Kosovo, Iraq-Syria, or Afghanistan. China, watching how the West behaves, must be smiling to itself, almost assured of non-intervention in case it decides to move on Taiwan.
Now to the moot point. What should India do? I can only return to Professor Cohen’s admonitions: Let the big boys sort out their own affairs. We should, as we have, try to pull our own citizens out of the war zone. Behind the scenes, India’s role as mediator and peacemaker cannot also be ruled out, especially when we are a member of the UN Security Council. Our worry is really China and our participation in the US-led Quad initiative but a small step to shore up our position vis-à-vis our much more powerful eastern neighbour and hyperpower.
We can only hope that the conflict does not escalate and that the Russian aggression stops sooner than later. But that will depend mostly on whether President Putin achieves his objective in demilitarising, if not dividing, Ukraine. That, unfortunately, seems the best guarantee for world peace before this dangerous conflict spirals out of control and turns even more catastrophic with nuclear weapons or radioactive leaks. India’s principled stand of responsible and active neutrality, with every move behind the scene to diffuse the tension, will, it is hoped, be appreciated in the longer, even if it does not bear immediate fruits in the shorter, run.
This is Part 2 of the two-part series. Click here to read Part 1
The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.