Off-centre | The Biden blunder: West’s mishandling of Ukraine crisis

When I was a graduate student in the United States over three and a half decades back, I got some unasked-for advice which I will never forg...

When I was a graduate student in the United States over three and a half decades back, I got some unasked-for advice which I will never forget. It was delivered by the late Professor Stephen Philip Cohen (1936-2019), then an influential don in Political Science at my Alma Mater and already recognised as one of the foremost experts on South Asia in the US.

Professor Cohen not only mentored and trained a whole generation of Indian and subcontinental students in peace and security studies, but advised the US State Department and went on to be a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute after he retired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Prefessor Stephen Philip Cohen. Image courtesy E-International Relations

In a meeting in which the topic of debate was the India-Pakistan situation, I innocently made some comments about the US and the then USSR. Professor Cohen said rather cryptically, though not impolitely, “Let the big boys sort it out for themselves.” Though in my early twenties, I think I was wise and mature enough not to take the snub personally.

I understood instantly that Professor Cohen was talking about India’s place in the world. We didn’t have a seat at the high table to make our voices heard. Unable to take care of our own problems, we were in no position to advise others what to do. Especially when it came to the conduct of superpowers, which then were clearly and only two — the US and the USSR. India’s high moral ground and pious advice on peace made little difference in the conduct of global affairs. What really mattered was realpolitik, economic and military muscle in both of which we were rather deficient.

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***

Times have changed. India is no longer pursuing the Nehruvian line of non-alignment or even Indira Gandhi’s marked tilt towards the USSR. The world has also changed. The USSR is no more. Russia is far less powerful and no longer considered a superpower, especially after the end of the Soviet era.

Instead, China, in its own understanding and that of many others, is all set to surpass even the US as the world’s most powerful country. But this is not a bipolar contest since the US and China are aligned, even allied in many respects, with their economies joined, so to speak, at the hip. Instead, we are in a multipolar, even heteropolar world order in which India herself is emerging as a significant regional, if not global player, with its huge population and considerable economic and military clout.

Gone, also, are the days when India and Pakistan were spoken of in Western corridors of power as coeval and coterminous, if not actually equal. Today, Pakistan is a much-diminished, if not failing state, a proxy or client of China in many respects, and much behind its erstwhile eastern part, Bangladesh, not just economically, but also socially.

File image of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. AP

When it comes to Ukraine, there is no doubt that Russia is the aggressor and has crossed well-recognised international borders and assaulted the sovereignty of an independent nation much against the codes and conventions of the United Nations. Yet, it is certainly not the first or only major power to do so in recent times.

Let us not forget that the US started the Gulf War on the flimsy pretext of Iraq’s so-called weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. The US, has similarly, intervened, often disastrously for the countries involved, in distant parts of the world, including Vietnam, much against these same codes and conventions of the UN. More recently, owing either directly or indirectly to such interventions in the Middle East, millions of refugees have poured into Europe and other parts of the world.

In Afghanistan, the hasty and humiliating withdrawal of the US and the swift takeover by the Islamist Taliban not only damaged American prestige in the world but created a new and escalating round of destabilisation in our region. It is in this context that we must raise some questions about the current crisis in Ukraine, especially as India comes under increasing pressure from the US and its allies to take sides and line up against Russia.

We must ask if the US, led by Joe Biden, has blundered a second time in Ukraine, after its disastrous and inglorious debacle in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on China, which has openly declared its intention to dislodge it from its numero uno position, the US has made an unnecessary enemy of Russia, opening another front in the emerging second Cold War. What, one might ask, was the need to draw Ukraine into NATO and train its guns on Russia in the first place?

File image of US President Joe Biden. AP

Worse, has the US unwittingly and calamitously pushed the Russian bear into the embrace of the Chinese dragon instead of keeping them apart at all costs? Finally, what is China’s hidden hand behind this highly dangerous and disruptive crisis, evident in sending Imran Khan to Russia on the very day of the invasion to push the Kashmir card? Any wonder that China seems the only clear beneficiary in this lose-lose scenario?

Such questions are not only hard to answer but even risky to raise. Especially for a country like India, which is trying desperately to evacuate its over 15,000 citizens who are studying in Ukraine, and is also a member of the Security Council, besides being one of Russia’s oldest allies. India’s stance of neutrality is, for now, the only logical course open to us, given our continuing defence ties, in addition to long-standing friendship, with Russia.

This article is Part 1 of the two-part series.

The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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