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A Proxy War

Staring at a bleak future, Ukraine continues to bleed a victim of its old and new protectors. Mahatma Gandhi’s words are totally apt for Ukraine: ‘What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?’

DEVENDRA SAKSENA | New Delhi |

The Ukraine war, now in its eleventh month, is quickly passing one grim milestone after another. The human cost has been terrible; according to American estimates 100,000 troops on each side have died or been injured, and 40,000 civilians have been killed.

Also, 7.8 million refugees have ?ed Ukraine and another 7 million have been internally displaced. Ukrainians are facing unprecedented privations in the biting cold winter. Ukraine once a prosperous, picturesque country has been reduced to rubble.

Under foreign domination for almost its entire existence, Ukraine had a sad history. Ukraine was divided between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in the eighteenth century, enjoying independence only between 1917 and 1921, after the Soviet Revolution.

Ukrainians vehemently resisted their forced assimilation in the USSR in the 1920s. Later on, Stalin was responsible for the death of around 10 million Ukrainians, from famine and mass execution. Stalin repopulated Ukraine with Russians, which has created the modern-day diversity and mixed loyalty among Ukrainians. The Russia-Ukraine war has impacted countries all over the globe ~ many of whom had nothing much to do with either combatant.

The global economy has suffered; before the war, both Russia and Ukraine, were major exporters of wheat, barley, corn and cooking oil, particularly to Africa and the Middle East. Russia was also a major exporter of commodities like gas, petroleum products and fertilizer to most countries in the world.

With each country blocking ports of the other in the Black Sea, prices of food, petroleum and gas have skyrocketed. Some of the poorest countries in the world, that were dependent on the World Food Programme (WFP) for food grain supplies are the worst hit, because WFP sourced half its wheat from Ukraine. Combined with a drought in the Horn of Africa, 80 million people are staring at an impending famine. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that if the war continued, food inflation would degenerate into food shortages, the world over.

The West has not remained unaffected. EU countries, dependent on Russian energy, face energy shortages, significant GDP contraction, and double-digit inflation. The US economy is similarly affected, with recession looming in the background and inflation raging at 8.3 per cent. The US, Britain and EU are putting the entire blame for the Russia-Ukraine war squarely on their bête-noir, Vladimir Putin. Undoubtedly, under Putin’s leadership, Russia abandoned the core principles of democracy and shifted to authoritarianism.

Putin’s rule has been characterised by endemic corruption as well as numerous human rights violations, including the jailing and repression of political opponents, the intimidation and suppression of independent media in Russia, and a lack of free and fair elections. Putin himself is one of Russia’s richest men having acquired a massive fortune by corruption.

However, the West is not entirely blameless. At the time of its independence (1991) Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power in the world, with an army of 780,000 men, armed with 176 ICBMs, carrying 1,700 nuclear warheads. However, in 1994, in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States, and the UK, Ukraine renounced its nuclear weapons, signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as a non-nuclear weapons state.

This agreement, the Budapest memorandum, committed Russia, the United States, and the UK, to guarantee the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine. Russia broke its promise by invading Ukraine in 2014 and annexing Crimea, but the US and UK were equally guilty, as they meekly stood by.

Western powers did not keep their promises to Russia also. At the time of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990, the US Secretary of State James Baker had promised that if Germany was allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the alliance would not move “one inch east.” Breaking this promise, by 1999, Nato had expanded to include Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. By 2009, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia and Albania ~ earlier a part of the Soviet Bloc ~ had joined Nato, with Montenegro and North Macedonia following later.

US President George Bush nominated Ukraine and Georgia for Nato membership, as early as 2008. Putin rightly felt offended: “I simply cannot imagine we would travel to Sevastopol to visit Nato soldiers.” Later on, in December 2021, Russia demanded that Ukraine should be permanently barred from joining Nato; the alliance should pull troops out of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and should cease all military activity in Eastern Europe. There was no response from Nato ~ except derision.

Now, Ukrainians are becoming cannon fodder in a ‘modern’ war effectively being fought between Nato and Russia. The most advanced and sophisticated weaponry available with Nato has been supplied to Ukraine. Beginning with easy-to-use weapons, like assault rifles, howitzers and hand-held missiles, Nato has provided next generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAWs). Britain is sending M270B1 multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) which use a 200lb warhead to hit targets as far away as 70 kms, and Germany is sending four of its multiple rocket launcher Mars II systems and Diehl’s Iris-T air defence system, the most modern in Berlin’s arsenal, while the US is sending an undisclosed number of M142 high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARs), with a range of 80 kms. Much of the success of the Ukrainian army is due to excellent intelligence provided by United States and other Nato countries.

Not entering Ukrainian airspace, US spy planes hover over the skies of nearby countries, monitoring Russian radio communications and troop movements. Worryingly for Russia, as a result of US intelligence inputs, a number of top Russian generals have been killed.

Now Elon Musk, the US’s richest person, has stepped in the thick of battle by offering o?-grid high- bandwidth internet access to Ukraine through his Star- link constellation of 3,335 active satellites.

Around 150,000 Ukrainians use Star-link: Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky uses it for his nightly broadcast and the military uses it for C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Ukrainian soldiers upload images of potential targets to an encrypted group chat where the best located soldiers take on the target. Ukrainian drones also use Starlink to hit targets.

Russian hackers have been unable to penetrate the highly advanced Starlink system and Russia has been unable to jam them by conventional methods. Musk has been careful not to let Starlink operate in Russian controlled territory, including Crimea, and Russia has desisted from using missiles against Starlink satellites, as they are positioned outside Russian territory.

Even otherwise, because of high latency, knocking out a few satellites would achieve nothing and knocking out many satellites may not be easy. A full-scale missile attack on Starlink satellites in Western airspace may escalate hostilities, which Russia does not want.

Musk has thus become vital to the Ukraine war. He had the audacity to poll his followers on Twitter as to whether Ukraine should cede territory to Russia as part of a peace deal, which outraged Ukraine’s leaders.

Many non-aligned countries, including India, have determinedly stayed neutral in the Uk-raine war; 35 coun-tries abstained from a UN Resolution reprimanding Russia.

The entire global South resents the way the West makes its concerns issues of global principle. Endemic wars in Yemen or Africa do not elicit the same kind of response, as the war in Ukraine does.

The reporting in Western media is overtly racist; BBC News had an interviewee saying that he became very emotional as he was seeing “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed every day.”

Despite protestations of full support to Ukraine, Nato countries have tried to avoid a war with Russia, preserve their own defence capabilities and ensure that their advanced technology does not fall into Russian hands.

The Western position was explained by Chancellor Scholz, in the following words: “Our goal is for Ukraine to be able to defend itself and succeed in doing so,” which is not the same as saying that Ukraine must win the war. Understandably, the US and Nato have refrained from supplying heavy weaponry like USmade Abrams tanks and German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine that can turn the tide decisively in Ukraine’s favour.

Staring at a bleak future, Ukraine continues to bleed ~ a victim of its old and new protectors. Mahatma Gandhi’s words are totally apt for Ukraine: “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”