Difficult Choices~I

Explaining India’s abstention, India’s Permanent Representative, T S Tirumurti said: “It is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up. We must return to it.”

Difficult Choices~I

A war ravaged school in Ukraine (iStock photo)

The possibility of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was on the cards at least since early February; what was not factored in was Moscow’s determination to have its way, despite warnings from Western powers that any such move would have serious consequences. Moscow had genuine concerns about its security, with the eastward expansion of Nato.

On 24 February, President Vladimir Putin told his countrymen: “In December 2021, we once again made an attempt to agree with the United States and its allies on the principles of ensuring security in Europe and on the non expansion of Nato. Everything is in vain. The US position does not change.” Based on this Putin also explained his decision to launch ‘a special operation’ in Ukraine to put an end to the genocide of the Russians in the separatist eastern provinces by the Ukrainian security forces.

The ‘decorative electoral proceedings’, said Putin, that enabled the overthrow of the earlier government of Ukraine in 2014 and the setting up of the present one ~ led by Vladimir Zelenskyy which, incidentally, is pro-West, while the earlier presidency of Yanukovych was proRussian ~ virtually abandoned the peaceful settlement of the conflict. “Russia cannot feel safe, develop, exist with a constant threat from the territory of modern day Ukraine …They simply did not leave us any opportunity to protect Russia, protect our people, except for the one that we will be forced to use today.”


Within hours Russian operations began with air attacks on Ukraine, followed by a multipronged attack by the Russian Army. Even after one-and- a half months, the Russian offensive continues unabated, with major Ukrainian cities virtually devastated, the port city of Mariupol being one of the worst hit and millions of Ukrainians ~ mostly women and children ~ crossing the border to the West to seek refuge. Putin certainly underestimated the ability of the Ukrainians to fight back.

Russia has heavily damaged Ukraine’s major cities and the military- industrial complex which may take years to re-build; however, the advance towards Kyiv, to encircle the city in a bid to force Zelenskyy to agree to a settlement dictated by Moscow seems to have been slowed down. The Russo-Ukraine war has now turned into a war of attrition, with Russian forces also having suffered heavy losses; and no matter how peace is ultimately restored, Russia has been diplomatically isolated because of the excesses committed by its forces and its economy has been hit by the economic sanctions imposed by Western states.

These may propel Moscow to enter serious negotiations with Kyiv and according to the Turkish foreign minister, Russia and Ukraine were inching towards an agreement to bring the war to an end. But negotiations are going to be tough. One may not agree with everything that Putin has said, or done, so far to justify his attack on Ukraine; but one thing that emerged from his speech of 24 February was Moscow’s concern about the eastward expansion of Nato. Had that concern been properly addressed, this gruesome war might have been avoided.

The Western powers failed to do that, nor could they prevent Russia from aiding the separatist eastern provinces of Ukraine ~ which have a large Russian population ~ clearly violating the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty of states. Putin claimed on 21 February that the Western powers were using Moscow’s feud with Ukraine over the separatist regions as a pretext to threaten Russia’s security and that he was considering giving recognition to the two Russian-backed separatist provinces. Soon after this Moscow recognised the two separatist Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

With the Security Council stymied by the Russian veto, the Western powers, the US-led Nato and the European Union (many of whose members are part of Nato), while unequivocally condemning Russian action, have so far done little except imposition of economic sanctions against Russia (and Belarus), with varying degrees of severity.

A few days after the Russian invasion, and in response to Ukraine’s appeal for help, Berlin announced the decision to send 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles (SAM) because as Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, the Russian invasion ‘marks a turning point’ and threatens the entire post-war order in Europe. What became clear soon was that the Ukrainians would have to fight on their own, with limited arms supply from external powers.

As the European Council President Charles Michel told El Pais, the Spanish daily, in an interview on 14 March: “The EU is not at war with Russia. Western nations should not get involved in the conflict between Moscow and Kiev.” The attack on Ukraine launched by Russia has one lesson for all of us: when a fullyarmed nuclear power attacks its non-nuclear armed neighbour, especially if the invader happens to be a Permanent Member of the Security Council (P-5), the victim has to fight its own battle, no matter how loudly the lofty ideals of ‘human rights, democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity’ are preached by the ‘free world’.

Actions taken by states will be determined by their ‘national interests’, and not by moral or ethical considerations. India is not an exception. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, India has trod a cautious path trying to maintain a balance between its advocacy of a rule-based international order built on principles of state sovereignty, territorial integrity and respect for human rights ~ which would require New Delhi’s criticism of Russia’s attack ~ and, considerations of its national interests, its geo-strategic location, and above all, its longstanding friendly relations with Russia (and earlier the Soviet Union).

It is important to remember that Russia/Soviet Union has not only been the principal supplier of India’s military weapons since the second half of the 1960s, but also an important trading partner and a steadfast supporter of India in the UN Security Council on the Kashmir issue, where the role of the Western powers, especially the UK and the US, had not been friendly, especially during the 1950s. Although India has now considerably diversified sources of arms procurement, dependence on Russia remains, for the supply of spare parts for arms supplied by Moscow.

India has also entered a defence agreement with Russia worth $6 billion for the purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, and its coproduction in India, giving a boost to India’s indigenous defence industry with transfer of technology.

During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the Soviet Union’s support enabled India to withstand the threat from the US and succeed in its mission to liberate Bangladesh ~ with the support and active cooperation of the Mukti Bahini (Bangladeshi freedom fighters). These are not the only reasons that prevented India from criticising Russia openly for its attack on Ukraine; there was also a tacit recognition of Moscow’s security concerns resulting from the eastward expansion of Nato and the feeling that the present crisis could have been averted had the Western powers tried to address these concerns.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, it may be noted, developed because of similar concerns of the US, but a direct confrontation between the superpowers could be averted through deft diplomatic handling of the crisis, resulting in the development of what Coral Bell called a ‘limited adverse partnership’ between them in subsequent years, in dealing with crises involving the central balance of power.

In the post-cold war years, that system fell into disuse. In the current Russo-Ukrainian crisis, the Western powers ~ particularly the US ~ failed as ‘crisis managers’ where they could have signalled to Moscow that they appreciated Russia’s security concerns and would refrain from Nato’s further eastward expansion, particularly because the Warsaw Pact has long been disbanded and the Soviet Union itself has ceased to exist.

Although India has refrained from condemning Russia’s attack, it has not supported the invasion either. In the UN Security Council, India, along with China and the UAE, abstained from voting on a resolution sponsored by the US and Albania, among others, that sought to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and demanded that Russia withdraw troops and rescind its recognition of breakaway provinces in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Explaining India’s abstention, India’s Permanent Representative, T S Tirumurti said: “It is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up. We must return to it.” Obliquely referring to Russia’s action Tirumurti said: “India is deeply disturbed by the recent turn of developments in Ukraine. We urge that all efforts are made for the immediate cessation of violence and hostility.” India has emphasised the need for diplomatic negotiations to resolve the conflict.

On 2 March, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution with an overwhelming majority of 141 out of 193 member-states, that strongly deplored Russia’s attack on Ukraine and called for an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops; India abstained from voting. Two days later, on 4 March, India again abstained from voting on a resolution in the 47- member UN Human Rights Council, along with China, Pakistan and 11 other states, that strongly condemned the violation of human rights, and violation of international humanitarian laws resulting from Russia’s aggression and called for the establishment of an independent enquiry commission.

While refraining from any condemnation of Russia’s military attack on Ukraine, Prime Minister Modi did call for an immediate cessation of violence and resumption of diplomatic dialogues for resolving the conflict, in his talks with Russian President Putin and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

He also expressed his deep anguish to Zelenskyy over the loss of human lives and property due to the ongoing conflict, but was noncommittal on the issue of supporting Ukraine in the UN Security Council. Mr Modi promised to send humanitarian assistance to the embattled state and till 15 March, New Delhi had provided 90 tonnes of relief materials ~ mostly medicines, medical equipments and other relief materials ~ to Ukraine. Since both India and Russia are members of BRICS, and the SCO, it would have been imprudent for New Delhi to publicly condemn Russia.

(The writer is retired Professor of International Relations and former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Jadavpur University)