Putin's gambit in Ukraine did not account for a protracted conflict

Putin may have so far managed to convince most Russians he is on right side of history. But the longer the conflict drags on, the more difficult it will become for him to maintain people on his side

Putin's gambit in Ukraine did not account for a protracted conflict
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Ashis Ray/ London

The world has rewound to the 1950s. Richard Nixon’s 1972 gambit of exploiting the hostility between the then two major communist powers, Russia-led Soviet Union and China, that arose in the 1960s to the United States’ advantage, has unravelled. Moscow and Beijing are back as allies against the US.

Last June, when US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held a summit in Switzerland, the former proposed to his interlocutor the opposite of what his predecessor Nixon had performed–closer ties between Moscow and Washington to counteract China, which has risen meteorically since its poverty-stricken condition in the 1970s to acquiring the status of an economic and military powerhouse and in so attaining, becoming a security concern.

But Biden’s dream has exploded into a nightmare, with Putin a month ago venturing into what he calls a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine – in reality an invasion. A reliable, accurate account of a war generally falls into place well after hostilities have melted. So, the unvarnished truth in this respect of the current fighting will only likely emerge after experts have analysed it based on data.

The only comparatively dependable figures so far are from the United Nations regarding civilian casualties, the humanitarian crisis (more than 10 million or one-fourth of Ukraine’s population have fled their homes, over 3.5 million have become refugees in other nations) and essential items in danger of running out, despite Ukraine being one of the granaries of Europe.

Russia and Ukraine are branches of the same tree – the Soviet Union. Glasnost or openness was not exactly in either’s blood. An abandonment of a one-party state has rendered neither as yet significantly more democratic. Russia has in fact recoiled to a degree of authoritarianism after a promise of plurality in the immediate aftermath of parting with communism.

Washington and London may be shouting from rooftops about democracy in Ukraine. But a pro-West puppet regime allegedly processed after a coup d’etat against a pro-Russian government and bankrolled by the US does not make this former republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) automatically more democratic.

Former Moscow-oriented Warsaw Pact countries like Hungary and Poland, which are now members of both the European Union (EU) and the western military alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), have returned to illiberal tendencies in the form of quite fascistic and racist dispensations. In short, leopards don’t change their spots overnight.

Propaganda is part and parcel of warfare. The objective is to boost the morale of one’s own forces and people, demoralise the enemy and mislead others. Therefore, Russian as well as Ukrainian claims need to be treated with caution, although evidentially the former has certainly made inroads into its opponent’s territory, without occupying its cities, other than Kherson in the Baltic Sea.

However, the fall of Mariupol will mean that the pro-Russian Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine will gain strategic access to the sea. Indeed, a large swathe of land from Odessa in south-western Ukraine to the east of the country bordering Russia – with Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014, in the middle – could be in Putin’s hands, sharply reducing Ukraine’s maritime outreach.

Also, by recently expanding strikes to western Ukraine, near the Polish frontier, using hypersonic missiles, the Russians have removed the relative security Ukrainians felt in that part of the country. It has also threatened international supplies, including arms for the Ukrainian troops, which have been entering through this area.

The capture of the capital Kyiv has proved to be more problematic. Instead of attacking it, the Russians seem to be encircling it. By trapping residents within its boundaries and cutting off their energy and food pipeline, they hope to force the Ukrainian government to surrender.

An early surrender by Ukraine was possibly Putin’s expectation. This was a miscalculation, because since its seizure of Crimea, Ukrainians have been in a state of alert and preparing to defend themselves from further incursions. For eight years, sophisticated hardware for Ukraine’s army, navy and air force hs poured in from the West. Its service personnel have been trained to master use of such equipment.

Moreover, with Russia amassing its forces along its western neighbour’s border for months, Ukraine upgraded its readiness to emergency level. Besides, Ukraine is not alone in combating the Russians. NATO’s state-of-the-art technology, vis-à-vis communication, decoding, interception and surveillance, has bolstered its capability.

Perhaps, Ukraine cannot match the heavy weaponry raining down on it, but on home ground and with the attackers trying to avoid civilian deaths – though not entirely succeeding - the Ukrainians have been resisting against the odds, with men in uniform adopting a combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics.

Despite Russia abandoning Marxism, the western bloc continued to treat it with suspicion. Now, Putin’s move has not unexpectedly been deeply and widely unpopular in Europe and North America and among their allies. The fact that no country voted in Russia’s favour at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – not even China – is testimony to this. This international dislike and opposition has been enhanced by pronouncements of western governments and news coverage by western media.

One of the reasons why the USSR folded up was because it lacked control of the information order. The West’s superiority in this respect transformed large segments of Soviet citizens from being enthusiastic about their egalitarian system to becoming frustrated with it. The airwaves of western radio, latterly even television, penetrated into habitats of the socialist state, thereby highlighting the contrast between the prosperity of the well-healed in the West to the ring-fenced status of Russians.

Putin may have so far managed to convince a majority of Russians that he is on the right side of history and that his forces are winning. But the longer he fails to close out the conflict, the more difficult it will become for him to maintain his people onside.

Russia is highly advanced in cyber warfare, but today’s technology makes it easier for the West to influence Russians than ever before, notwithstanding the Kremlin’s ban on American-owned social media. Getting bogged down in an extended tussle will defeat his in any case controversial purpose.

He has already lost the goodwill of Ukrainians; many of whom are married to Russians, have close friendships with them and possess a similar Eastern Slavic culture and language. A policy of demanding intimacy via a barrel of a gun is fundamentally flawed. Proximity can only be voluntary.

Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine that began within a week of the Kremlin’s foray have stalled. Putin demands Ukraine recognise Crimea as Russian territory and Donetsk and Lugansk as independent republics. He also wants neutrality on the part of Kyiv and its non-entry into either NATO or the EU, especially the former.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Italian MPs this week Ukraine is on the brink of surviving the war. At the same time, on European media he asked for ‘security guarantees, the end of the war’ from Russia. ‘I am ready to discuss these issues at the first meeting with the President of Russia,’ he said.

But Putin is yet to signal he is willing see him. The Russian position is hard-line. For the moment, it enjoys the upper-hand. However, the longer an understanding is delayed, the pendulum might swing away from him.

How long can Zelensky postpone a settlement, given the misery being experienced by Ukrainians and dwindling stocks of edibles, medicines and other essentials at urban retail outlets? The West would like him to scuttle Putin’s design. This would, though, be contingent on the human cost such a strategy would entail.

The Russian economy is bleeding following the sanctions imposed on it by the West and Japan. But gas supplies from Russia to Western Europe – which is a lifeline for its finances - are not yet affected. To offset such an eventuality, Moscow is broadening its export of oil and gas to countries willing to sustain trading ties with it, particularly to big consuming markets like China and India. But importers are likely to drive a hard bargain, in other words buy at a discount compared to the prices Russia has been fetching from Europeans.

In the ultimate reckoning, the bloodletting between Russia and Ukraine -- and the sanctions the West and its allies have felt compelled to promulgate on the Russians as a response -- is expensive for the global economy, which is yet to recover from the body blow landed by Covid-19. So, an early truce will benefit all.

Putin, for whom the ignominy of the Soviet Union’s disintegration rankles, has plain and simple been wrong in violating Ukrainian sovereignty. But it also cannot be denied that the West, instead of trusting post-Soviet Russia, undertook a provocative game plan of surrounding it along its western fringe by extending NATO membership to 11 former Soviet republics, Warsaw Pact or communist ally countries. Thus, the Kremlin lashing out for the sake of its security in order to send out a long-term signal is no surprise.


Indian foreign policy fell between two stools

India is in a tight corner on its position on the Russia-Ukraine war, because its foreign policy in general underwent a fundamental change in 2014. It’s a stance that hasn’t entirely pleased Moscow - for India abstained in the United Nations Security Council and United Nations General Assembly votes - and disappointed the West, who thought New Delhi was now with them.

United States President Joseph Biden spelled out what America and its allies concur upon, when he said; “We have presented a united front throughout the NAT and in the Pacific... with the possible exception of India being somewhat shaky on this.”

India has been correct in not voting in favour of either Russia or Ukraine (which effectively means siding with the West). But it has done so out of compulsion, not choice. The compulsion being it cannot possibly vote against its biggest armaments supplier, when confronted by constant security threats from China (which is sitting inside what has previously been respected as Indian territory, with a cowardly response from Narendra Modi, and Pakistan.

The main pillar of Jawaharlal Nehru’s enlightened foreign policy was non-alignment in the thick of the Cold War. This initially made both the US and the Soviet Union, of which Russia was a part, unhappy. But the latter gradually came around to accepting the sound principle; indeed, in the 1950s, well before it fell out with its communist younger brother China in the 1960s. Nehru was of course forced into a compromise in 1962, when he called for American assistance to counteract the Chinese invasion in what is now Arunachal Pradesh.

India’s second and more pronounced departure from strict non-alignment was in 1971, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty to checkmate the hostility of the West, especially Washington, as India, with nearly 12 million refugees from East Pakistan, was gearing itself to liberate this territory from Islamabad’s clutches. It was a move in the national interest and one which paid off handsomely. While in the eyes of purists this hurt India’s non-aligned credentials, it actually enhanced India’s status in the movement to one of leadership of it. Evidence of this was the 1983 NAM Summit.

However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90, India lost a powerful ally and the West looked at New Delhi with spite. In this difficult situation, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao adroitly changed steps to revise Indian foreign policy from non-alignment to multi-alignment, with the basic stance of staying out of big power conflict remaining intact. This served India in excellent stead until 2014, as it surged as an economic power founded on the landmark reforms of 1991.

Between 2004 and 2014, India’s GDP grew from $709 billion to $2 trillion - a staggering 300% increase - while at least 150 million people were lifted out of poverty. India sealed a nuclear pact with the US, which gave it de jure global recognition as a nuclear power, with even China supporting development at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. India’s defence co-operation with Russia continued apace, with additionally no deviation from Moscow in supporting India at international fora in thorny issues like Kashmir.

China actually offered a concession on its border dispute with India to National Security Adviser M K Narayanan. Last but not the least, the hitherto war-mongering General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan conjured a peace proposal on Kashmir. There was a remarkable equanimity about India’s external relations under the professorial stewardship of Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Modi, though, decided to abandon the time-tested formulation. His colleague Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was shockingly happy to comply. India jumped into Washington’s lap, hugging and almost kissing!

Not only did India enter into strategic agreements on matters relating to the South China Sea, but enthusiastically participated in a revived Quad - a security alliance with the US, Japan and Australia clearly aimed at China. No wonder Biden expressed surprised that India as a member of Quad was not playing ball on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The net result was umbrage on the part of an aggressive Chinese President Xi Jinping and annoyance on the part of President Vladimir Putin - neither helpful to India’s security.

More importantly, Washington, shrill on Hong Kong and Taiwan, said little on China’s violation of the Line of Actual Control on the Indian frontier -- as Jaishankar openly admitted at the Munich Security Conference last month.

India’s statement at the UNSC debate on the war was inadequate and failed to properly explain the reason for its abstinence - which could simply have been India stays out of big power rivalry. But then, this would be an admission that Nehru and Narasimha Rao were right and the policy since 2014 has been wrong.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday. Views are personal)

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