‘With Ukraine, Putin has forced a debate on Russia’s acceptability as a European power’

In this explained.Live session, Dr C Raja Mohan, Visiting Research Professor, National University of Singapore, dissects the many dimensions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, its impact on India and the way nations look at spheres of influence.

On where the Russian-Ukraine conflict stands in geopolitical history

This is a multi-dimensional crisis. The first is a deeply historical and political question about Russia’s position in Europe. If you look at the last four centuries, Russia was very much part of the European order with Prussia, Britain, France, the Austria-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires. But the Bolshevik Revolution fundamentally put it at odds with the rest of Europe. Russia supported revolutions in other European countries and the power struggle acquired a deeply ideological character in 1917.

But during the second World War, the West needed Russia to fight Germany. This alliance broke down subsequently and led to a deep enmity between Russia and other states of the Soviet Union and then the West. At the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia thought it could become a part of Europe. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was neglected and its interest in securing its rightful place in Europe was ignored. Therefore, Russia has mobilised troops to assert its role and primacy in the regional security order.

The second issue concerns security. While the Warsaw Pact between Russia and its East European satellite states collapsed, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) persisted and kept expanding, closing in on Russia. So Russian President Vladimir Putin now wants to draw a line and wants bonafide security guarantees to stop NATO expansion and inclusion of new members in the bloc as well as reverse some of the old decisions on military and weapons deployment. The threat of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a strategic counterweight. The third aspect of the crisis is Putin’s idea of stitching back the old Soviet Union in a different form based on common political and military interests. They already have the Eurasian economic union and a central security organisation with a lot of the former members of the Soviet Union. You are not actually integrating them but creating institutions and structures for putting together Humpty Dumpty, or the Soviet Union, into a reasonable shape. Remember Putin recently acknowledged that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He wants to undo that past as his legacy. The West, on the other hand, doesn’t want Russia to sanitise or gain a kind of veto over its neighbourhood. Besides, former Soviet Republics like the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia deny Russia’s paternalistic interest in them and do not want to go back to a structure they willingly broke out of.

The US is following its old protectionist Monroe Doctrine that once warned European nations against further colonisation or puppet monarchs. In South Asia, India has sensitivities about Chinese proximity to Nepal and Sri Lanka. All large countries tend to seek a sanitised zone around them. In that sense, Russia is trying to do the same just as China is trying to build its favourable sphere of influence in Asia. The story of international relations is always about deferring to the interests of the great powers as opposed to protecting the interests of the smaller countries.

A person walks during a snowfall by a WWII memorial, in Sievierodonetsk, the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.  (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The fourth dimension is Ukraine’s international relations in the face of Russia’s “No Ukraine in NATO” demand. NATO had promised Ukraine to induct it in 2008 and though US President Joe Biden says this cannot happen immediately, Russia wants a legal guarantee against a new inclusion. But what about Ukraine’s own interests and choices? If NATO comes into Ukraine, instead of Ukraine going into NATO, that’s also not acceptable. Can India make similar demands in its neighbourhood? No. Finally, there’s Ukraine’s domestic structure. There are large Russian-speaking populations, Russia has already taken Crimea and backed independent entities in eastern Ukraine. It wants deep devolution and federalism.

In conversation with Shubhajit Roy, Deputy Chief of National Bureau. Express

On Putin raising the pitch now

He is seeking legacy. In power for 20 years, he has revived the Russian economy and wants to correct the injustice of 1991. He probably thought that with the West too divided and the US focussing on consolidating its position in the Indo-Pacific to tame China, the time is right to negotiate bargaining strengths. Remember, Biden reached out to Putin to settle matters in Europe. So, the latter has raised the stakes.

On the Ukraine crisis being similar to India-Pakistan

This question will linger when there are many commonalities between nations like India and Pakistan. A lot of nations want to take back territories based on historicity. Pakistan thinks it can take Kashmir by force, China wants overlordship of the South China Sea, Arunachal Pradesh and even Vladivostok in far-eastern Russia while Turkey wants to recreate a neo-Ottoman civilisation. Just because you had a shared past, doesn’t mean you’ll have a shared future. Besides, Ukrainians are also being neo-nationalists, changing their script from Cyrillic to Latin. Ethnic nationalism creates a logic of its own and going back to the past becomes difficult. Even Stalin made sure that Ukraine along with Belarus had a vote in the UN General Assembly in 1945. Yes, it helped Russia get two more votes but there was a nationalist sentiment in both back then too. No wonder Ukraine is seeking protection from other big powers to stand up to Russia’s bullying tactics. If Sri Lanka gives a base to the Chinese tomorrow, India cannot afford to be threatening. Big countries have to win over the small ones and the smaller ones should be careful not to provoke bigger neighbours because that’s how Crimea happened and Ukraine lost territory. This is where the prudence and balance of trying to respond to a new historical circumstance is a big challenge but it’s hard for the nationalist mood to agree to a mutual understanding.

US soldiers line up during the visit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase, near the Black Sea port city of Constanta, eastern Romania, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.  (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

On whether India should be worried

It’s difficult to manage foreign policy when major powers start fighting. If there are serious sanctions against Russia and the US blocks waivers, they will impact our S-400 deal. We have to evacuate a large number of Indians. Oil prices will shoot up if there is a war and worsen inflation. But the biggest problem will be if Russia seeks a referendum saying it has taken Crimea on the basis of a vote where 90 per cent of the population wanted to join it. A referendum allows you to take somebody else’s territory in the name of ethnic and religious solidarity. Tomorrow, Pakistan might do the same in PoK. Remember when a referendum took place in Crimea, the Hurriyat issued a statement saying it was a great idea. We don’t want to talk about it because of our friendship with Russia. But if there’s a referendum in eastern Ukraine, I doubt India will support that kind of action.

On India’s diplomatic position

We will face dual pressure, from the Russians as our traditional ally and from the US with whom we have partnered for Quad. Our interests with the West are far deeper, our economic interests are largely with the US and Europe. And though Putin met Chinese President Xi Jinping, China will be guarded and not go the whole hog. Everybody has to judge their own interests instead of going by sentiment. India is not a small nation, it’s becoming  the third-largest country. We can navigate this with finesse, take strong positions on principle and make sure that our interests are met. The US-Russia-China relationship has changed so much over the last 70 years. China today is 10 times bigger than Russia though in the 50s, it was the junior partner. A Russia fighting with the US and Europe would have little value for China. The moot point is that our problem with China is real, deep and unlikely to change. We have to go in the direction that helps us neutralise it.

On whether US and Russia can sort this mess

Russians have been in statecraft for the last 1,000 years, much longer than independent India, and have had deals with Americans before.

They are not innocent, being pushed into this conflict by wretched Americans. Russia has genuine grievances on NATO expansion and US weapons sitting in Ukraine. We understand both positions. If they cut a deal, good for us. If they can’t, we have to respond to that situation.

On whether India should have a regional security architecture like Europe

Europe’s peace has rested on US ascendancy and Russia’s decline. So Europeans are delusional if they think they have discovered the perpetual peace of Immanuel Kant and Asia is still in the Hobbesian world of ruthless war with each other. Putin has already got a victory. He has forced a debate, and if he doesn’t overplay his hand, he can walk out of this with some gains. Today French President Emmanuel Macron says Russian trauma must be addressed, that Russia is a part of Europe and must have a common security. At least the crisis has forced the West to stop saying that Russia is a regional power. It has enough military power to play hell, which is what Putin is demonstrating.

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