Lessons for India from the Ukraine standoff The Statesman 21 Dec 2021 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Lessons for India from the Ukraine standoff The Statesman 21 Dec 2021

          In Feb-Mar 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and occupied Crimea. This led to western condemnation and imposition of sanctions. Historically, Crimea had been a part of Russia since 1783, when it was occupied after defeating Ottoman forces. It remained a part of Russia till 1954 when it was transferred from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic. There were no reasons given then for the transfer as it was never expected that the USSR would subsequently disintegrate in 1992. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea legally became a part of Ukraine.

          The occupation of Crimea resulted in Russia being ousted from the G 8 group of nations (currently termed as G 7) and imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions. Economic sanctions include blocking Russian banks from trading in the EU, limiting import and denying access to critical technologies. Diplomatic sanctions prevent select Russian entities from travelling to the EU. Sanctions continue even today. The G 7 statement last week mentioned, ‘We call on Russia to keep its part of the bargain and proceed with Minsk implementation.’     

          Ukraine is not a member of the EU. At the 23rd EU-Ukraine summit in Oct, EU President Ursula von der Leyen stated, ‘We share a commitment to strengthening the political association and economic integration of Ukraine with the European Union and progress has been made in many areas.’ Ukraine is expected to apply for EU membership in 2024 and join in the 2030’s.  

Ukraine is also not a member of the US led NATO, though it aspires to be. In 2008, the US promised both Ukraine and Georgia that they would be granted membership, however there was no time limit set. It is currently a NATO partner. This precludes it from being protected by NATO’s core philosophy of collective defence. Ukraine forces had participated in operations with the US in both, Afghanistan and Iraq, hoping to be inducted into NATO. For Russia, Ukraine joining NATO would imply encirclement, while for NATO, Russian occupation of Ukraine would place it at its doorstep.

The current crisis which emerged with the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders led to the G 7 and US warning it of severe retaliation. The G 7 statement issued last week to Russia stated, ‘Russia should be in no doubt that further military aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and severe cost in response.’ While nature of consequences have not been spelt out it is expected to be additional economic and diplomatic sanctions as also increased defence assistance to Ukraine. There is unlikely to be active military support.

US President Joe Biden held a virtual summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week on Ukraine. The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken subsequently stated, ‘We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past.’ Russia on its part is seeking guarantee that NATO would not induct Ukraine into its fold.

The message being conveyed by the EU and US implies that they are unwilling to accept any change in borders, especially as it would be advantageous to Russia. The second message is that the US and NATO will not militarily support a NATO partner rather impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on its aggressor. Will sanctions be detrimental to Russia and compel it to change its plans, provided it is serious on attacking Ukraine, remains a mute question. Finally, it projects that the US is hesitant to induct Ukraine into NATO as it avoids angering Russia.

The one nation which would be closely observing the growing US-Russia dispute over Ukraine is China. Military silence over Ukraine would add to its confidence on regaining Taiwan, which remains a US ally, as compared to Japan, South Korea and Philippines with whom defence pacts exist. US and EU sanctions may be effective on an economically weak Russia but with China still controlling global supply chains, such sanctions may be counterproductive and damage economies of nation’s imposing them. These nations (Ukraine and Taiwan) can be armed to some extent, but their adversaries are powerful and can impose their will with sheer military power. The fact that China and Russia are nuclear powers restricts the level of military interference by the US.

For Taiwan, the message conveyed by the current warnings to Russia are that the US may only adopt non-military actions in case they face Chinese aggression, which may not be enough to deter the Chinese. 

For smaller nations in ASEAN, involved in dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea, the impression conveyed is that proximity to the US does not automatically imply support, as the US is unlikely to involve its military in a conflict. These nations, even if they develop military capabilities would be unable to stop a Chinese onslaught. Thus supporting any US led bloc would only anger China making it more aggressive, while the US may ignore it at a crucial juncture. Hence, engaging China and seeking a diplomatic solution is a better option.

For India, the message conveyed is that it must develop its own military and technological capability backed by a strong economy, if it seeks to keep an aggressive China at bay. Support from bloc members and allies would be diplomatic, sharing intelligence and technical inputs as also possibly provision of military equipment. This is why India needs to pragmatically consider its threats and future military capabilities resulting in allocation of sufficient funds to ensure that it remains militarily capable to deter China. Theatre commands to project integrated military power must be pursued with vigour. India must understand that it would fight its battles alone, as it has always done in the past.

US hesitation to back Ukraine militarily projects an impression that it cannot be trusted to support nations in conflict with Russia or China. Its announcement on the form of support to Ukraine will impact its global standing as guarantor of stability for the democratic world.