By R.K.Raghavan and Ajay Goyal, Mumbai*
We now have a first-class international crisis on hand — a man-made crisis of the kind that comes once in millennia and causes empires to fall.
We may not, as some observers put it, be witnessing a world war. But we are certainly braving a “war of the world”. Though the guns have not yet fallen silent, a new world order is already here. While the war is taking place in Ukraine, which for centuries has been a battlefield between European and Russian armies, the real conflict is between the United States, its allies and Russia. US and NATO leaders have repeatedly stated that the western military alliance NATO has never been more united than it is now.
Students of history and international relations will ponder through history to judge whether the Russian invasion of Ukraine was avoidable and why, despite its enormous power, the United States and Europe did not come to Ukraine’s aid. President Putin had conducted reluctant diplomacy last year with President Joe Biden over Ukraine’s “de facto” NATO militarisation; claimed continuing violation of Minsk agreements over the status of Donbass; Putin repeated the warnings he has been making for nearly fifteen years that NATO’s eastward expansion would lead to a conflict. Western weapons, trainers and military experts have been making a beeline for Ukraine for the last eight years since the 2014 violent regime change which ousted the pro-Russia President of Ukraine from Donbass and set the stage for this conflict.
The reality is that this conflict is hardly a bilateral or regional matter. Vladimir Putin has characterised it as almost a clash of civilizations and formulated it as a confrontation between Russia and the US-led western dominated world order. The Russian economy at US$1.5 trillion is nearly 25 times smaller than the combined US and European GDP at US$ 38 trillion. Its military spending is a bare US$ 50 billion compared with an annual twenty times more US$1 trillion by the US and its NATO allies. That despite the US threats of “sanctions from hell,” President Putin initiated this invasion of Ukraine and risked a direct confrontation with the western world tells of the threat perception of Russian decision-makers. It was always obvious that by itself Ukraine did not pose a threat to Russia – the Russian calculation and strategy see Ukraine as a proxy of the western alliance, their battlefield of choice.
While skirmishes are continuing in a handful of cities of Ukraine, Russia has clearly achieved strategic military victory. The Ukrainian navy has ceased to exist. Nearly 80% of the Ukrainian air force and air defenses are neutralized. Military command and control are destroyed and major armies are cut off from supply chains. Russians are slowly throwing a noose around the Ukrainian armies in the east, in Donbass. Unwilling and unable to directly help Ukraine, the United States and European allies are left to offer grudging support to receive millions of refugees; they are more enthusiastic to promise light armaments and deliver a media blitz against Russia. These things neither change the situation on the ground, nor the wider implications of this conflict.
On the ground and in the theatre of the war itself, it remains to be seen whether Ukraine will maintain some degree of sovereignty. For all practical purposes, besides Crimea, it has now lost its access to the Sea of Azov, the major coal, steel and agrarian region of Donbass whose boundaries have now been significantly expanded by the Russian operation. There is chatter in Moscow that Russians will assert some form of political control over what is commonly termed Novorossia, or New Russia, comprising the region east of the Dnieper River, and thereby bringing the ethnic Russian-majority regions of Ukraine under Russian state protection.
Within Europe, Russia is now cut off from trade, finance and travel. The sanctions and restrictions now numbering over six thousand make the Cold War’s Iron Curtain look like a plastic sheet. Sooner or later Europe will provide an economic affiliation to Ukraine and pour in billions to help redevelop the country through a new “Marshall Plan,” even as Russians complete what they term ‘demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine, as in post-WWII Germany, and introduce their own recovery and reinvestment programme for the east.
Any possibility of normalisation of relations between the western alliance and Russia can be ruled out for a generation. For at least a thousand years this conflict between Russia and Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world has been simmering since the Great Schism between Orthodox Christianity and Catholic Europe. The eight decades-long Capitalism-versus-Communism standoff of the previous century was just a short chapter in this saga of Russophobia and of the hatred of Russians who have been characterised in Europe as “barbarians”, and looked upon, part in fear, and part in awe, by imperial powers which have never quite managed to subjugate and colonise Russia.
The decade of the 1990s was the only short period when a weak Russia was de facto ruled from within by US-appointed and supported politicians. Even then, the most pro-western Russian leader in history Boris Yeltsin famously told the United States that an eastward expansion of NATO would lead to a military confrontation. President Putin has repeated that refrain dozens of times over the past two decades he has been in power. This conflict has now come to be — it is impossible that the West will be pacified except in the realisation of openly expressed fantasies about the assassination or forceful removal of President Putin.
In the global context, it is no wonder then that Russia has turned East and sought closer economic ties with China and Russia’s oldest strategic partner, India.
What is going unsaid is as important as what is being said in diplomatic-speak. The Indian position has demonstrated that while Prime Minister Modi seeks the closest economic, technological, and strategic ties with the West, India has finally broken free of the post-colonial mindset. The Indian leadership no longer views the world from London’s perspective. It is putting Indian interests front and centre. This is not about India walking a tight rope, but for the UK, Europe and the United States to walk a tight rope not to offend India, the world’s fastest-growing economy.
The differences in stances taken by the three Eastern powers toward the West are stark. Russia, China and India are fundamentally different in their approaches toward the world, the new era of globalisation, and their own place in this world. While Russia is now openly confrontational, and China continues an aggressive policy of expansionism as its own economy and Belt-Road plans flounder, Prime Minister Modi has already shaped India’s destiny in the world as a truly independent power in its own right. Watch this space.
[ *] R.K.Raghavan is a former Indian police chief and diplomat. He was the Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation between 1999 and 2001 and India’s High Commissioner to Cyprus between 2017 and 2021. Currently he teaches Criminal Justice at Jindal Global University in Sonepat (Haryana). Ajay Goyal is a strategist knowledgeable in Russian affairs who lives in Europe. In 2003 he published Uncovering Russia. In India’s 2009 General Elections, he ran as an independent candidate for the Lok Sabha on an anti-corruption platform from Chandigarh. This article was first published in The Free Press Journal of Mumbai.