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Suddenly, the world appears to be on the brink of another major war. Russia has amassed tanks and troops all along Ukraine’s eastern front. Talks between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) led by the US have not yielded any breakthrough so far, US foreign embassy personnel in Kyiv have been recalled, and brinksmanship rules the day.

First, the background. The territory of Ukraine was established in the ninth century as Kievan Rus on the banks of the Dnieper River. In medieval history, western and northern Ukraine had been occupied by Poland and southern Ukraine by Tartars (descendants of Mongol invaders). In the 17th century, Cossacks recovered much of the territory from Poland and established a Hetmanate that is considered the forerunner of today’s Ukraine. This Hetmanate entered into various treaties with Imperial Russia that made it a vassal state. Russia annexed much of the territory of today’s Ukraine and Crimea during the 18th Century. When the Bolshevik revolution established the Soviet Republic in Russia, Ukraine was engaged in a civil war for independence. In 1921, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkSSR) was established, when the Red Army conquered two-thirds of Ukraine. The western third became a part of Poland. In Russia, the Ukrainian territory has been referred to as “Little Russia", a term that has a pejorative connotation today. In a surprise move, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine, despite an ethnic composition in Crimea that was two-thirds Russian.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Around 250,000 Tartars who had been banished to the gulag by Stalin returned to Crimea. A new democratic constitution was adopted in 1996 and a new currency hryvnia (a Kievan Rus term) was introduced. In a swift action during 2014, Russia again annexed Crimea, which has a strategic location on the Black Sea and includes a magnificent deep natural harbour in the city of Sevastopol.

Given this background, Russian President Vladmir Putin seeks to re-establish a “sphere of influence" that is broadly similar to that of Tzarist Russia and the USSR. In a paper he authored last year, he invoked that history. In Putin’s words, “Russians and Ukrainians are one people—a single whole" and “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe."

Putin has already engineered the installation of a friendly autocrat in Belarus (to the north of Ukraine), and it is widely believed that Russian-sponsored militias control territory in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.

Even though Russian naval movement from St. Petersburg and Sevastopol can be restricted by blockading the Scandinavian waters in the Baltic and the Bosporus Straits in the Black Sea, they still serve as warm-water sea access points and a winter foil to the Port of Murmansk in the Barents Sea. Despite its size, Russia is for all practical purposes a ‘landlocked’ country, and therefore feels it must preserve its territorial buffers. For Russia, Ukraine is dangerously close to its population and economic clusters, all of which are on its western side. Having lost the Baltic States in the north and Georgia in the south of Europe to Nato, Russia evidently wants to hold on to its influence in Ukraine and Belarus. Further west, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria have all joined the Western alliance.

Russia presented a package of conditions for Nato that included an undertaking that it would fully withdraw troops and missiles from its eastern front and insisted that Ukraine should not be allowed to join Nato. The West has responded with a package of potential sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine. These sanctions include cutting off Russian access to the international payment system called Swift. While denying Russian banks this access could have devastating economic consequences for Russia’s dollar-denominated energy trade, it is a very blunt instrument and will likely have severe repercussions on global payments.

If Russia attacks Ukraine, it seems likely that it will be limited in scope and ambiguous in construct rather than a full-scale invasion. Cyberattacks, skirmishes in Donbas and unidentifiable drone strikes are more likely than a 20th-century style territorial overrun. Sustained negotiations on Russia’s western front would be needed as Russia casts Ukraine as its ‘Taiwan’ and attempts to divide Nato. Any agreement made between Nato and Russia, particularly if Nato makes concessions, is likely to be eerily reminiscent of the 1938 Munich Agreement.

For India, still recovering from the pandemic’s economic shock, this comes at a decidedly inconvenient moment. Oil prices are high and will probably spike further with each wave of tension. Global supply chains have already been disrupted and any further belligerence is only likely to worsen this. India risks facing a stagflationary scenario with an uneven economic recovery intersecting with high inflation.

On the strategic front, India has to play its old friendship with Russia and new one with the US carefully. India’s recent 35,000-crore deal to acquire the Russian S-400 missile system could complicate New Delhi’s choices if it gets drawn into their standoff.

P.S: “The strong do what they have to do, and the weak accept what they must," said Athenian General Thucydides.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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