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The perpetrator has mortally wounded the hostage. What purpose can negotiations serve now for either side? Who will play the facilitator of talks?

The brinkmanship of the past several weeks has turned into an outright invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Many global analysts, including myself, were convinced that Russia would maximize a negotiating advantage and stop short of a frontal assault. We were wrong. Either by design or by accident, Moscow has moved from achieving a stronger position for negotiations with Kyiv to quite another objective.

We seem to have reached the current position as a consequence of miscalculations on both sides. Russia used a playbook that it first used with Moldova and then Georgia. The Georgian one from 2008 is particularly instructive. Russia creates or fosters separatist movements to forestall or preclude a neighbouring country from drifting towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato). In Georgia’s case, this was South Ossetia, and in Ukraine, it was the Donbas region. With many Russians having moved to the near abroad, Russia legitimizes this by claiming to protect ethnic Russians. It then recognizes this separatist region, as it did with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. Using the pretext of a “peace-keeping force", it then invades the country with the political objective of installing a puppet regime. A further eerie similarity is that the Georgian invasion took place during the Beijing Olympics of 2008, while this one started just after the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. The epilogue to the Georgian story is that Georgia remains a democratic country today after the then French president negotiated a ceasefire. Other than Russia and a few other countries (like Venezuela), South Ossetia and Abkhazia recognize and are recognized by Luhansk and Donetsk, the breakaway states in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The Georgian invasion lasted five days; the time frame for this one remains unclear.

The West, particularly the US, appears to have overestimated its ability to stare down Russian President Vladimir Putin. Having cut his teeth in a Cold War environment, US President Joe Biden appears to have overplayed his hand in covertly and overtly encouraging Ukraine to place admission to Nato and the EU on its agenda. Brinkmanship with a counterparty that’s seen to have messianic delusions is unlikely to have predictable conclusions, as Biden and Nato have since discovered in Ukraine, unfortunately. Putin was probably emboldened by the West’s seeming indifference to the Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014.

Having invaded, Putin’s objective must logically shift from negotiation to either: 1) regime change; or 2) revoking the sovereignty of Ukraine and absorbing it back into a Greater Russia. Unlike in the past, the West will be unwilling to negotiate with Putin, having boxed itself into an unwinnable corner and imposed severe sanctions that will begin to bite only with time. This is a lose-lose-lose situation for Russia, the West and most importantly for the people of Ukraine, who have suffered and will suffer more casualties.

Independent-minded Ukrainians would not want to lose their national sovereignty. Ukraine’s population is more than 10 times that of Georgia and policing a country with large land boundaries with Nato to prevent future insurgencies could mire Russia in a new ‘Afghanistan’. Putin will also face severe pushback from Russian oligarchs, who will not appreciate being ‘exiled’ from the West.

While Putin has partially insulated Russia’s economy from economic sanctions, his fortunes will rise and fall with oil prices since that is the only anonymous currency he will have. For the West, this is a dramatic failure in maintaining peace and pushing for a geo-strategic advantage at a time its position was weak and its hands tied; Nato’s Collective Defence Article 5 cannot be invoked to defend Ukraine, a non-member.

For the US, this is a big setback because it opens a ‘two-front war’ with Russia and China. A principle of non-interference in Ukraine or one favouring constitutional neutrality would have served all parties better. Note that in 2019, Ukraine’s constitution was amended with a super-majority to allow future Nato and EU membership. For the rest of the world, any large-scale military action typically has inflationary consequences. Unless the duration of the military invasion is short, this compounds the impact on price levels at a time when the world is already grappling with an inflation threat. The only winner here is China, which has elected to stay above the fray, and a modest one at that.

China and India (along with the UAE) abstained from voting on the United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. India’s abstention did not flow from its stated belief in diplomacy, peace and respect for every country’s territorial integrity; it can only be explained by realpolitik. Caught between its old friend Russia and a new one, the US, India had little choice but to abstain. But good things can still come from tough choices. India is among the few countries that can play the role of brokering a ceasefire. China is not trusted by the West and Western countries will not be trusted by Russia. India must rise to the occasion and help bring about peace along the Dnieper River.

P.S: “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems," said Mahatma Gandhi.

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

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