What should we do? We would need to develop something similar to target those who threaten us. And we can do that even now.” This was President Putin at "Russia Calling" VTB investment forum, November 2021

The US and NATO have issued stark warnings to Russia not to invade Ukraine. For weeks, the Western media, briefed by US and European intelligence, and then G7 and NATO leaders themselves have said that the massing of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border is a sign of an imminent ground invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

While stating he will not commit troops to any such war, US President Joe Biden has led a chorus of western leaders including new German Chancellor Olaf Sholz and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg promising “economic sanctions from hell,” on Russia. These will likely include cancellation of Nord Stream II Gas pipeline built at the cost of over $10 billion from Russia to Germany under the Baltic sea, excluding Russia from western financial settlement system SWIFT, and seizing accounts of key Russian companies and individuals in the West.

Russian President Putin who held an online summit with President Biden a day after his one-day visit to India, the first foreign visit by him in two years, has denied that he has any intention to invade Ukraine. However, he has also publicly declared that Ukraine joining NATO is a Red Line for Russian security, and Russia will not permit it. Head of Russian armed forces General Valery Gerasimov has added that Russia will not passively stand by while Ukrainian forces commit, what Russia considers to be genocide in Donbas secessionist regions of Ukraine, largely populated by ethnic Russians, who now also hold Russian citizenship.

Western sources claim that Russia has positioned more than 100,000 troops and equipment near Ukraine border to invade the pro-western former Soviet republic of 50 million from which Russia sliced Crimea through a referendum in 2014 and that has been at civil war with its eastern Donbas provinces since then. Putin says that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, and Russia will therefore not invade its neighbour “unless provoked.”

Putin’s warnings

Putin has repeatedly warned NATO leaders and the US that deployment of long and medium-range nuclear missiles in NATO’s Eastern Europe countries threatens Russian security as these missiles can reach Moscow and key Russian cities in five to seven minutes. Russia already has hypersonic missiles capable of flying at 10 times the speed of sound. Putin has stated that building infrastructure in Ukraine for deployment of strategic weapons is the red line for Russia and sought legally binding written guarantees that it will stop, and Ukraine will not be a NATO member, ever. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has angrily countered by saying Russia has no right to interfere in the sovereign choices of any nation in when and which alliance it wants to join.

NATO presently has 30 member states, several of which are former Soviet or East Bloc countries, and their participation in the US-led military alliance formed during Cold War to counter the Soviet Union, has been a bone of contention between Russia and the West for several years.

The present standoff is similar to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when US intelligence detected the Soviet Union’s preparation to deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba to counter US missiles in Italy and Turkey that could reach the major cities in the US within minutes. The then US President John F Kennedy rejected his advisors’ suggestions to carry out aerial attacks on Cuban soil. Instead he imposed a naval “quarantine” around Cuba, thus preventing any Soviet ships carrying missiles from entering Cuban waters. The then Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev and the Soviet politburo backed down, withdrew all offensive weapons from Cuba and the crisis ended in the first major US victory for the US during the Cold War.

The East-West roles have reversed in the Ukraine crisis. This time Russia is drawing the red lines and is believed to be ready for military action if US and NATO do not stop deployment of strategic weapons in its immediate nieghbourhood.

For now it appears the US intends to counter Russia, which counts China as a strategic ally, through economic sanctions. The risk of war by intent or accident, however, remains high.

The conflict can engulf the whole world and India, which has been building strong relations with Russia’s adversaries Germany, France, the UK and the US on one hand and Australia and Japan on the other will need to do some precarious tight rope walking.

India remains a privileged strategic partner of Russia in defence and science while also diversifying sourcing of military equipment from western nations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems yet recover from the loss of one of his key political team members he had assembled so assiduously to tackle both China and Pakistan. Western pressure has been mounting on him to distance India from S-400 missile purchase, energy investments and long term contracts with Russia.

India’s compulsions

India desperately needs secure sources of natural gas and oil for its growth and economic future and Russia has proved to be a trusted and reliable partner in every sphere for India, despite its own strategic relations with China. While Chinese and Pakistani truck seems relentless, India also needs western countries to check Chinese arrogance, expansionism and aggression. Modi has shown great statesmanship in positioning India as a thoroughly confident power in its own right that is driven only by its own interests and is not prone to bending to external pressures. India under Modi practices proximus relations and partnerships with competing or feuding powers, not taking sides, remaining focussed on its own interests.

European history of bloodletting, genocides, and wars is not new. No one should be surprised by another war. Instead of asking India to choose sides, it is time the western nations learned the art of restraint from Modi and India to discuss red lines with Russia instead of sabre rattling.

Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Cyprus and Goyal is a security observer based in Europe

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