When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, its constituent Republics moved carefully in fashioning new regional alliances. There were, however, some former Soviet Republics like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, which sought stronger military ties with the US and its European allies. They became members of the NATO by 2004.
The ties with Ukraine were particularly sensitive, given its maritime boundaries in the Black Sea and proximity to the Mediterranean Ocean, through Ports like Odessa in Ukraine. Given its security interests, Russia has moved determinedly in the recent past to take control of ports in Ukraine like Lugansk, Donetsk, Mariupol, Sevastopol, and Odessa, which has been the main port for Russia’s trade with India.
While the relationship between Ukraine and Russia has been tense in recent years, matters came to a head after the young and charismatic Volodymyr Zelensky was elected as President on April 20, 2019. Anti-Russian rhetoric was stepped up, and the US-Ukrainian relationship developed strong anti-Russian dimensions. While President Trump was distinctly averse to developing tensions with Russia., the same cannot, however, be said of President Joe Biden.
Amidst the growing anti-Russian rhetoric coming from both Washington and Kyiv, Ukraine and the US signed a “Charter on Strategic Partnership” on November 10, 2021. The “Charter” focused on the “vital interest” of the US and Ukraine for “cooperation on defence and security,” to “respond to threats”. This cooperation was set to provide “security and prosperity,” not only for the people of Ukraine, but of a Europe, which was “free, democratic, and at peace”.
President Biden left no doubt that he wanted Ukraine fully integrated with NATO. Many believe that all this was meant to divert attention away from the fiasco that marked the unseemly American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Responding to what he felt were attempts by the US to further isolate Moscow in its immediate neighbourhood, Putin focused on what he evidently believed were concerted attempts by the US to undermine Russia’s vital interests just across its borders. He emotionally alluded to the close historical relations that Moscow had with the people of Ukraine.
He concluded that in this situation, it was necessary “to take a long overdue decision to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic” — territories, which were located in Ukraine.
His proposal was quickly approved by Russia’s Parliament. Putin’s blunt criticism of past Soviet policies spared no one, including Soviet era icons like Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, apart from three generations of the entire leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Those knowledgeable of Putin’s thinking, speak of his belief in being Russia’s only Messiah!
The use of tanks and lethal airpower by Putin has turned world opinion against Moscow. It has also inevitably spurred not just the US but most countries all across Europe to turn against Moscow. This, in turn, has compelled the already truculent Vladimir Putin to dig in his heels. Russia is now involved in an all-out war against Ukraine. The tide of international public opinion is, however, set against Russia.
Following a long and heated debate, the UN General Assembly strongly condemned Russian actions in Ukraine. One-hundred-and-forty-one nations voted in favour of the Resolution, with 35 countries including India abstaining. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led even otherwise cautious European powers like Germany and France to joining the US, in providing support for the Ukraine Government.
Despite the overwhelming strength of Russia’s Air Force, Ukraine’s young and charismatic President Volodymyr Zelensky has also taken an extraordinarily strident tone, in criticising Moscow. There is, however, no sign of any member of NATO being ready to intervene militarily in Ukraine’s favour, given the strength of Russia’s air power and military firepower. Only five nations voted against the UN General Assembly Resolution critical of Russia’s actions, while 35 countries, including India and China, abstained from voting on this Resolution.
There has been considerable pressure on India by the US to join the bandwagon in criticising and condemning Russia, which India has prudently avoided doing. This has been accompanied by wide-ranging sanctions imposed on Russia, and stepping up the flow of weapons to the Ukrainian resistance. The US and Ukraine had, meanwhile, signed the agreement of November 10, 2021, focusing predominantly on “Security and Countering Russian Aggression”.
There has been considerable pressure on India to join this bandwagon, which India will not do. India will, however, continue to cooperate with the US in the QUAD, on security and other challenges posed by China. The last meeting of the QUAD has spelt out areas in which India, Japan, the US and Australia will cooperate, on issues ranging from vaccines produced in India to greater maritime and military cooperation across the Indo-Pacific.
India and China were, however, among the 35 countries, which abstained in the UN General Assembly on a US Sponsored Resolution moved by 141 countries which critically focused primarily on the Russia’s military and diplomatic moves.
It is clear that while dealing with the tensions now prevailing across Russia’s borders and Moscow’s growingly strained relations with the US, India will now have to remain focused on keeping the wheels of its external economic relations moving smoothly. There has naturally been concern in India about the likely impact of recent financial and currency restrictions and sanctions placed on Russia by the US and its allies.
There will now be growing problems that India will face, on its crucial imports of arms, defence equipment and ammunition, from Moscow. We, however, have a vast experience of trading with the Soviet Union, before we took to economic liberalisation. Trade and virtually all economic transactions with the Soviet Union were in rupees.
Interestingly, both Russia and Ukraine are significant suppliers of agricultural commodities, including vegetable oils. India has, meanwhile, been steadily increasing its imports of crude oil from Russia, with the IOC recently signing an agreement for sourcing two million tonnes of crude oil annually.
India has also imported growing amounts of LNG from Russia. The recent US led currency sanctions imposed on Russia have raised serious problems for India’s imports of Russian products, including arms supplies. It should, however, not be too difficult to mutually work out innovative arrangements and revert to payments in rupees, which India will need to undertake sooner rather than later if current international sanctions on Russia continue.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan