Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is too burdened with the weight of European history, nuclear one-upmanship and Cold War rivalry
As the first shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fades, it is becoming more and more clear that far from being a recrudescence of Stalinist barbarism, President Vladimir Putin’s action was another act in a continuing Cold War for which US President Joe Biden, Donald Trump and their predecessors were no less responsible. Inspired by his spectacular electoral victories, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, caught between his American mentor and Russian arms supplier, has to be especially careful in responding to this manifestation of old wine in a new bottle.
There are several equivalents in this country of Ukraine’s predominately Russophone Donbas region where, curiously, Russian speakers outnumber ethnic Russians. Secessionist trends are always strong in such situations, and India’s history shows how malign neighbours like China and Pakistan have exploited New Delhi’s clumsy handling of grievances among Khalistani Sikhs and the Nagas and Mizos. But nothing in India, not even the volatile Jammu and Kashmir situation, can quite match the international dimensions of what constituted the former Soviet Union. Nor is the Kashmir dispute likely to provoke the interests of the sole remaining superpower, which underlies most global crises today.
But thanks to the United States, regime change is nowadays regarded as a legitimate policy objective. Moreover, the Western media went to town claiming that Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile until it gave them up. But while these weapons were physically in Ukraine’s territory, formal control vested in the Commonwealth of the Independent States and operational control in Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan, which also had residual Soviet nuclear warheads and missiles, returned them to Russia, while Ukraine entered into a number of interlinked international agreements, including treaties with Russia, the United States, Belarus and Kazakhstan, the Lisbon Protocol to the Start-1 treaty, and the Minsk Protocol. They covered Ukraine’s sovereignty, surrendering nuclear weapons, constitutional reform, the ceasefire in the Donbas and self-government for the Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed republics and restoring border control to Kyiv.
Drafted by the Trilateral (Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Contact Group on Ukraine with French and German mediation, the Minsk Agreements failed to deter the Donbas rebels. Pressured by a Washington that was convinced that the so-called “end of history” meant a unipolar world, in 1994 Ukraine handed over its nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for commitments that outside powers would “refrain from the threat or use of force against [its] territorial integrity or political independence”.
Washington and London probably never thought that they would have to enforce the guarantee. They may not intervene openly even now. But just as the Donbas rebels are believed to be armed, trained and financed by the Kremlin, it should surprise no one if leaked documents reveal one day that the American and British intelligence services armed the Ukrainians while the Western news agencies were crying wolf about an imminent Russian invasion.
These developments took place against the background of Moscow’s 2008 invasion of Georgia after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops into separatist South Ossetia. Russia’s military intervention indicated that the wheel had turned full circle since 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev showed himself a bigger democrat than Abraham Lincoln: while he allowed the Soviet republics to go their own way, Lincoln fought a bitter bloody war to defeat the Confederacy. If Mr Putin set the clock back, he did so only after the US overthrew established regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. It would have done the same in Syria if Russia had not supported President Bashir al-Assad.
The Ukraine crisis also suggests parallels with Libya whose leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, must have bitterly rued being persuaded to abandon his nuclear programme when he was toppled, tortured and murdered by rebels who drew their strength from the Western sponsors of the Arab Spring. No wonder Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Iran’s ayatollahs will place no faith in American promises or deal with the US except from a position of strength. Even American allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan talk of self-reliance. Taiwan, which abandoned its nuclear programme in the 1980s, is considering a limited arsenal of five warheads to deter the People’s Republic of China. South Korea invokes the North to justify its own case for the deterrent. Japan’s former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, suggests Tokyo might host US nuclear weapons. Belarus wants to renounce its “non-nuclear status”.
When the Warsaw Pact (created as a response to West Germany’s induction into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or Nato, in 1955) was dissolved in 1991, Moscow believed that Nato would follow suit. The Americans decided otherwise. Also reneging on the promise by James Baker, President H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, that Nato would not expand, President Bill Clinton invited former Warsaw Pact members and post-Soviet republics to join Nato, whose enlargement became a crucial feature of his foreign policy.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were the first to join. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia followed. Then came Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. Last year, Nato officially recognised three states -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine -- as potential future members.
At this rate, Nato might even one day invite Russia to join. There is a precedent for John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state who called non-alignment “immoral” and who inspired the “Dull, Duller, Dulles” quip, himself claimed to have stopped the full flow of Jawaharlal Nehru’s eloquence by inviting the founder and high priest of non-alignment to join Nato’s eastern counterpart, Seato, or the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation. Dulles had explained he had included Pakistan in Seato because not only were the Gurkhas the finest fighting men in Asia, but were sturdy Muslim Pakistanis. However, to accommodate Russia in Nato, the US must first accomplish the regime-change of the century by replacing Mr Putin in the Kremlin with a pro-Western politician.
All this highlights the intricacies of a situation that is not simple like imperial Germany marching into little neutral Belgium in 1914, when Germany’s Chancellor earned worldwide condemnation by dismissing the guarantee of Belgian neutrality as only a “scrap of paper” (ein Fetzen Papier). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is too burdened with the weight of European history, nuclear one-upmanship and Cold War rivalry to be dismissed as a black-and-white case of unprovoked aggression. It presents Narendra Modi with a complex diplomatic challenge of unparalleled sophistication for Russia is the principal weapons supplier to this American protégé in the Quad.