Thursday, November 17, 2022

LOOKING AT UKRAINE WAR FROM INDIAN PRISM

INDIAN EXPERTS ON THE WAR    

Discussions in India's intellectual spaces on Russia-Ukraine war were initially focused on humanitarian evacuations. Subsequently, most Indian experts appeared more anxious to express solidarity with President Putin led Russia, rather than evaluating the entire issue objectively, even from the perspective of strategic interests of Russian state and its people. 

     Looking at the entire issue from New Delhi, closer ties with Russia and Israel appear critical for India's own security as well as long-term security and stability of this region and beyond. Simultaneously, India's friendship with the West, and especially the United States, is equally important for India's existential interests as well as strategic security of the United States. However, there has been an apprehension that China's burgeoning economic, military and technological prowess may compel the United States at some point of time to abandon Asia and Indo-Pacific, especially if the costs of defending this region, or even maintaining presence here, could become unsustainable.

 China's military and technological surge appears unstoppable at this juncture. Simultaneously, internal fissures in US democracy, including its position even on critical foreign policy and security issues, appears more than glaring. In long run, China definitely threatens the United States and its allies. But in the interim, it is possible that the United States can work out a tactical understanding with China to avert a direct conflict.  

    On the other hand, India is uniquely positioned to consolidate ties with West Asia and Africa as well, including Islamic nations. It continues to enjoy immense goodwill in the region. The entire equilibrium places India in an unparalleled position to pursue its great power aspirations, if it can optimise its internal governance institutions. 

The dividend of better understanding between the West and Russia at one level and Israel and Arab world on the other may harm military industrial complexes of the West but provide an unparalleled impetus to technological and economic upsurge for the entire mankind. India's rise will not only provide the biggest antidote to both Islamist radicalism and Chinese authoritarianism but also act as the biggest catalysts to peace, stability and innovation, benefitting the entire mankind. 

    I believe that the Russia-Ukraine war is not of mere academic interest to India. A depleted and weakened Russia, dependent upon China, shall be disaster for India. It can multiply military-security threats from China. However, the dynamics of Chinese political system is such that it is bound to breed conflict with both Russia and India. With 10 times more population than Russia and similar advantage in economic sphere, China possesses the capacity to virtually gobble up Russian land and natural resources, at least substantially if not entirely. Though internal systems of China are likely to crumble once the bottled-up pressure of mass oppression explodes. This is inevitable at some point of time. 

    Such an outcome has potential to generate exceptional instability and volatility in the region. This would dwarf the instability and volatility that we witnessed on fall of Soviet Russia in early 1990s.   Though the world has recovered from the same due to stability provided by leadership of strongman Putin. But his de-institutionalization of Russia and decimation of all opponents, besides creation of an army of loyalists through a caucus of oligarchs - at the cost of sustainable progress of his own country-  doesn't augur well for future of this great civilisation. 

    Most discourses on Ukraine war in the intellectual space of the West appear driven by an urge to humiliate and vanquish President Putin and Russia. West has done huge disservice to both democracy and Russia by giving an impression that it was consistently trying to undermine and destabilise Russia. It has also been suspected of engineering colured revolutions in Russian backyard to change regimes. These moves appear more focused on weakening Putin and Russia rather than ushering democracy in these parts of the world. These have backfired and further strengthened Putin and impeded Russia's transition to genuine democracy. In retrospect, the entire approach also appears flawed and tactical. It plays into hand of China. Russia could have been a much lesser danger even to the West than Xi led China.  

    India has to impress upon the West that an isolated and weakened Russia, dependent upon China, is as much threat to the West as India. Russia has to be weaned away from the Chinese influence and it should be nudged on the path of democracy. This will definitely help stability and security of the existing global order. However, this is not going to be easy. India has ignored provocations and taunts by the Western media that has been least respectful, or even receptive, to Indian sensitivities. But Indian state must harness its goodwill to break the impasse in US-Russia ties. 

    During yet another discussion on a Hindi channel named APN, I was shocked by observations of a retired Indian diplomat. He insisted that India must stay away from Russia-Ukraine dispute. His words were: "doosre ke jhagde mein hamein kyon padna hai?" (Why should we get into quarrel of others). This is the precise psyche from which India must extricate itself, We are in a different era where any development anywhere in the world impacts us in one or the other form to some degree. The war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine, despite helping us in the interim on oil bills, threatens to shift an already disadvantageous geopolitical equilibrium further against us. 

I call an approach of isolation from Russia and the West as strategic myopia. At one hand, we aspire to become global leaders, and at another we are reluctant to engage others or reform ourselves internally, to secure our own existential interests. Our great power aspirations must not rest on goodwill or mercy of the world or discretion of fortunes. We have to pursue it ourselves as a state and society        

LOOKING AT THE LARGER PICTURE

    Ukraine has suffered enormously in the ongoing war.  But Russia too has not been able to escape the devastating consequences. Military losses and setbacks have embarrassed Russia and generated a lot of resentment internally. People have been quiet on economic hardships but loss of youthful population and wasted economic opportunities is going to haunt Russia for a long time. 

    President Putin has been outsmarted by the NATO strategists this time. Probably, it is complacence that bred overconfidence this time. NATO or the United States seem to be winning the battle for the time being. But a victory here is likely to push them to an imminent loss in a larger geopolitical war. 

    Ever since pro-Russian Ukrainian President Ynaukovich was ousted through a mass uprising in 2014, the NATO-Russia confrontation had been on the rise. Russian victory over Crimea and its annexation, in a genuinely short, swift and decisive battle bolstered the image of invincibility of Putin. He had successfully avenged humiliation over ouster of a pro-Mocow regime. But his failure to win the current war, despite having initiated the same, appears a self-goal. Many believe that he was provoked into this trap by the NATO strategists.  

    There are far too many indicators to suggest that President Putin went into the war without adequate preparation. None of his advisors and associates could probably muster enough courage to point this out. Early this year, there was a video that went viral on social media in which the President Putin was seen rebuking his intelligence Chief. The latter had mildly tried to suggest that Russia needed more preparation to win the war.

     Inbuilt constraints of the authoritarian governance model of Russia have also been exposed during this war.  Russia had also failed to factor in the tough resistance from Ukrainians and alleged covert support that they have received from the West. 

    NATO's eastward expansion is also something that the West is not able to discuss with candour amongst itself. The West should have tried to push democracy in Russia more through persuasion rather than coercion, deception and clandestine regime changes. A genuine democratization of Russia could have provided bigger safety net for security of the West. 

    But that appears improbable at this point of time. For persuading Russia or others to democratize, the United States has to fix its own internal democracy, which it appears shy of addressing. Simultaneously, expanding asymmetry of power between China and India is another factor that has been denting desirability of democracy and open societies, notwithstanding appreciation for the same. 

    It is widely believed that capitalist greed of United States has created a monster in form of authoritarian China.  A small cartel of people led by an insane narcissist, domestically accountable to none, but with access to exceptional financial, technological and military prowess, threaten the entire world. They appear capable of marginalising even the United States in few years at least in Asia, Eurasia, Africa and Far East. 

    TEST OF GLOBAL DIPLOMACY AND LEADERSHIP    

    An early conclusion of war, at this juncture, appears too distant given the level of distrust between the two sides. Any mediation by any power appears fraught with serious possibilities of failure. Mediation and facilitation more often require complex technical skills, besides trust of contending parties. While India enjoys high degree of trust of both Russia and Ukraine, but it is possible that neither United States nor China could be interested in putting their weight behind India or a bonafide peace deal. Besides, Indian diplomacy's technical expertise and experience of mediation in such complex conflicts is quite suspect. Hence, a progress in this direction is possible but it is not going to be easy.  

    Many Western analysts have contended that the Russian failures have severely dented the aura of invincibility of President Putin. Some assess that he may have to explore a smooth exit from political space of Russia. Alternatively, there could also be an abrupt end of his regime, which appears difficult the way he has decimated all opponents and even alternatives to himself. 

Surreptitious regime changes forcing transition to election process has failed in far too many contexts. Political stability in Russia appears not worth the risk of instability that the West supported coloured revolutions had brought in. Of course, at some point of time Putin has to retire. Someone acceptable to the west and Russia has to assure Putin of a safe retirement and stop comedian turned hero Zelensky to restrain his bravado. But this is not going to be that easy. President Putin has established himself as custodian of Russian pride. West has to act with immense generosity whereas India has to stretch all its potentials and capacities to push peace, not as an act of altruism or charity but a critical necessity for creation of a geopolitical equilibrium that ensures its security.   






But as long as Putin remains at the helm, the threat of a nuclear attack, howsoever minor, remains a reality. The world has already paid a high price over Russia-Ukraine war. It will test resilience of global diplomacy and leadership to extricate the mankind from potential threats of a further escalation of this war that has already taken a heavy toll.   

Monday, November 14, 2022

A WAR THAT HAS PRODUCED MANY LOSERS BUT NO CLEAR WINNER

    Daily Russian poundings over the past 9 months has witnessed large-scale loss of lives and public infrastructure in Ukraine. Russia has also suffered setbacks. Its strength has been dented by unexpectedly high military casualties besides impact of Western sanctions. The whole of Europe battles serious economic crises alongside energy shortages. The entire developing world is anticipating an impending food and energy catastrophe. India and Asia worry alteration in geopolitical equilibrium, paving way for unrestrained Chinese hegemony in the region, that is certain to threaten their security. United States runs the risk of being replaced as the most preeminent power in Asia and Europe by the China. The gains for China, as of now are more potential than real. Hence, the world is in middle of a war that has not yet escalated to its optimal potential but has produced more losers than any clear winner.

This is a different war and efforts to draw parallels from history is more likely to hinder our understanding and ability to face the same. 

LOOKING AT FUTURE FROM THE PRISM OF PAST

 On October 26, I was in a live TV discussion on Russia-Ukraine War at platform of an eminent Hindi channel. My fellow panelists included a well-known and articulate retired Ambassador, a retired General of Indian Army and a retired Historian, with specialisation on Eastern Europe and Russia.  They had nearly two decades more experience of the world than me and naturally I have always been deferential to such elders and their wisdom. However, intellectual integrity has at times forced me to take contrarian  position and defend the same but with an open mind.  

In course of this particular discussion, the retired Ambassador questioned my understanding of diplomacy and warfare, over my following observations: 

1. President Putin's strategy was failing as Russia was forced to make far too many tactical retreats and recalibrate its strategy a bit too often, despite enjoying huge military superiority over Ukraine; 

2. With shift in momentum, the Russian troops could struggle to hold on to some of their territorial gains;  

3. A good strategy of war must get a quick and decisive victory at minimal costs and negligible collateral damages;

4. More the war prolonged, the Russian dream of Kievan-Rus reunification shall become distant, if not unachievable; and 

5. A victory in a prolonged war, involving heavy human and material costs, feels more like a loss;    

    I had held on to my position on that televised discussion even in face of insistence by my three elderly co-panelists that Russia was winning the war. They cited the duration of the first and second world wars to contend that wars have their own momentum. They dismissed my idea of short, swift and decisive war as imaginary. 

    Sadly, they forgot that the world has evolved far too much since the second world-war era. We are living in a far more integrated and technology driven world, which has potential for more devastating consequences in a much shorter time. Even in that war, the aggressor or the principal initiator of the war - Germany - had paid heavily for its grave miscalculations. Despite its huge military and economic strength on eve of the two mega wars, Germany faced a debacle that pushed it back on most parameters of national and societal power by centuries, even though it inflicted massive collateral damage in others as well.  

    Here the war was initiated by President Putin. He has been careful to avoid attacking NATO countries. His adventure is not comparable to Nazi Germany. But Russian failure to win the war in a short time as well as its military and economic setbacks have dented its image of invincibility in the region.   However, this was not the first time that this particular Ambassador had verbally attacked me. I recall in a discussion he had been very aggressive towards another retired Ambassador who was a few years younger to him. During a TV discussion on Sri Lanka in 2020, he had repudiated my assessment that Rajapaksa brothers would not be able to resist Chinese pressure and the resultant consequences for the island nation could be too bad. The YouTube video of that discussion is still available on the web and what transpired in Sri Lanka since then is very well known.  

I find the problem with our traditional experts lays in their over reliance on history to assess the present or look at future. 

UKRAINE BLEEDS, RUSSIA STRUGGLES AND THE WEST GETS A FALSE SENSE OF VICTORY:

    During this discussion, as well as discussion on this subject on other platforms, I have maintained that Russian setbacks since September 2022 indicated that it shall struggle to hold on to some of its territorial gains. Even though Ukraine is in no position to defeat Russia or deter sustained onslaught by Russian artillery, missiles and Air Force, Russia appears incapable of securing an outright military victory in foreseeable future.  The entire Kievan Rus region has suffered irreparably.   

  Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff has been quoted by media in early November that nearly 200,000 soldiers have perished in this war. Ukraine and Russia have faced similar number of military casualties. We may dispute accuracy of these figures but cannot deny massive military casualties impacting both sides. Ukrainian President Zelensky himself had conceded in June this year that Ukrainian was suffering daily military casualties to the extent of 700-800. Simultaneously, there are indications of unexpectedly high military casualties even on the Russian side. Moscow's official data about military casualties stood at 5937 by early September as per a BBC report. However, large-scale military recruitments and images of large number of women searching their dead sons, husbands and brothers have been visible on social media.  

    Simultaneously, by mid-November 2022, Western sources have estimated Ukrainian civilian casualties around 40,000. The war is also believed to have generated 15 to 30 million refugees as per credible media channels in the West. Official UN records indicate that 7.8 million refugees have moved into different parts of Europe. They are mostly from Ukraine but a small component among them are Russians. There are no credible figures available on total loss of Ukrainian public infrastructure. The assessments have varied anywhere between US $ 300 to 800 billion. Ukrainian economy has shrunk by 39%. Rebuilding is going to cost too heavily. However, no one knows as yet when the war shall end. On the other hand, Western sanctions have failed to entirely cripple Russia.  But it would be too naive to deny economic and human impact of the war on Russia. 

    In recent months, Ukrainians have struck Russian positions with exceptional lethality, destroying their tanks, aircrafts and even sea vessels, with help of Western satellite imagery, surveillance and latest precision strike weapons. These have exposed relative obsolescence of military firepower of Russia, notwithstanding their strengths in areas like rocketry, missile technology, including rocket and jet-propelled hypersonic missiles, fighter aircraft, including advanced strategic bombers among others. But in many areas, they have lagged behind both the West and China, especially in advanced electronics and precision strike weapons.

      Over the last few weeks, scenes of mass jubilation, especially following Russian withdrawal from Kherson, and warm welcome extended to advancing Ukrainian troops by local people, including ethnic Russians, have conveyed a clear message. The so-called nationalist support base of President Purin appears under threat for the first time. Some of his staunch loyalists on social media have been openly critical of the Russian war strategy, especially its abject withdrawal. The possibility of use of tactical nuclear weapons remains a reality even now. But the image of invincibility of Russian artillery and airpower in Ukraine stands thoroughly exposed. At this point of time, Ukraine appears incapable of pushing the Russians beyond the East bank of Dniper or Dnipro River. Stalemate is likely to continue in many areas. But absence of a decisive victory for Russia itself is being hailed as Ukrainian victory.   

    Meanwhile, despite inability of both Russia and Ukraine to conclude the war, a trust-driven peace talk is nowhere on the horizon. Ukrainian President probably thinks that he has wrested momentum and, hence, has put impractical conditions for talks. These include restoration of all areas captured by Russia as well as ouster of President Putin from Russian Presidency. Russia, under President Putin, is unlikely to concede defeat or accept losses.

               Simultaneously, the net outcome of war shall decisively tilt the balance of entire global geopolitical equilibrium in favour of China. It shall increase Russian dependence on China and provide the latter with unfettered access to vast land and natural resources of its mauled and depleted northern neighbour. I doubt the resultant outcome shall suit the strategic objectives of the West, especially the United States and its allies.   

                                                                                                                   (To be continued)

LOOKING AT UKRAINE WAR FROM INDIAN PRISM

INDIAN EXPERTS ON THE WAR      Discussions in India's intellectual spaces on Russia-Ukraine war were initially focused on humanitarian e...