As the war grinds on, India’s task is to keep our head, think and act for ourselves, be less enamoured of the big powers but also show leadership in restoring peace amongst them. A year on, the Russia-Ukraine war has become a bonfire of ambitions. Russia is too weak to win and Ukraine too strong to lose. Battles fought with 21st century weapons are stalling battlefronts resembling those from the last century. American sanctions cut Europe off from Russian energy but hardly dented its war aims. The war has morphed — from a Russia-Ukraine war to a proxy war of the US against Russia. Global security has been strained like never before.

By Amb D.B. Venkatesh Varma

At the onset of war, I had laid out its main drivers (‘The Putin Pushback’, IE, February 24, 2022) — Russian pushback against aggressive NATO encroachment, Ukraine’s high price in the war, the return of American dominance over European security and energy policies, and the expected US incapacity to pursue dual containment against both Russia and China simultaneously. A year on, these points remain largely valid.

With the aim of breaking the current stalemate during the military offensive season in late spring, NATO is feverishly rearming Ukraine with modern tanks, aircraft, and long-range missiles. Russian paramilitaries are grinding away at Ukrainian defences. A refitted Russian army bolstered by new conscripts is preparing for the summer offensive. Its defence industry is in full production mode.

The prognosis for Ukraine is bleak. Wars of attrition turn on the exhaustion of military means. Due to superior resources and staying power, some military incompetence notwithstanding, Russia will gain the upper hand. Last year, NATO said Russia will be defeated. Now it says Russia cannot be allowed to win. Ukraine’s tragedy may be its permanent division — one part incorporated into Russia, the other drifting into EU and NATO, with a contested dividing line floating between de-facto practicality and de-jure hollowness. We can expect Putin to pursue Russian war aims resolutely. Likewise, the US and NATO will oppose Putin’s pursuit doggedly.

This is no longer a war of overturning aggression. Rather it is a contest of will between Russia and the West, and a test of the credibility of US global power. As the recent speeches of President Putin to the Federal Assembly and President Biden in Kyiv show, Russia is digging in and America is doubling down. With neither side prepared for mutual accommodation, unless they first gain the upper hand on the battlefield, the crescendo from the tolling bells of escalation will continue to rise. Russian suspension of the New START Treaty takes this to a new level. With attacks on Nord Stream II and Engels Strategic Air Base in Russia, the US is pushing limits like never before.

The Ukraine conflict is this century’s first geopolitical war. Turning its back on the West, thus reversing a 300-year quest for political and culture acceptance, Russia, sullen and determined, is lunging inwards. With Orthodox Christianity and Russian nationalism forming a powerful mix, Russia’s inward pivot, its schism with the West and its belief in civilisational self-sufficiency will have far reaching consequences — the more its international isolation, the stronger will be its mystical patriotism.

Likewise, in the West, the Russia threat is no longer defined in terms of state interests but in vituperative and demonic terms often with racist overtones. It is not a clash of interests but of the realities of existence. With Germany voice-less and France’s voice drowned out by the high-pitched war cries from those on the NATO frontline, the US is torn between protecting its interests as a global power and avoiding a millenarian confrontation with Russia, which is what some frontline states — Poland and the Baltics — want, including the dismantlement of “imperial” Russia. Allowing such levels of irredentist ambitions amongst its allies reflects poorly on US leadership. With its three-decade dream run on cheap US security, cheap Russian gas and cheap Chinese manufacturing at an end, Europe is staring at a divided future, bouncing helplessly on the high tides of global turbulence. And the US now owns this mess in Europe.

With a weak Russia battling its peripheries, and an overextended US chasing Russia down that rabbit-hole, perhaps in conflicts apart from Ukraine, the global stage is set for advantage China. An US that is overcommitted in Europe is a boon for China just as it is a burden for Russia. Russia and China will oppose the US, more separately than together, having common interests but differentiated stakes in an evolving multipolar world. China is a rising and menacing threat but not to every country in the same way. Being less encumbered than the other big powers, its global ambitions have risen sharply.

During the past year, India’s diplomacy has truly come of age. In not accepting the Western framing of the Ukraine conflict, India took a calculated risk. India stood its ground and that ground raised India’s global stature. Its “extractive diplomacy” — securing pragmatic benefits in the economic, energy and defence sectors from the dying embers of US unipolarity, the contested birth of multipolarity and our traditional strong relations with Russia, set commendable standards of diplomatic success. Multipolarity was pursued in practice, not just advocated in theory. In doing so, the Modi government was ahead of the curve. Nurtured on the glitter of US power and the splendours of globalisation, many of our think-tank experts, in contrast, erroneously bet the bank on an early end to the Ukraine war and a quick defeat of Russia, assessments that were off the mark.

As the war grinds on, our task is to keep our head, think and act for ourselves, be less enamoured of the big powers but also show leadership in restoring peace amongst them. Their march of folly — hubris, poor statecraft, and gross miscalculations — have brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. The global order is almost broken. If this century belongs to us, and peace and not endless war is our destiny, then we should help in its re-building, as a matter of national self-interest and the common global good.

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