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India’s Response to Russia-Ukraine Crisis Shows Where Its Interest Lies

On Monday, India abstained from a vote on the Ukraine issue in the UN Security Council.

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On Monday, India abstained from a vote on the Ukraine issue in the UN Security Council. New Delhi called for finding a solution that would take into account “the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond”.

Back in November 2020, too, New Delhi had made its preferences clear by voting against a Ukraine-sponsored resolution at the 3rd committee of the UN General Assembly condemning human rights violations in Crimea.

This was as much a statement of where India saw its interests in this crisis as an acknowledgement that notwithstanding the bad press they are getting, the Russians, too, have a case.

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A Classic Security Dilemma

At the bottom of everything is a classic security dilemma: Ukraine’s efforts to safeguard its security by joining NATO severely undermine Russian security. The Russian discomfort with an independent Ukraine has roots deep in the history of the region. But having accepted an independent Ukraine, they retain a firm belief that Russia’s security and prosperity is linked to close ties between the two countries. However, Ukraine has sought to reinforce its independence by distancing itself from Russia and seeking closer ties with western Europe and the United States. But Ukraine’s action is viewed by Russia as a core threat to its security.

The immediate root of the crisis lies in the expansion of NATO in a manner which the Russians consider threatening to their security. Once in a century, since the 18th, the Russians have faced invasion from the West. Now, they believe that the expansion of NATO deep inside a region they consider their own is a direct security threat that they can no longer ignore.

Why Ukraine Remains Important

For India, the geopolitics of the issue is fairly simple. Friendship with Russia is key to understanding the response. But equally important is a bit of history. The emergence of Ukraine as an independent nation didn’t bring good news for India. As an industrialised part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Ukraine had several key military industries and facilities. Countries like Pakistan capitalised on this by importing T-80 tanks from Ukraine in the late 1990s to counter the T-90s we imported from Russia. Many people suspect that Pakistan’s cruise missile programme is based on inputs from the ex-Soviet projects in Ukraine.

Even more important have been the inputs of Ukrainian technology for Chinese programmes. In the face of the post-Tiananmen embargo, China reached out to Ukraine for military technologies in aircraft construction, space and naval construction. Famously, in 1998, the Chinese purchased the Ukrainian aircraft carrier Varyag, which was transformed into the People's Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Another important area was naval gas turbine engines. The Chinese used the technology purchased along with 10 Ukrainian UGT 25000 engines to develop their own QC 280 engines.

The first small amphibious assault ships were purchased by China from Ukraine and then produced in China through a transfer-of-technology agreement.

But the most important area has been the contribution of Ukraine to assisting China in developing its aero-engine technology. China, like all developing countries, has found this a very difficult area to work on and has been using Ukrainian technology in several areas. It has even sought to acquire Motor Sich, a key Ukrainian company, but is being blocked under US pressure.
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The Russian Case

On 9 February 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker famously assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch eastward” following the unification of Germany. This was just one of many times when the Russians were given this assurance in 1990. Many of the instances are available in declassified documents at the National Security Archive in Washington.

Three years later, the Soviet Union was gone, replaced by Russia, and the archive documents collected from US and Russian sources show that Russian President Boris Yeltsin was led to believe that the Russians would be part of any future European security system. The Americans have since denied that they pulled wool over the eyes of the Russians here, but Russia specialists like James Goldgeier have laid out the evidence in support of the Russian view.

The NATO expansion took place between 1999 and 2004, when the Russians were too weak to react. This was the period in which Vladimir Putin was consolidating his rule and concentrating on rebuilding the Russian military. But when Georgia sought closer ties with NATO, the Russians put their foot down and invaded the country and have since occupied territories in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the country’s NATO membership remains in abeyance.

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The Resumed Talks Achieved No Breakthrough

Separately there were developments in Ukraine whose turbulent politics saw American intervention through the so-called Orange Revolution led by activists with generous support from western donors, including US government agencies. The fight between pro- and anti-Russian Ukrainian elites led to the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and a civil war leading to the separation of Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine from the country.

In 2019, the constitution of Ukraine was amended to set the country on a path to the membership of NATO and the European Union, and also probably the current conflict.

Initially, after his election in May 2019, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy prioritised the restoration of normalcy between Ukraine and Russia. He was supported by European majors like France and Germany. In September 2019, France held 2+2 talks with Russia in Moscow, there were several high-level German visits to Russia, including that of Chancellor Merkel. As a result of intense diplomacy, Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine resumed their “Normandy format” meeting to resolve the eastern Ukraine issue in December 2019, but failed to make any breakthrough.

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How Things Went South With COVID-19

But with COVID-19, things went south in Ukraine and elsewhere. Ukraine’s economy even had to receive an International Monetary Fund (IMF) lifeline to deal with the situation. The change of administrations in the US encouraged Ukraine to push the US to allow Ukraine to join NATO. The previous Trump administration was more accommodative of the Russians and Biden’s son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine had figured in the campaign.

In an interview that took place shortly after Biden was sworn in, President Zelenskiy attacked Russia and called for the new administration to back Ukraine’s admission into NATO. He argued that the Ukrainian conflict with Russia was, in a sense, defending Europe.

The Russians decided it was time to act, and so, beginning the spring of 2021, the Russians first massed their troops on the Ukrainian border. Later, in autumn, the Russian build-up became perceptible, and on 7 December, which is also Pearl Harbor Day in the US, Biden warned Russia of sweeping western economic sanctions if it invaded Ukraine.

Later that month, the Russians presented detailed security demands to the US, including a legally binding guarantee that NATO will not only deny Ukraine membership but also abjure from military activity in eastern Europe. The Americans sent a set of written proposals to the Russians. But Moscow says that Washington has not addressed their main security demands, and that they are yet to give a formal reply to the US.

Ukrainians themselves have pushed back against warnings by the US that a Russian invasion is imminent. As of now, it would appear that NATO is united behind Ukraine, though the key country, Germany, seems to be holding out.

However, both the US and the Europeans have indicated that they do not intend to intervene directly in any war but to impose crippling economic sanctions should the Russians invade Ukraine.

But the Russians do not see the problem through the lens of economic issues but their core strategic interest. And as is well known, when it comes to security, states are willing to bear a lot of pain.

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The Signals Emerging From the US

In the meantime, it is worth looking at signals emerging from the United States. Reports suggest that the Republican Party, which is on the upswing, is not rushing to defend Ukraine. Their line of attack is to target Biden, not Putin. There is a distinct uptick in Republican candidates for this year’s Congressional elections, who are bluntly suggesting that Ukraine’s troubles are not more important than issues in the US.

A few days ago, Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a close ally of Trump, has called on the US to drop its support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO because such a commitment would weaken the efforts to counter China.

Even so, if the past trends are any indication, the Russians are not likely to engage in a full-scale invasion, but use force in a graduated fashion as a coercive instrument. The best option really would be the emergence of Ukraine as a buffer state, neither with EU and NATO nor with Russia.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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