A recent press briefing by White House spokesperson Jen Psaki went viral for all the wrong reasons in India. In answer to a question about a Russian offer to India for discounted crude oil and the US reaction to it, she said while such a move was not against sanctions, India needed to think about “where you want to stand when the history books are written in this moment in time”.
After disregarding history entirely for decades, even while supporting ‘just wars’, it seems the US government is now, as always, set to teach others on what side to pick in the ongoing 'non-war' in Ukraine.
Ukraine has Not Received Anything but Words from Biden
The US stance on Ukraine has been curious to say the least. After its intelligence clearly foresaw the war as early as 16 January, the President said almost immediately thereafter that no American troops would fight the war in Ukraine. He did, however, warn of sanctions of an unspecified extent. Since Russia has already been under sanctions for years, that was hardly likely to make much of an impression.
Putin's troops, therefore, invaded Ukraine a month later on 20 February. On 23 February, Biden responded with prayers for the Ukrainian people and not much else. Later, he even promised the American people that the US would not change its nuclear alert levels after Russia threatened to use nuclear weapons in response to American and European threats.
Though a raft of sanctions was announced—including by various industry heads—the US did not actually stop buying oil from Russia, which continued as of the first week of March. Though, it's not a lot: just 3 per cent of America's crude oil comes in from Russia. That is obviously due to fear of poll ratings, with gas prices soaring 70 % since Biden came to office.
Is the West Taking Ukraine for a Ride?
The Europeans are buying Russian oil. Italy’s IMB, for instance, is functioning as usual. So, essentially, the war being 'fought' by the toughest sanctions ever seen since the Second World War, none of which were listed before President Putin actually invaded.
In sum, the threat of sanctions was never meant to deter, only to punish. Now, look at the weapons being delivered by the West. They are primarily the very same arsenal that was once supplied to Afghanistan, including a range of shoulder-fired weapons like anti-aircraft Stingers and anti-tank weapons like the Javelin. That has since progressed up the technology ladder to include Switchblade kamikaze drones. However, in operational terms the arsenal is identical to that used against the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan.
Simply put, the Ukrainians are to fight to the death for US interests. Learning from history? Hardly, and certainly it places every action by Washington on the wrong side of whatever history will be written in the future.
America's Own Dark History in Bangladesh, Cuba, & Elsewhere
Let's take other ‘history lessons’. As Pakistan unleashed its brutal genocide on the then East Pakistan in 1971, a flood of some 10 million refugees fled into India. Delhi reached out for help from the ‘international community’, to no avail. The US indifference, and indeed its decided tilt towards Pakistan, was condemned by its own diplomats in Dacca as moral bankruptcy. History lessons anywhere hardly ever record this criminal indifference. That is because history is usually written by the victors and the big powers.
Don’t forget that at the end of the Ukrainian adventure—whenever that will be—it will be Moscow that will be painted as the blackest villain. Not that its actions are not criminal. They are. But to hark back again to history, only consider the obvious example, the near nuclear disaster engendered by the Soviet Union’s attempt to get itself a foothold in Cuba and the whole story of the Bay of Pigs.
Don’t even forget that the US and the Soviets equally are responsible for the spate of ‘small wars’ in various parts of the globe as each patronised the most irresponsible governments, and worse, terrorist groups.
Lest We Forget What the US Did in Iraq
More history? Remember that in the 1980s, Iraq had the second largest economy in the Arab world, after Saudi Arabia and the third largest in the Middle East. It had a well developed centrally planned economy, and— most importantly—was entirely ‘secular’. In short, it was in stark contrast to what was to come years later, in the form of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Certainly Iraq was no democracy, and the Ba’ath was corrupt, but its people not just remained alive, but lived well. Even more interesting is that the Weapons of Mass Destruction that were supposedly the basis for the US invasion—that’s right, an invasion—had been destroyed years ago, or probably never existed.
Another bit of history, with a remarkable resonance today, is this. US Ambassador April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein for the first time in 1990 and said “I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. I know you need funds. We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait….We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods …All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly”. This was on 25 July. On 2 August, Saddam invaded Kuwait. That was the end of him.
It pays to read history, especially if you are going to invade a country. Too bad for Putin that he missed his history lessons.
India is Correct in Deciding Its Own Role in History
It is worth asking what India stand to lose by being as it said, "on the wrong side of history'. The answer is nothing very much. Our core interests - the defence of India and the provision of sorely needed defence equipment- is served by not entirely siding with the west, even as we move to diversify our sources of defence trade and production.
Datasets have indicated that our imports from Russia have fallen by 47 per cent (2017-2021) and may yet fall further. If others are willing to offer joint production and subsequent export of high tech missiles like the BrahMos, so be it. But it is for us to decide.
Too many analysts are warning of India turning against ‘global opinion’ with regard to Ukraine.
First, it is not global at all, with a considerable part of Asia having strong reservations about just who is the worst country in this nightmare.
Second, there’s not a lot that India can do other than advice all concerned to stop the fighting. It's not just Moscow who’s not listening. As more weapons arrive in Ukraine through the 'generosity' of the United States, it is perhaps best to stay away from the firing.
There is one option though; and that is for India and China to get together to persuade all concerned to stop the murder of Ukrainians. And the icing on top is that such a joint mediation effort would certainly make history.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)