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The United States, China, Israel and Russia (including its Soviet avatar) have resorted to aggression on numerous occasions before but the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered the most serious standoff between the big powers that the world has seen since the Cuban missile crisis.
“History is relevant always,” says A.G. Noorani, “but history certainly does not justify this wrong.” Sadly, this history of past sins and misdemeanours weighs like a stone on analysts from left, right and centre, preventing many from clearly understanding what is unfolding. Here, in 10 broad points, is an accessible guide to the war and its consequences.
1. The law is clear…
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal. It is a violation of the UN Charter and constitutes aggression in international law. It also violates the assurances Russia gave Ukraine as part of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum when it undertook to respect the country’s sovereignty and borders in exchange for Kyiv giving up its nuclear weapons.
Even by Moscow’s original (and dubious) rationale of protecting the rights of Russian-speaking minorities, the kind of force being used violates the principles of necessity and proportionality and has caused a humanitarian catastrophe. The UN Refugee Agency reports that one million refugees have fled Ukraine over the past week. Russia must immediately stop all offensive operations.
2. … So is the provocation
The Russian invasion is clearly a response – albeit disproportionate and ill-advised – to attempts by the United States to turn Ukraine into a zone for the projection of military power by itself and Nato against Russia.
Though there have been subtle differences in the approach adopted by the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, the US has used a combination of strategies to pursue this objective, including interfering in Ukraine’s political affairs, promoting the idea of Ukrainian membership of Nato and, in the interim (since membership is not possible), providing weapons and advanced training to the Ukrainian military. If Ukraine is to Russia today what Cuba was to the US during the missile crisis of 1962 (when it allowed the stationing of Russian nuclear weapons on its soil), then its resort to force – reprehensible though it undoubtedly is – should not surprise us. Putin’s ‘special military operation’ is as much the handiwork of a deranged leader as Kennedy’s illegal ‘quarantine’ of Cuban ports was.
3. Don’t believe for a moment that principles are the key factor in this conflict
While there are very important principles at stake – Ukraine’s sovereignty, the laws of war including international humanitarian law, the obligation of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, the rights of minorities in multi-ethnic or multi-religious states – neither Russia nor the United States are committed to the universality of these principles.
Both Russia and the United States have cast the conflict in Ukraine in grand terms. President Vladimir Putin speaks, ridiculously, of ‘de-Nazification’ and ‘demilitarisation’ while the US says its stand is motivated by its belief in the inviolability of national sovereignty and the importance of preserving the rules-based global order. And yet those principles are never applied to other situations of foreign occupation and aggression where human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law are taking place.
For example, speaking against Russia’s actions in occupied Ukraine at the UN Human Rights Council session on Tuesday, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken actually went out of his way to criticise the UNHRC for subjecting Israeli actions in occupied Palestine to the kind of scrutiny that the US is now demanding for Russia, accusing the council of “anti-Israel bias”. The Commission of Inquiry and standing Agenda Item 7 – both deal with violations of international humanitarian law in the occupied Palestinian territories – “are a stain on the Council’s credibility, and we strongly reject them,” he said, without the least bit of embarrassment at his blatant double standards.
4. The driver is great power rivalry, we are back to the values-free world of 1914
In reality, the Ukraine conflict is the unfortunate outcome of a clash between two great powers with lingering ambitions of hegemony – one revanchist (Russia) and focused on its ‘near abroad’ and the other (the US) focused on power projection on a global scale.
This clash is taking place against the backdrop of a world order in which China is rising – and doing so fast – and American hegemony is declining, albeit slowly. As a declining hegemon, the US still has the ability to destroy arrangements not to its liking; but as the hasty Afghanistan withdrawal and the continuing insecurity in Libya and Iraq demonstrate, it does not have the ability to impose new and stable arrangements. Despite its rise, China too lacks the ability to impose order, as does Russia even though its military capabilities are formidable. All three hegemons are in the process of optimising strategies to deal with this reality but their efforts have introduced a dangerous instability in the multipolar world order.
In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton favoured a policy of confrontation towards Russia on Syria and Georgia but lost to Donald Trump, who saw the containment of China as a more immediate priority. Washington could not mend fences with Moscow under Trump, in part because of the ‘Russiagate’ issue, but the switch from Trump to Biden appears to be an attempt by the US to pursue a forward policy on both the China and Russia fronts, while dialling back on Iran and cutting its losses in Afghanistan. Most likely, this power projection is an attempt at reversing the decline in US power.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s gratuitous warning about ‘World War 3’ being different from earlier wars because of nuclear weapons ignores the fact that we are witnessing a replay of the inter-imperialist rivalry which characterised the First World War. Unlike the fight against fascism and militarism – which was the essence of the Second World War – WWI was never about values. For a country subjected to aggression like Ukraine, of course, the distinction may be unimportant. But the rest of the world, including India, needs to find ways of supporting Ukraine which can mitigate – and not sharpen – the big power rivalry which produced the war in the first place.
Global hegemony for the US depends vitally on preventing the rise of regional hegemons on either end of Eurasia. How countries ‘bloc’ themselves is not always easily predictable but Washington is now in a “two front” situation where it is being challenged at both ends by what looks like an emerging coalition of two powerful Eurasian states. The Europeans have so far remained out of the reckoning on the eastern side – astute commentators have noted how the US’s current Indo-Pacific strategy “is at odds with” the German and French visions for the region – but it is likely that the Russia-Ukraine war will bring about a closer alignment between Europe and the US on China and the Indo-Pacific too. Here, Putin might will find out that he overestimated his ability to drive a wedge between Germany and the US.
Big power rivalry is driven, in great part, by domestic economic and political factors. The US, Russia, Europe, and China all have internally driven tendencies towards external expansion. The same logic also illuminates another key feature of imperialism. That conflict and war, whether hot or cold, is always an integral feature of capitalism under imperialism. The role and influence of the US military-industrial complex is well documented. In Russia too, military industries play a major role in the economy, employing 2.7% of the country’s labour force. For Boris Kagarlitsky, the invasion of Ukraine is the product of the deep crisis facing the Russian economy and society with the “complete failure” of the neoliberal model of capitalism in the country.
War has its ‘uses’ to capitalism. It destroys capital to create new opportunities for capital (eg. the Kregujevac car plant in Serbia was bombed by Nato in 1999 and is now run by the Italian auto company FIAT) and helps the constant diversion of resources from the means of production – which require workers to be consumers, while still trying to keep wages low and unemployment high – to the means of destruction (i.e. arms), which only adds to (politically justifiable) public debt.
5. Nato exists, and has been expanding, to keep the US in Europe
The US strategy over Ukraine has never been aimed at making the country and its people more secure, nor has its goal been the strengthening of Europe. Rather, it is about ensuring the continuing centrality of the United States in European security affairs. If Lord Ismay had once described Nato’s mission during the Cold War as ‘keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down’ in Europe, this rationale has become even more important since the Cold War ended.
Top US officials in 1990 and 1991 promised never to expand Nato eastward, even as they made a case for the continuing relevance of the alliance by arguing that this was the only way for the US to maintain a military presence in Europe and keep a reunified Germany in check: “I want to ask you a question, and you need not answer it right now”, the then US secretary of state James Baker told Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990. “Supposing unification [of Germany] takes place, what would you prefer: a united Germany outside of NATO, absolutely independent and without American troops; or a united Germany keeping its connections with NATO, but with the guarantee that NATO’s jurisprudence or troops will not spread east of the present boundary?”
In the same conversation, he candidly acknowledged:
“NATO is the mechanism for securing the U.S. presence in Europe. If NATO is liquidated, there will be no such mechanism in Europe. We understand that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.”
This policy did not last very long. With France and Germany pushing for a common foreign and security policy for the European Union, the Clinton administration began advocating the expansion of Nato’s territorial footprint – under the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 – and then its actual mandate through the ‘new strategic concept’ adopted in 1999. The entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as Nato members in 1999 occurred around the same time that the alliance attacked Yugoslavia – on grounds strikingly similar to what Russia has done to Ukraine now.
Moscow under Boris Yeltsin went along with Nato’s aggression but its quiescence slowly ended when changing internal dynamics within Russia led to Vladimir Putin becoming president in March 2000. Nato expansion continued; in 2004, the three former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were admitted. By 2020, Nato had admitted every member of the former Warsaw Pact – except Russia (and erstwhile East Germany).
American plans to include the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine in Nato – formally adopted at the military alliance’s Bucharest summit in April 2008 – became, as John L. Mearsheimer has noted, a line in the sand for the Russian leadership. Initially muted in its criticism of this move, Russia placed its hope on Ukraine’s inability to “change the current proportion of Nato sympathisers,” a euphemistic reference to the political dynamics in Kyiv. This line of thought was vindicated with the election in 2010 of a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who held the line till the US-backed ‘Euromaidan’ events of 2014 led to his ouster. Yanukovych’s departure marked the effective end of what Mearsheimer has described as ‘Ukraine’s neutrality’ from 1991 till then. The perceived rise to prominence of ‘Nato sympathisers’ became the direct trigger for Russia’s annexation of the Crimea – home to the Russian Navy’s Sevastopol naval base – which came within days of the regime change in Kyiv. On November 10, 2021, the US and Ukraine signed a Charter on Strategic Partnership – the historian Robert Service has called this agreement a key ‘strategic blunder’ by Washington that led to the Ukraine war – which foregrounded Nato membership:
Guided by the April 3, 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration of the NATO North Atlantic Council and as reaffirmed in the June 14, 2021 Brussels Summit Communique of the NATO North Atlantic Council, the United States supports Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.
Russia’s invasion of the rest of Ukraine came 13 weeks later.
As Scott Ritter reminds us, this was an outcome that William Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had anticipated 12 years ago when he was the US ambassador to Russia. In a confidential cable he sent on February 1, 2008 (released by WikiLeaks), Burns said Russia’s opposition to plans to make Ukraine a member of Nato was “neuralgic and concrete”:
“Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO aspirations not only touch a raw nerve in Russia, they engender serious concerns about the consequences for stability in the region. Not only does Russia perceive encirclement, and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests. Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.”
It is to the credit of US policymakers that they eventually managed to get Russia to take a decision – intervention – that it did “not want to face”.
6. Europe will now have less room to assert its own interests
For decades, British membership of the European Union helped reassure the US that German and French ambitions to chart a more independent economic and strategic course for Europe could be held in check. Britain kept out of the euro and was never enthusiastic about the ambitious plans for a common foreign and security policy but Brexit has now left Europe without a major American beachhead. This matters because of the inroads other world powers are making in the continent. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is seen by the US as a threat to the ‘Euro-Atlantic alliance’. The energy-driven German-Russian entente under Gerhard Schroeder had already created the Nord Stream I pipeline and work on Nord Stream II started under Angela Merkel in 2015.
The US has opposed these undersea projects because they are seen as lessening Russia’s dependence on countries like Ukraine – which Washington considers an integral part of its own forward policy vis a vis Moscow. Russia’s invasion will thus be used by the US to strengthen energy ties between itself and Europe, potentially giving a windfall to American LNG producers, and ensure that Germany and the rest of the continent remain firmly anchored to the Atlantic alliance not just in military terms but also on the political economy front.
The invasion and predictable destruction of Ukraine – which was always likely to be a consequence of America’s forward policy – is seen as acceptable collateral damage given this wider, more significant geopolitical benefit of strengthening the US anchor in Europe.
7. In plural states, minority rights matter
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is as much a violation of international law as Nato’s 1999 invasion of Yugoslavia was, Ukraine’s treatment of national minorities and its contempt for devolution and autonomy has been as chauvinist as Serbia’s attitude was towards the ethnic Albanians. Could the Ukrainian government have kept Russian revanchism at bay if it had sincerely implemented the provisions of the Minsk II agreements, including autonomy and devolution for the Russian speaking regions of the Donbass? Perhaps, or perhaps not.
That concern for minorities may be a cover for other, baser motives should not surprise us. In a 2014 article, Estonian law professor Rein Mullerson quotes John Norris, a key official in the Clinton administration, to question Nato’s concern for Kosovo in the 1999 war: “It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform—not the plight of Kosovar Albanians—that best explains NATO’s war”, Norris wrote. “Milošević had been a burr in the side of the transatlantic community for so long that the United States felt that he would only respond to military pressure.” In the light of the events of the past week, Putin’s lengthy and controversial July 2021 essay, ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ certainly reads now like the chronicle of a death (of a nation) foretold. The essay questions the very basis of Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign nation. But by the time it was written, too much water had already flowed down the Dnieper.
Nevertheless, the lesson for multi-ethnic and multi-religious states is obvious: national chauvinist, racist and communalist policies weaken rather than strengthen countries and pave the way for conflict and intervention.
8. China sees an opportunity, but faces a challenge too
China hopes that Russia’s action will weaken the American strategic rationale for its Asian pivot. But for this to happen, and to ensure its own economic and technological needs are not compromised, Beijing will have to discourage the perception in Washington that Russia and China pose a conjoined challenge to the US. This is easier said than done.
Over the past few years, Russia has attacked the US-led strategic moves in the Indo-Pacific, which mainly challenge China, creating the impression that Russia and China’s global outlook is fully aligned. And yet, despite the famous claim that there are “no limits” to their partnership, there are also points of potential friction between the two, especially when they come up against each other in Central Asia.
The more US-led sanctions bite, the more likely Russia will be to concede some of its interests to China and draw closer. And yet, there is a limit to how far the US can now stretch itself in Europe and Asia. In all likelihood, China will calculate that it will have greater room to manoeuvre, both in terms of its territorial disputes with neighbours and its pursuit of the BRI and other strategic initiatives.
India’s fear is that the Chinese may apply a loyalty test in South Asia as a price for the support it provides Russia, which could affect arms supplies, strategic cooperation (in the nuclear, maritime, and space domains) as well as political cover for India at the UN Security Council. The last consideration may no longer be a factor but paradoxically, the US response to the Ukraine invasion has sent a message to a country like India that it cannot count on the military support of the US and its allies in the event of a confrontation with China or even Pakistan.
9. India’s failure to stake a clear position does not augur well for its own ambitions
The Ukraine crisis has exposed the hollowness of India’s diplomacy and its vaunted big power status. Even in terms of safeguarding its own nationals in the conflict zone, India moved too slow and too late. The US had predicted a Russian invasion and while many analysts and countries were skeptical, India, as a strategic partner, ought to have been in consultation with Washington on this question as a matter of abundant caution. If it was skeptical of the claims emanating out of the US, it ought to have spoken to the Russian leadership at the highest level about its intentions since the lives of over 20,000 Indians were at stake. Perhaps the Modi government chose not to check with either Moscow or Washington; or perhaps it did and was either rebuffed by the US or misled by the Russians.
The imposition of sanctions on Russia is forcing countries to take sides based on the extent of their dealings with the US and its allies on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. The March 2 UN General Assembly vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression provides one indication. As many as 18 African countries chose not to go with the US, while in Asia abstentions were recorded by China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Laos and Vietnam.
When the matter first came up in the UN Security Council last week, Indian diplomacy ought to have been nimble enough to condemn Russia’s obvious violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and back calls for an urgent ceasefire while at the same time insisting that the broader factors which led to the invasion be brought in to the discussion. If India played at best a marginal role in the drafting of the UNSC resolution which it abstained on, this was not just because it was a non-permanent member. Its failure to stake out a clear position effectively dealt it out of the discussion.
In 1999, though India was not even a member of the Security Council at the time, it co-sponsored a resolution (along with Russia and Belarus) opposing Nato’s aggression against Yugoslavia. What the Indian ambassador, Kamlesh Sharma, said to the Council at the time (as recorded by a UN press release on March 26, 1999) could apply equally to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
“It appeared that NATO believed itself to be above the law, and that was deeply uncomfortable. NATO had argued that the Serb police in Kosovo had acted violently and without any respect for the law. Unfortunately, NATO seemed to have taken on the persona and the methods of operation of those whose activities it wanted to curb. Those who took the law into their own hands had never improved civic peace within nations; neither would they help in international relations.”
India had the political courage to say this even as it had just been censured by the UNSC less than a year earlier for having tested nuclear weapons. The tests were intended to strengthen India’s strategic autonomy and accord it greater room for manoeuvre in international affairs and its stand on Nato’s aggression seemed to vindicate the decision to go nuclear. But in 2022, when confronted by a similar violation of law by a big power, the Modi government has chosen to duck and hide.
For a country like India, the situation is genuinely confusing. It has been trying to ride to great powerdom on the premise that its partnership with a powerful yet declining US – which valued India’s economic potential and strategic position – would get it there. Partnerships come with a price but India has so far managed to not sacrifice its special relationship with Russia. India’s refusal to take a clear position on the conflict in Ukraine suggests New Delhi is hoping it can compensate for the brownie points it has lost with the US in Ukraine by being even more accommodative of American interests in the Indo-Pacific. Not only is this a risky gamble but the outcome India is hoping for may also prove quite costly: in effect, it will be signing up for greater confrontation with China in full knowledge that when the chips are down, the US and its allies will be of little concrete assistance.
10. Neutrality of Ukraine is perhaps the only viable solution
During the Cold War, nonalignment was not just about countries refusing to take sides between the superpowers. It was, above all, an attempt by the nonaligned bloc to keep the rivalry between the US and the USSR in check and prevent it from sharpening to the detriment of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is undoubtedly the product of American forward policy but it will lead to the sharpening of inter-imperialist rivalries around the world. At this stage, a resumption of the nuclear arms race and even of nuclear testing, cannot be ruled out. Finland, whose neutrality was an important factor for stability in Europe during the Cold War is now saying it may consider applying to join Nato. While these may seem like distant developments (and there will be a section of experts in India who would very much like the taboo on new nuclear tests to be broken), the effect of these on Russia-China relations (and on Pakistan too) should very much be a concern for India.
Is there still a way out of the current crisis? Economic sanctions against Russia are a knee-jerk response; they will be ineffective and perhaps also counter-productive. The US has sensibly ruled out a military response, including a ‘no fly zone’ over Ukraine because this will put its military forces in direct conflict with Russia’s. The opening of a war crimes investigation against Russia by the International Criminal Court will also not help, especially given the prosector’s recent decision to “deprioritise”, i.e. drop, his investigation into US war crimes in Afghanistan.
A Russian withdrawal is a necessary ingredient to any solution but will not suffice by itself unless the United States and Russia both undertake to guarantee the neutrality of Ukraine, as the realist scholar Mearsheimer has suggested. And ideally of Georgia as well. “A permanently neutral state,” writes James Upcher, “is forbidden from entering into alliances or treaties of guarantee that may involve it in war not involving defence of its own territory.” This would mean staying out of Nato. But Ukraine can only be expected to accept neutrality if Russia stops questioning Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Building on his 2021 essay which we referred to earlier, Putin’s February 21 speech blames the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union they created for what he called Ukraine’s “artificial statehood”. This claim is precisely what Lenin meant by Great Russian Chauvinism, which he said had helped turn Tsarist Russia into a prison house of nations. The strength of the Soviet Union – the key quality which helped it break the back of Hitlerite fascism in the Great Patriotic War – was the unity which the Bolsheviks forged through their enlightened position on the national question. For all its multiple faults, the USSR held Great Russian Chauvinism in check, and when the end of the Soviet Union came, each of its constituent republics peacefully separated from Russia. For Ukraine to accept neutrality now, Putin and his successors will have to repudiate Great Russian Chauvinism in all its manifestations.
After having just invaded Ukraine, any Russian demand for the country to be ‘demilitarised’ will be a non-starter. But the removal of ballistic missile defence systems in Poland and Romania – allegedly to handle threats from ‘rogue states’ like Iran but deeply unsettling for Russia – also needs to be part of the solution.
Sadly, India has no political or moral standing to make constructive proposals for the resolution of a problem that it is not even willing to take a clear position on. And that is hardly the best advertisement for a country seeking a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
This article has benefited from the comments and suggestions made by Haris Gazdar and Manoj Joshi.
Note (February 4, 2022): This article has been edited and updated to add additional details. The section on neutrality has also been expanded.