Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was propelled into the headlines last year by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, becoming a permanent haranguer on the screens of Europe and the US, and projecting himself into whichever occasion he could contrive to make demands for moral and material support on behalf of his country. He was an actor elected in 2019 as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption campaigner, in contrast to the oligarchs who had preceded him in the notoriously corrupt country. But by the end of 2021, his approval had fallen to 32% for non-performance. The invasion was his redemption; he now rates around 95%.
Ukraine is a state but has struggled to consolidate itself as a nation; in the 30 years since the USSR’s dissolution, it produced no leader capable of uniting its citizens in any shared conception of national identity. The territory claimed by Kiev was assembled after World War II; eastern portions of Poland and Czechoslovakia were incorporated by Stalin and Crimea by Khrushchev. Since the entire Soviet Union was controlled from Moscow, these accretions were of little practical significance, but they produced fractures along linguistic, religious and cultural lines, made worse by the unitary government and not a federal one that could have allowed some devolution.
The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in unfortunate consequences for many inside and outside the USSR, particularly the ethnic Russians that found themselves minorities in newly independent republics. A basic principle of Moscow’s foreign policy after 2000 has been attention to, and protection of, these Russian minorities, which was evident in Georgia, Moldova and now in Ukraine.
The 2014 Ukraine revolution that overthrew President Yanukovich because he preferred closer ties with Russia rather than with the European Union saw the US and EU openly supporting the uprising in order to attach Ukraine to the EU and NATO, although Ukraine was ineligible for both under normal requirements. With Yanukovich’s departure, the Donbas uprising against Kiev was supported by Russia. The 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements were to provide Donbas a degree of autonomy through election of local officials with Kiev guarding the Donbas external borders, but the Kiev legislature rejected both the federal structure and amnesty for secessionists. An impasse developed; although Zelensky was initially anxious to arrive at a settlement with Moscow, he could not risk his political future by implementing the Minsk agreements against nationalist and far-right ‘neo-Nazi’ opposition, and he had the support of the US in not doing so. Only an implementation of Minsk might have persuaded Russia to withdraw from Donbas, though that is now moot with Moscow having incorporated the four eastern and southeastern Ukraine provinces into Russia.
Due to naïveté or instigation from the West, Zelensky made no effort to reassure Moscow about any intention to seek membership of NATO during the Russian build-up leading to the February invasion, and within a month of the invasion, tripartite talks in Antalya between Turkey, Ukraine and Russia arrived at contours of a diplomatic solution, with Kyiv eschewing future membership of NATO and a time-bound status quo in Crimea, but expectations were dashed allegedly due to US objections.
Now, a year later, with at least eight million Ukrainian refugees across Europe and six million internally displaced, the fighting continues with increasing devastation. Neither party accepts the other’s conditions for a ceasefire. The total donations to Ukraine for its military and administrative arrangements are €106 billion, with the US leading with €48 bn and the EU with €35 bn. The World Bank and IMF have contributed $2 bn in contrast to their indifference to the abject destitution in war-torn Yemen and Afghanistan. At every stage, with Zelensky like Oliver Twist ever asking for more, the West has delivered more modern weapons into Ukranian hands, though some European electorates are feeling uneasy, and German Chancellor Scholtz has deplored the ‘bidding war’ in which every Western leader postures like a wartime Churchill, every Ukranian is a voluble hero and photo opportunities with Zelensky reap domestic political benefits. With this degree of involvement, the US and NATO seem determined to prolong the fight until Russia is weakened and destabilised, and its sympathisers shamed.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki warned that India should worry about how the history of Ukraine would record it, and a Kiev parliamentarian urged India to be sanctioned by Washington. In fact, history will record that Ukraine rebuffed Indian approaches in the early 1990s on nuclear cooperation, sold Pakistan 320 Ukrainian T-80UD battle tanks and robustly opposed Indian nuclear testing at the Conference on Disarmament in 1998. This came as no surprise; the new republics that separated from USSR were wary of India’s historic ties with Moscow, and overnight, decades-old patterns of economic, trade and cultural contacts were disrupted and are yet to be fully redeveloped. History will also record that no Asian country, other than known American allies, have implemented anti-Russian sanctions and that India’s policy is a triumph of pragmatic pursuit of the national interest.
Many wonder how the current conflict will end. It will be an untidy conclusion; Ukraine another divided country like Korea or Cyprus, though it could achieve unity and prosperity only through reasonable and cordial relations with Russia. A de facto partition of Ukraine would be a fragile flashpoint prone to insurgency and partisan activity backed by intelligence, weapons, monetary and logistical support that would make life in the Russian-absorbed enclaves difficult. Therefore, even a Russian face-saving outcome would prove pyrrhic. In the broader context, Ukraine is the harbinger of future ‘total’ wars, weaponising artificial intelligence, propaganda, energy, sanctions, finance, banking, cyberspace, digital technologies and social media.
Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary.
Edited by Jahnavi Sen.