By Rajorshi Roy (Ph.D)
Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces as independent states and the subsequent dispatch of Russian “peacekeepers” to this region have dramatically upped the ante in Eastern Europe. With Moscow’s 2014 takeover of Crimea fresh in European memory, a sense of déjà vu prevails amidst fears of a similar modus operandi targeting the whole of Ukraine. President Putin’s fiery insinuation of Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state has only added to the ominous signs emanating from the Kremlin. Notably, the territories claimed by the two provinces far exceed their current jurisdiction, leading to fears of further encroachment, aided by Russia. This could spiral into a dangerous military confrontation in the larger Russia-West faceoff. The former’s escalation dominance advantage will pit it against the latter’s perceived commitment to uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
While all bets are off on the future trajectory of this conflict, the pertinent questions include the motives behind Russia’s actions and its implications for India.
At first glance, Russia’s formal recognition defies logic. It undermines the inherent leverages enjoyed by the Kremlin over Ukraine that it has brought into play from time to time to influence outcomes in Kiev. This includes the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved Minsk agreement. This pact had proposed decentralisation of power which would have inevitably allowed Russia, through its proxies in Donbass, to shape the Ukrainian endgame. The agreement was, therefore, seen as a key arrow in Russia’s quiver to arrest Kiev’s westward drift. The fact that even the West had acknowledged it as the sine qua non to resolve the Ukrainian quagmire added to its credibility, much to Kiev’s chagrin who found the treaty’s conditions too onerous to implement. However, Russia’s recognition of the breakaway provinces now gives Ukraine a legitimate pretext to walk away from the accord.
Similarly, Russia’s attempts at redrawing European boundaries will inevitably lead to a hardening of the Western position vis-à-vis accommodating Moscow’s concerns. This includes bolstering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which will, in effect, increase Russia’s security anxieties. Economic sanctions, meanwhile, can provide a major shock to the sluggish Russian economy. This was evident in the hammering of Russian equities and rouble in the aftermath of the recognition. Notably, Russia’s Achilles heel continues to be its underperforming economy. And the upkeep of Donbass will add to the burden.
Russia’s actions are also likely to alienate its two key European partners in France and Germany who have traditionally been sympathetic to Russia’s security concerns. As a result, the trans-Atlantic partnership, which Russia has sought to undermine, is likely to find a renewed purpose in tackling the Russian challenge. This is already reflected in Germany now pulling the plug on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline after holding out for months to sustained US pressure to cancel the project. Paris and Berlin have also “unanimously” supported the first tranche of relatively modest Western sanctions on Russia – seen as their warning shot to deter further Russian incursion.
A similar fate of alienation may await Russia vis-à-vis its partners in the post-Soviet space – Moscow’s actions can heighten their fears of Russian revanchism. Moscow will also have to deal with the fallout of a hit to its reputation amidst its attempts to project itself as a responsible global pole.
Nevertheless, there appears a certain method behind this seeming madness. This is particularly relevant when viewed through the prism of this recognition merely validating the eight years long de facto situation in eastern Ukraine. The driving force behind Russia’s escalatory actions in Ukraine, therefore, seems to be part of a continuing stratagem of raising the stakes in order to compel the West to recognise Moscow as a peer in formulating European security architecture. This likely stems from Moscow’s perception of having reached a dead-end in negotiations with the West on Russia’s redlines. It includes the perceived lack of Western pressure on Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements. In these dynamics, the bottom line for Russia appears its desire to be acknowledged and respected as a Great Power.
In the Kremlin’s calculus, Ukraine’s geographical relevance as a buffer makes it one of the most vital pieces of Russia’s European security puzzle. After the Crimean takeover, Moscow’s recognition of Donbass will put to end any lingering prospects of Ukraine’s NATO membership – a country seeking membership of the alliance should have a settled boundary – amidst Kiev being increasingly courted by the military alliance. Otherwise, Russia runs the risk of NATO’s presence right at its doorstep.
In achieving its Ukrainian objective, it appears that Russia is prepared to absorb the cost of the inevitable Western pushback. The Russian economy today appears better placed to tackle new sanctions, cushioned by the spike in energy prices. Crucially, Russia’s domestic narrative of undoing the “historic security injustice” meted out to Moscow by the West strengthens President Putin’s clarion call of making Russia Great Again. Tapping the famed Russian resilience anchored in the nostalgia of being a Great Power can help tide over the fraying social contract. It is likely that the Russian President has his eyes set not only on the 2024 elections but also on leaving behind a lasting legacy after being at the helm of affairs for more than two decades.
Perhaps, in escalating this confrontation, Russia is counting on the West failing to reach a consensus on formulating a robust collective response against Moscow, as has been the Western wont. Notably, there remains a distinct lack of appetite in the West for a military confrontation with Russia. That leaves the West with very little wiggle room beyond sanctions. Russia’s willingness to take the Western sanctions in its stride allows it to raise or lower the temperature to secure modest concessions vis-à-vis the extreme security guarantees it has sought.
Nevertheless, if the template of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia is any indicator, Russia’s game plan appears rooted in cultivating a frozen conflict. This allows the Kremlin to keep up the pressure without having to undo the recognition or assimilate the territory as its own. Asymmetrical instruments in Russia’s toolkit, including capitalising on Western apprehensions of an armed conflict with Moscow, have been vital drivers of the Kremlin’s policies in these regions.
Today, given the existential stakes for Russia, it is unlikely that Moscow will be the first to blink. In fact, drawing parallels between the 2014 and 2022 State Duma granting permission to President Putin to use military force abroad, perhaps point to new flashpoints even though diplomacy, which continues to be pursued on a separate track, remains the art of the possible.
Implications for India
Closer home, the pull and pressure of the Russia-West confrontation complicates India’s foreign policy, with Moscow and Washington expecting New Delhi to choose sides. This was evident during the recent UNSC debate on the Ukrainian issue as well as the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting. While Russia remains India’s traditional partner, the US has emerged as a key pillar of India’s geo-strategic calculus, including in tackling the challenge posed by China.
This has, unsurprisingly, seen India walk a diplomatic tightrope on the developments in Ukraine, leaving itself open to allegations of adopting double standards on the issue of criticising “bullying and revanchism”.
Crucially, a prolonged Western pressure on Russia will likely push Moscow into a closer strategic embrace of China in order escape the clutches of economic sanctions. This may dilute Russia’s strategic autonomy, potentially to the detriment of India.
Similarly, the tightening of Western economic screws on Russia through instruments like CAATSA can put Indian companies, including in the defence realm, in the crosshairs of the American sanctions. This may even affect their incipient plans to invest in the Russian Far East as part of India’s Act Far East policy. A long-term workable solution is, therefore, needed. Also, India will likely have to brace itself for a spike in oil prices and tackle bearish equity sentiments.
Meanwhile, a distracted United States, expending its energies on Europe, can take its eyes off the Indo-Pacific ball where there exists a shared convergence between India and the US in tackling China’s rise.
Pertinently, it is both in India and in the US interest to wean Russia away from China. These sentiments would call for deft Indian diplomacy anchored in the fact that India’s ties with the two Great Powers remain mutually beneficial.
(The author is Associate Fellow at the ManoharParrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).