Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP)
As I write this, Ukraine, a nation of 44 million people, is fighting valiantly to defend its freedom and territorial integrity against Vladimir Putin’s "war of choice for all the wrong reasons". Caught between disbelief, despair and compulsions of realpolitik, the world at large seems helpless to help beyond an expression of outrage even as the Russian armed forces continue to penetrate deep inside Ukraine. Moscow has placed its nuclear forces on alert, in an ominous signal of a possibly prolonged confrontation.
Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT financial system and more pledges of military support from the United States and other countries, meanwhile, is of some comfort to those who stand on the right side of history.
Mr Putin’s repeated misadventures starting with Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 represent a brazen infraction of the first principles of the UN Charter. Russia’s ambition to redraw the territorial map of Central Europe and to forcibly reconfigure its geopolitics is a case without parallel in the 21st century. The possibility of a sovereign nation losing its identity within days by deployment of brute Russian force inspired by the fading memories of imperial grandeur and superpower status of the erstwhile Soviet Union tests the assumptions of a rules-based international order.
Just as the world was beginning to limp back to a semblance of normality, having suffered the consequences of a devasting Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s unprovoked assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine has ramifications for global political stability. It raises once again the profoundly important question about the role and relevance of the UN and its instrumentalities as facilitators of global peace.
The escalating armed hostilities in Ukraine underscore the urgency of reform of the UN system so that the aspirations of the "numerical majority" are not suborned by the "mighty minority" through an unconscionable exercise of the veto power, seen in the West-sponsored UNSC resolution against Russia. In a bizarre scenario, the aggressor, acting as a judge in its own cause, vetoed the critical UNSC resolution to shield itself against a formal international censure for its act of war in Ukraine.
Moscow’s justification for Ukraine’s "demilitarisation" as a measure of self-defence, through what it describes as "special military operations" to prevent the former Soviet republic from moving into the US-led Nato’s orbit, is an orchestrated case of invented injury to reclaim lost territory and restore the dented Russian prestige following the dismemberment of the USSR. Mr Putin’s excursions in Georgia, Crimea, Moldova and Donbas are clearly part of a time driven strategy bolstered by the China-Russian entente and facilitated by divisions in Europe to "reset the imperial table" and reclaim Russia’s lost sphere of influence. Revelling in revanchism, Mr Putin longs for Moscow’s old glory and wishes to rewrite the past into the future.
Though Mr Putin’s assertion that Ukraine cannot be treated as a state independent of Russia is a historical absurdity post-1991, his boastful challenge that "any country attempting to interfere will create consequences you have never seen" has introduced a chilling dimension to a grim situation. An extended war in Europe could de-freeze frozen conflicts in the region and challenge the received wisdom that economic interdependence between nations could alone safeguard international peace. The trajectory of the Ukrainian conflict could rekindle international interest in nuclear capability as the ultimate deterrent and defence against threats to territorial integrity, in a setback to the nuclear disarmament process.
Throughout its evolution, international law has been repeatedly called upon to defend not only its efficacy but also its existence as an instrument of world peace. The debates in the UNGA and UNSC on several defining moments bear testimony to its impotence for securing peace in zones of conflict. This reminds us we live in a world of power untamed by legal constraints.
Will the world find its voice to denounce Mr Putin’s war gambit or yield yet again to validate the ancient Greek wisdom that "those who have the odds of power exact as much as they can and the weak yield to such conditions, as they get", is the question.
A resolution of the Ukraine crisis consistent with its sovereignty and territorial integrity will indeed test the "tenuous balance between power and principle". It will demonstrate whether the question of justice can be divorced from the equation of power and whether in civilising itself in the use of state power, the world has progressed from force to diplomacy, from diplomacy to law.
For the moment, we must accept that the repeated triumph of force over freedom in times of conflict belies the claim that the present global order is designed to secure the triumph of freedom everywhere.
Europe’s darkest hour today must spur the world to recognise the futility of evading hard choices to sustain principles that can ensure a just and humane world order. Indian diplomacy is challenged again to navigate, as best as possible, the balance between principle and pragmatism. In asserting the inviolability of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, without explicitly endorsing Russia’s censure in the UNSC by its abstention, India’s has been a fine balancing act. While reinforcing the sacrosanct principles of the UN Charter, India has preserved its strategic neutrality in the service of its overarching and multidimensional national interests. Jawaharlal Nehru had cautioned that "no government dare do anything, which in the short or long run is not manifestly to the advantage of the country...". Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s implicit message to Mr Putin in his telephonic conversation and through India’s UNSC statements is to step back from the red line and work towards a negotiated settlement.
Despite the formidable, vastly superior war machine at his command, Mr Putin must know in today’s wired world, any act of injustice or brutality will have global ramifications. He would know from history that the cry for freedom is an "unending frenzy" once it seizes popular imagination and that neither the aggressor nor the victim can escape the ravages of war. He should know that just as Iraq and Afghanistan have irretrievably diminished America’s credibility as the superpower arbitrator of global peace, the perception of Mr Putin as an aggressor in Ukraine has dented his standing both in the chanceries of the world and in the collective consciousness of the people as a whole.
A collective global will to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people fighting for their freedom and dignity will be the test of civilisational progress anchored in empathy for the oppressed and resistance against injustice.