Pavan K. Varma | Itâ€™s America that can end war in Ukraine
Last week I spoke at the launch of a new book on national security. It is titled: In Hard Times: Security in a Time of Insecurity. The book is edited by well-known strategic writer, Manoj Joshi, and insightful journalists Praveen Swamy and Nishtha Gautam. The volume contains essays by a galaxy of authorities on this subject, including Admiral Arun Prakash, Lieutenant-General D.S. Hooda and Sanjaya Baru. Along with me, Shashi Tharoor was the other panelist.
The book is timely, since India is situated in one of the most troubled regions in the world, and discussion and clarity on issues of national security are vital. Naturally, the discussion also focussed on latest developments such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a seemingly imploding Pakistan, and the looming threat of China. Shashi and I disagreed on our response to the Russian-Ukraine war. He felt that India, in accordance with the principles it has always stood for, should have been more categorical in condemning the Russian invasion. My view was that the US and Nato’s outrage is somewhat hypocritical considering their own arbitrary invasions of other countries without any international sanction, such as Iraq, Libya, Serbia and Afghanistan, among others. Also, the relentless expansion of Nato, an offensive defence grouping, to the borders of Russia, in spite of repeated assurances to the contrary, was bound to provoke a Russian response. Since the end of the Cold War, Nato has added 14 countries in Europe, including Romania, Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States. Ukraine, the very underbelly of Russia, was the last frontier left, and Russia, which strategically needs an entry to the Black Sea, had to draw a line somewhere.
This is not to justify the Russian invasion, but to provide a context to it, that the US and its allies conveniently overlook. But, far more importantly, every country’s foreign policy is guided by national self-interest. Almost 30 per cent of our fuel requirements come from Russia, and that too, after the war began, at rates cheaper by as much as $15 a barrel. Russia is also our major defence partner, although our arms import basket has been diversified in recent times. It is imperative, therefore, for us to take a diplomatic stance which finds the right modus vivendi between outright condemnation, and abject condonation. The government has spoken against the war, and the Russian invasion, but has strategically abstained or voted against resolutions in this regard brought up in the United Nations sponsored by the West.
India has to evaluate its security concerns, too, in keeping with its own strategic concerns. We have two implacably hostile neighbours, Pakistan and China. Pakistan’s earlier policy was one of explosive aggression combined with tactical appeasement, which has partially received a setback after our retaliatory attack in Balakot. But an internally imploding Pakistan poses a great risk, since it is a nuclear power, and if internal chaos ensues, there is the overriding concern that its nuclear button may fall in the wrong hands. China has followed a consistent policy of engagement with containment towards India. It is we who have often become euphoric at the engagement, especially when summit meetings take place, and have neglected what needs to be done to counter its strategy of containment. China is motivated by its old “middle kingdom” aspiration to be a global hegemonic power. In this endeavour, India will always remain a competitor, not only in Asia but generically. The only language China understands is that of strength. In spite of great asymmetries in economic and defence strengths in favour of China, India is no walkover. For too long did we neglect the building of a stronger border infrastructure, and it is good that we are making requisite attempts now.
But the real danger, to my mind, as a consequence of the Ukraine war, is the emerging nexus between Russia and China. Till recently, Russia and China were competitors; now, facing combined Western sanctions, they have become collaborators. Over 60 per cent of China’s imports of oil, fuels, and petroleum products come from Russia. The two countries have worked out arrangements for trading through swap currency. Significantly, a Pew-research in 2022 reveals that 71 per cent of Russians approve of China, and 70 per cent of Chinese believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was either not wrong, or not wrong given the circumstances. China has voted against or abstained on all UN resolutions condemning Russia. We have thus the beginning of a new Cold War with Russia, China and possibly Iran and some other countries, arraigned against the US and Nato, with India caught in between. We need Russia, but if Russia becomes a closer partner with China, how will this impact us?
The key to ending the Ukraine war lies in the hands of America. So long it has been the only beneficiary of the conflict. With the global economy impacted, the dollar is king; the US’s military-industrial complex is flourishing with exports of arms to an increasingly anxious Europe; weapons worth US $40 billion have been supplied to Ukraine alone in the last one year; US exports of natural gas, which has seen a surge of production recently, is now sold to West Europe, when earlier 40 per cent of Europe’s gas demands came from Russia. Ukrainians are dying, while America has not one soldier on the ground. Europe especially, but the rest of the world, too, is suffering as prices go up, exports slow down, production falls and supply chains are disrupted. But America needs to bear in mind that in a prolonged war, it will be affected too, as the failure of some of its banks shows. More importantly, it must understand that the longer the war continues, the greater will be the consolidation of the Russia-China partnership. India’s ability to end the war during its G-20 presidency is limited, as the recent summit meeting in Delhi showed. Ultimately, the war will end when the West — and America — understands that the unfinished project of building a new architecture of security for Europe following the end of the Cold War needs to be completed. Cessation of hostilities and dialogue is the only way forward.
There are other important points that the book highlights. One is the resources crunch for our defence needs. In real terms, the two per cent allocated to defence, has shrunk, and the largest chunk from it goes towards salaries and pensions, leaving little available for modernisation, and investment in the newly emerging priorities of artificial intelligence (AI), cyber warfare, drones, etc. There are new challenges for our maritime security. Our intelligence apparatus also needs overhaul. Nishtha Gautam makes the case of gender to be placed at the centre of Indian military debates. And, finally, the book makes the very important point that national security is inextricably linked to economic development and internal harmony. There are still too many of the abjectly poor in India, and too much inequality. Social and religious divisiveness, and new threats of insurgency, weaken us too, and provide fodder to our enemies.