The longer the chances of a full-blown war loom on the horizon, the harder it will be for India to sit on the fence

The last thing a world limping back to normalcy from a devastating pandemic needs is a war. But that is what’s on the cards, going by the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Russia and the United States and its allies over the crisis in Ukraine.

Although tensions along the border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation were rising alarmingly over the last few weeks, they reached a boiling point on February 21 when Moscow officially recognised the independence of two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine: Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR). While the US and its allies blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the conflict, the Kremlin cites the threat to Russia from NATO’s eastward expansion as the primary reason for the hostilities.

One of the express reasons behind Putin’s decision to recognise the DPR and the LPR as independent nations, and sign new friendship treaties with them, has to do with Kiev’s trashing of the Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015 with the DPR and the LPR. These pacts, along with the earlier Budapest Memorandum — a 1994 agreement signed by Ukraine, Russia, the US, and the United Kingdom — offered security assurances against the use of force affecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This put Kiev in a bind as the pacts, while ensuring Ukraine’s sovereignty, also handicapped Kiev’s ability to fight the separatists.

Moscow’s recognition of the DPR and the LPR has now brought events to a tipping point. With Russian boots (termed by Moscow as a ‘peacekeeping mission’) on the ground in Ukraine, the most important question before a tense world is: what next?

The US never made any bones about its determination to punish Russian military action in Ukraine with sweeping economic embargoes on Moscow. Washington will probably trigger a suite of sanctions on Russia, including curbs on Russian banks such as the Gazprombank which are a part of the international financial system, and freezing Russian assets in the US. The US and the European Union may also spell out punitive measures on Russia’s defence and energy sectors. Germany, for instance, could shut down Nord Stream 2, a recently completed pipeline from Russia to Germany, Europe`s dependence on Russian energy supplies notwithstanding.

While all this could considerably hurt Russian interests across the globe, the Kremlin is not incapable of absorbing the curbs. After all, western sanctions on Russia since its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine are still in place. As are the restrictive measures added to the list in 2018 when a former Russian spy was allegedly poisoned by Russian agents in London.

Putin must be bracing to weather the punitive restrictions as he seeks to consolidate his leadership of Russia of nearly a quarter century, which saw the country’s rise on the international stage, politically, and economically. The shrewd tactician that he is, Putin has managed to build strong bonds with Asian countries even as he fought off western indifference.

As the crisis unfolds, India finds itself in an uncomfortable position. New Delhi has excellent, and expanding ties with Washington, and is an important member in the Quad (along with the US, Australia and Japan) that seeks to counter China’s expansionist agenda in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, India cherishes the decades-old India-Russia bonds which preclude any move by New Delhi to side with the West in what is essentially an eastern European conflict.

This explains New Delhi’s refusal to take sides at the UN Security Council which took a vote on January 31 over the Ukraine imbroglio. This is also a throwback to 2014 when New Delhi abstained from voting on a UN general Assembly resolution to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea. India had even opposed the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the US and its allies over the Crimean invasion.

Nevertheless, the longer the chances of a full-blown war loom on the horizon, the harder it will be for India to sit on the fence. Fortunately, it is not improbable that a silver lining could emerge in the dark clouds gathering over Ukraine considering the fact that Russian forces have already been deployed in the conflict zones in Ukraine for months.

The real threat, from a western perspective, came from the armour and 130,000 troops the Kremlin had massed on the Ukrainian border till recently. Therefore, Russia’s deployment of ‘peacekeepers’ — and that too in limited numbers — at this point will probably be viewed by the West as far less threatening. Therein lies hope for a diplomatic, rather than a military solution to the crisis.