Ukraine Conflict: India’s Watershed Period

The conflict in Ukraine has ramifications that go way beyond the frontiers of Europe as strategic stakes shift around the world. The major countries in the world have particularly been exposed to the outcome of the conflict. From the European standpoint, several key points are already coming to light

By Natalia Freyton

Special Feature Archive

The war itself

The Ukrainian conflict is complex, even in its military aspect alone. The dissymmetric confrontation between a sizable but aging army (insofar as most of the equipment deployed in the ‘special operation’ is concerned), and more modest but strongly-supported Ukrainian forces on the other, creates many complex tactical situations. In essence, both sides are causing high levels of damage to the other, each with their specific military methods.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner writes: “So far this year, Russia is estimated to have lost more than 700 tanks – some destroyed, some abandoned. These tanks are often pictured covered in reactive armour – which looks like a large rectangular box. It is designed to set off a small explosion as the missile hits, blunting its effect. But Western-supplied drones and anti-tank missiles have got around this, mainly by hitting the tank from above on the turret, where the armour is thinnest.

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Meanwhile, Ukrainian losses are tallying up to 200 troops per day, at the lowest estimate.

But the geographical perspective brings complexity to a higher level yet. Russia stands out as one of the largest countries in the world, and also as one of the better-armed nations, in terms of available military technology and stockpiles. Moscow is capable of devastating retaliation in the case of threats to its vital interests.

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Ukraine, however, is the pivotal point for Western interests, and the United States seems to be going “all in”, aiming for gains beyond Russian losses. Should they lose their advantage, the slap in the face could result in a loss of international standing and a breach of global supremacy. China could then draw conclusions as the chief global competitor to America

Ukraine, however, is the pivotal point for Western interests, and the United States seems to be going “all in”, aiming for gains beyond Russian losses. Should they lose their advantage, the slap in the face could result in a loss of international standing and a breach of global supremacy. China could then draw conclusions as the chief global competitor to America. On the other hand, should the United States prevail, their influence on Western Europe would be forcefully prolonged and will cut short any attempt towards strategic independence or even distancing from the American “ally”.

The conflict bears additional complexity in its hybrid scale: militarily speaking, operations are being carried out on a rather small territory, only a portion of Ukraine, and with only two armies in play. Stakeholders from all over the world, however, are keenly watching the situation unfold to analyse how their future interests could be affected.

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Finally, the economic sanctions and the cultural distancing that Russia is enduring, following the “special operation in Ukraine”, on the part of the Western block oftentimes self-identifies as representative of the whole international community, are bound to have repercussions on economies around the world.

The World Bank Group states: “The war is triggering global ripple effects through multiple channels, including commodity markets, trade, financial flows, displaced people, and market confidence. In the surrounding region, a large wave of refugees will put pressure on basic services. The damage to Russia’s economy will weigh on remittance flows to many neighbouring countries. Disruptions to regional supply chains and financial networks, as well as heightened investor risk perceptions, will weaken regional growth.

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Food supplies are already disrupted, with potentially dramatic consequences on poorer nations. However, sanctions have not yet been imposed fully, and stockpiles are still adequately available.

Contrary to the wishful thinking from the West, it seems that Russia is indeed, albeit slowly, gaining traction in military operations in Ukraine. On the economic front, sanctions are taking the intended toll on Russian interests; but are also causing potentially massive disruptions with third parties, India included.

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Where does India stand?

India has a long-standing tradition of non-alignment and loyalty to Indian interests but has a keen understanding of the powers at play, however distant they may be, which could impact its future. India is a self-standing country that embodies an entire subcontinent, with fierce resolve to protect its identity, independence, and the Indian way of life.

India is ambitious to be a balancing power but is fully aware of neighboring countries’ (namely Pakistan and China) potential for destabilization

India is ambitious to be a balancing power but is fully aware of neighboring countries’ (namely Pakistan and China) potential for destabilization. Its loyalty to the  strategic partner, Russia, embodied by decades of commercial, military, and technological exchange is a token of this stability. This is more so when considered alongside its robust friendship with the United States and Europe.

No doubt, this balanced ambition is put to the test by the insisting American demands that India gets off the fence and side with Washington, along with all other major powers in the world.

BBC news Vikas Pandey reports, following recent diplomatic talks between the US and India, that: “Days before their meeting, Mr. Biden had called India’s stand “somewhat shaky” and one US official had warned that India had been informed that the consequences of a “more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow would be “significant and long-term“.

The United States, clearly, would like to enroll India and hear it condemn Russia and implement its own arsenal of financial and economic sanctions. Therefore, giving way to the pressing demands of America would require India to part with its balancing tradition, compromise its geostrategic neutrality, and fuel the furnace of Chinese antagonism by turning a long-standing Russian ally into an enemy, all to satisfy American interests. No doubt, in the unlikely scenario where New Delhi gave way to American fantasies, the damaging effects would trickle down onto all nations of the subcontinent.

However, it seems that US bossiness has not led to as universal a Russian condemnation as Washington may have hoped, and is even starting to wear the patience of the elites, in partnering nations. India especially is not docile to such kinds of pressure, as a few weak signals might indicate. PM Modi’s recently-stated intention to distance India from the UK-based educational model reflects rather clearly, that New Delhi is growing weary of Western attitudes. Several additional weak signals seem to indicate that the grip of the US on international affairs is loosening and that countries are increasingly choosing their own path, no matter how unorthodox. Case in point: the surprisingly warm message sent by Imran Khan to PM Modi for his re-election, which breaks with nationalistic traditions, to say the least.

Protecting Indian independence

Naturally, this self-serving loyalty, which India aims to stay true to, will come at the price of frustrating American desires. The European connection could also suffer, as Europe consistently fails to find true autonomy from the rest of the world. Any ensuing isolation of India, as perceived by China, could lead to sharpened ambitions from Beijing. Distancing can also lead to more damaging manoeuvres. For instance, some commentators believe that Imran Khan, former prime minister of Pakistan, was ousted from office by withdrawn US support. This was due to his persistent desire to maintain autonomy and his pacifist stance towards the autonomy of all neighbouring countries, India included.

However, it seems that US bossiness has not led to as universal a Russian condemnation as Washington may have hoped, and is even starting to wear the patience of the elites, in partnering nations. India especially is not docile to such kinds of pressure, as a few weak signals might indicate

Touqir Hussain writes in The National Interest: “Imran Khan and his outgoing government alleged that the United States conspired with the opposition to oust him through a no-confidence vote. As proof, Khan claimed that Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, threatened regime change in his meeting with Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States on March 7.”

India’s independent strategy comes with some level of risk. Choices must therefore be carefully considered and calibrated, and will eventually be influenced by the outcome of whatever is playing out in Ukraine.

Strategist Ramesh Thakur underlines India’s patient and cautious strategy play: “India continues to invest heavily in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, Japan, and the US as the premier Indo-Pacific forum for checking China’s reach and influence in the vast maritime space. India has steadily internalized the new regional and global reality that China is a clear and present security threat as well as India’s most consequential diplomatic adversary across a surprisingly broad front. France is India’s key bilateral interlocutor in Europe, and the EU and UK remain important partners overall.

Fortunately for India, its stakes are unfolding slowly -unlike Ukraine’s, whose position changes nearly every week. The ramifications of this conflict, whichever they may be, will unfold in the coming months, or even years, before the dust settles in the subcontinent. This will give ample time for New Delhi to consider its strategy, even if it can expect to be mildly hassled by Washington in the meantime.

– The writer is a defence and security industry consultant having varied experience working with medium and large companies majorly in European market. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda