The current Russian invasion of Ukraine which commenced in February this year is showing no sign of abatement even though two long months have since gone past. We are also not witnessing any serious effort at mediation to broker peace between the two nations, be it any world body or friendly countries which enjoy the trust of both Russia and Ukraine.
Instead what we see is an increasingly divided world taking sides while the mighty Russian military machine decimates one Ukrainian city after another, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, forcing them to flee to neighbouring countries as refugees. As per latest estimates, 4.69 million refugees have left their homes in Ukraine. Poland has given shelter to maximum Ukrainian refugees apart from Romania, Russia, Hungary,Moldova, Slovakia and Belarus. This has given rise to a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions apart from causing a great impact on the world economy.
The sudden outbreak of this war, the largest in Europe since world war II has not only taken the international community by surprise but has also shaken central and eastern Europe to the core. Apart from heightening the insecurity level of the people inhabiting the region, the dilemma and tough choices being faced by the European Union regarding energy and other imports from Russia is another crucial issue in focus. The volatility and brutality of the war and the unpredictable factors determining its outcome has no doubt put the major world players in a fluid situation. Especially those who are sitting on the fence and closely monitoring the altering contours of the international order.
With provocations galore a possible result may be a spill over effect in the neighborhood causing further militarization of Eastern Europe, The Baltic Sea and the Black Sea region.
In order to understand the genesis and growth of this current catastrophic situation therein one needs to look back to recent history spanning a little over two decades. The story began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union- USSR into 15 independent nation states in the beginning of the 1990’s.
Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union on the 1st of December 1991. It is the second largest country in Europe by land mass with a sizeable ethnic Russian population. Almost since the initial days following independence, Ukraine witnessed political volatility with its leaders divided on the basis of their allegiance, either towards the liberal west or towards Russia led by Vladimir Putin.
In a major development Ukraine signed the ‘Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance’ on the 5th of November, 1994. It is a deal under which Ukraine then, in physical possession of the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world, transferred them to Russia. It became a non nuclear power with USA, Russia and the United Kingdom signing the deal to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity henceforth.
Within a short span of time after this NATO, a US led 30 member military alliance active in Europe post World War II ,began its ‘Membership Action Plan’. The then US president George Bush signalled to bring Ukraine under NATO’s umbrella, a move strongly opposed by the Russian leadership. For Putin, Ukraine being granted NATO membership was a redline. It maybe recalled that NATO had expanded its membership five times since the German reunification since 1990, adding 14 member states including countries from eastern Europe and CIS.
Ukrainian Leaders Yushchenko and Tymoshenko continued with their efforts to gain NATO membership. Although the US supported the move, Germany and France were wary of attracting Russian displeasure. Meanwhile the ‘gas crisis’ in Ukraine in 2009 ,demonstrated to the West, Russian leverage over Ukraine and the EU. Pro- Russian Yanukovych who was elected president in 2010, wanted Ukraine to be a ‘neutral state’ maintaining relations with both Russia and NATO. November 2013-February 2014 witnessed a flashpoint in the ongoing Ukrainian political crisis as massive demonstrations began in the Maidan Square in the Ukranian capital Kyev. Security forces used brutal tactics to quell the unrest resulting in the death of 130 people. President Yanukovich fled to Russia, paving the way for a new leadership. As political turmoil deepened in Ukraine, President Putin lost no opportunity to take advantage of the situation and annexed Crimea- a Ukrainian peninsula with a majority Russian speaking population. Russian backed militia took over the region, the annexation of which was complete by March 2014. However this annexation has not been recognized by the international community.
In April, 2019 Volodymyr Zelensky defeated Petro Poroshenko in a landslide victory to become the new president of Ukraine. His party also won an overwhelming majority in the Ukrainian parliament. From the beginning of his tenure he initiated efforts to join NATO keeping in view the Crimean experience. Zelensky’s action against pro-Russian oligarchs including Viktor Medvedchuk in 2021 further enraged Putin who retaliated by recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk – the Russian majority Donbas region of Ukraine and sent troops therein. The final blow began in February this year as Russia invaded Ukraine in an all out war which has been continuing since the past two months. With this invasion Russia has violated the 1994 Budapest agreement wherein it has vowed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”
As stated earlier international opinion is divided over this conflict. while the free world led by the West paints Putin as an aggressor who has impinged upon Ukraine’s territorial integrity, many in the global South refresh our memories about the human impact of the economic sanctions on Iraq, the genocide in Rwanda, and the NATO bombings in Serb-led Yugoslavia in the past and the inability of the United Nations to effectively react to these circumstances.
Ukraine is showing that the old world order is crumbling. It is now driven by national interests and not by ideologies and old loyalties. The Western leaders – Biden, Boris, Olaf, Macron et al in spite of their public rhetoric are undeniably concerned today that they have met with utter failure to build a broad coalition against Russia. A significant number of UN members have either sided with Russia or abstained from voting in resolutions critical of Russia at the UN Security Council in the past two months.
Many countries including China, India, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan and Bangladesh have openly voiced their displeasure and have tangentially blamed the US for trying to encircle Russia and provocating it to such an extent that it was forced to start this war being left with little option.
Ukraine has opened such a Pandora’s box for the West that was forced to send high ranking emissaries to countries like India to persuade the latter from joining the Russian camp. But these countries have steadfastly maintained their rigid neutral stance, refusing to bow to Western pressure.
The last week of March saw a flurry of visitors in New Delhi that kept the protocol division of the Indian foreign ministry on their toes overnight. The UK Foreign Secretary, the Chinese and Russian Foreign Ministers, the US Deputy National Security Advisor were among the high profile visitors who flew to New Delhi to consult and confer with their Indian counterparts on the Ukraine crisis. India did not lose this opportunity to show the visiting Western leaders the mirror and remind them of their double standards. When tickled on the question of India’s energy imports from Russia and its human rights record, Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s astute and suave Minister For External Affairs reminded the visiting guests that his country would accord highest priority to national interests and would not be detracted by Western lobbying.
Deep in the mind the West knows well, how they have stoked this crisis, the ramifications of which have spilled beyond Europe and to their alacrity they have begun witnessing a realignment of forces and the formation of a new axis involving bête noir like India and China, something that was previously unthinkable. When US Foreign Secretary Blinken, raised questions on India’s human rights record in Washington, Global Times China’s official English daily surprisingly stood up to India’s defence unilaterally and remarked “US has no qualification to lecture an independent India on human rights, its high time the US stop dreaming of reducing India to its client state, stop riding its moral high horse and learn to deal with emerging powers” China has also unequivocally declared that Russia and India have the sovereign right to trade in rupee and rouble, keeping the dollar aside, if the West pressures the issue of the sanctions on Russia too far. The silhouette of an emerging Russia-China-India axis may concretise in future posing a serious threat to the US interests in the Indo-Pacific region and in other parts of the globe.
Similarly, as the war was about to break, Imran Khan the then Pakistani Prime minister reached Moscow on a state visit ignoring American ire, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina while addressing the parliament reminded how the US sided with the Pakistanis during the 1971 Liberation War while the USSR came to their rescue. Even long time allies of the US in the gulf region Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey have refused to side with the West in the current crisis.
The war in Ukraine has resulted in numerous casualties on different fronts. Apart from the enormous human tragedy as reflected in the large number of refugees taking shelter in the neighbouring countries, physical infrastructure in Ukrainian cities have been devastated by relentless bombings and incoming missiles let loose by the Russian armed forces The fear of possible nuclear escalation is dangling like a sword too. Flora and fauna and the natural habitat of many a rare species of birds and animals have also been completely destroyed along with many symbols of art, culture and heritage. This is something which the international media is rarely highlighting in the midst of this human crisis. The Impact on the climate of this war would also prove disastrous.
Another major casualty of this conflict is the blow being received by ‘International Law’ to the point of beyond recovery which will definitely have a long term effect on inter-state relations. Russia through this aggression has shown its scant regard for the United Nations Charter and has been boycotting hearings of the International Court of Justice. Such actions on the part of Putin, displayed with brazen impunity, may in future encourage other regional players to follow suit which will disturb the long established international order and well laid norms and practices . But many pundits and scholars also opine that this churning was albeit necessary to destabilise the western hegemony in international affairs and shall give the much needed push towards restructuring of the United Nations Organisations especially the veto power of the ‘big five’ in the UN Security Council, which is but a relic and vestige of World War II era and unsuitable for an emerging multipolar world order. The world was already suffering economically for the past two years due to the COVID 19 pandemic. As a response to the Russian invasion the Western front has imposed economic blockades over Russia, a method it had tried over smaller countries like Cuba, Iran, Iraq and North Korea in the past. But for a large economy like Russia this weapon will not work in the long run and is destined to boomerang. For energy starved Europe, Russia is the main source of oil and gas. Ukraine and Russia together supply 30% of the world’s wheat and cooking oil. Russia is even the source of the crucial metal nickel, which is used to manufacture batteries needed to power cars and other machinery. This war, as warned by the World Bank, shall severely impact the international economy leading to rising inflation and slower growth. Rise in petroleum prices worldwide will affect the supply chain in the long run, dislodging the demand and supply cycle of essential goods and services including food prices. This will not only affect smaller countries but large economies of Europe, America and China will be impacted too. Blockade, as historical precedence bears witness, is a double edged sword which will affect both parties and cannot be continued for long.
Thus, we stand today in a watershed moment of world history. The crisis is causing seismic aftershocks in different unimaginable sectors. The international order is used to a single superpower for the past 30 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the final decade of the twentieth century. The world has also witnessed how this superpower has initiated one crisis after another in different far-off lands resulting in unimaginable death and destruction. It has also abandoned nations midway after inciting its hegemonistic ideological apparatus leaving the people there to fend for themselves. Russian action too, will be judged in future from the civilian casualties and the horrible war crimes emerging from the battlefield. Media , the forbearers of information, has been another casualty in this war. Russia has blocked Facebook and Twitter and the European Union in turn has blocked RT and Sputnik. What is necessary now is immediate cessation of hostilities and diplomatic intervention to curb the spread of this war at the earliest in order to stop the world from inching into a dark abyss before it is too late.