Report of VIF Strategic Discussions on the Ukraine Conflict
Avantika Menon

At the crack of dawn on 24 February 2022, President Putin announced a special ‘military operation’ in the Donbas region of Ukraine. A large number of tanks and troops rolled into several parts of Ukraine from Russia, Crimea and Belarus while warplanes bombed major cities and Russian forces seized control of the key port city of Kherson. Set in the background of these ongoing developments, the VIF organized a two-part virtual strategic discussion on the ‘Ukraine Crisis: Global and Regional Implications’. The first part of this discussion was convened on 24 February 2022 with a follow-up session on 3 March 2022. The discussions were moderated by Dr. Arvind Gupta and saw in attendance Amb. Arun Singh, Amb. Ashok Kantha, Amb. Satish Chandra, Lt. Gen. Rakesh Sharma, Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, Amb. P.S. Raghavan, AM Diptendu Chaudhuri, Lt. Gen. Ravi Sawhney, Cmde. Gopal Suri and Gp. Capt. Naval Jagota. The key takeaways that have emerged from these discussions have been presented below:

Taking many by surprise, the simmering tensions in the Russo-Ukrainian border reached a boiling point with the Russian military intervention in Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The developing situation has set the world on edge as the conflict will have significant economic and geopolitical repercussions across the globe.

Russian Rationale

Official statements issued by the Russian government indicate that a key rationale for Russian action can be attributed to combating Russophobia. The Russian government has emphasized the rise of a ‘massive offensive against the Russian language’ and the ‘violation of linguistic, educational and cultural rights of millions of Russian speaking citizens’. These statements also passionately decry the ‘falsification of history’ and the emerging tide of ‘raising Nazi collaborators to ranks of heroes’. Thus, in addition to purely security arguments in this conflict; there are also underlying cultural and civilizational aspects that cannot be overlooked.

Another reason could be attributed to the desire to build a land bridge to Crimea. Crimea is ravaged by several problems and continues to suffer from acute food and water shortages. The construction of the land bridge would alleviate these crises without which the situation will continue to deteriorate.
There is also an ongoing geopolitical churn in the region with Ukrainian armed forces training in Turkey in accordance with NATO standards. Even the communications system of Ukraine is completely plugged into NATO. Thus, it can be said that a formal NATO membership is just an application on paper. The US is also said to be building naval reconnaissance bases in the Black Sea; thus the challenge to Russian power is not just in Ukraine but in the Black Sea and the Arctic as well.

Russia’s main grievances are regarding NATO’s advances in its neighbourhood, the status of the mutual security guarantees and the Minsk Agreement which continues to be stuck in limbo. While agreements and discussions between the West and Russia on mutual security guarantees have advanced considerably, the Minsk Agreement continues to persist as a major roadblock.

Presently, it is particularly difficult to ascertain Russia’s main objectives in its current military excursion.

Indian Position- Walking a Tightrope

For India, the situation is especially difficult. India should focus on defining its own interests and building its own strength.

India needs to brace for an extensive western response. The first step should be geared towards cushioning the economy from the immediate implications.
New Delhi will have to show greater nimbleness in playing thecompetition between US and Russia. It has critical dependencies on both and any position it takes will have an adverse impact.

While the US administration does to an extent understand the compulsions India has in its relations with Russia, but in the wider US policy community there will continue to be tremendous criticism against India as this situation evolves.

A core strategic challenge India will face is the risk of the US getting more involved with Europe at the expense of its commitment to the Indo-Pacific, subsequently creating space for China to expand and pursue its strategic agenda.

Russia-China relations

In recent years, Russia has developed a huge dependency on China and this relationship has gradually developed into a multifaceted partnership. While it is not an alliance per se, the strategic linkages between the two have expanded exponentially. This trend is likely to be accelerated as a result of what’s happening in Europe today.

The power differential between Russia and China has remained stable for the past 20 years. It is a declining power differential. Russia has made peace with this as it doesn’t want to fight on two fronts. This power differential will dramatically increase in the next ten years.

Notably, Russia and China announced that there are ‘no limits to their strategic cooperation’ at the summit held in Beijing on 4 February. Unlike the time of the Crimean crisis, this time China has explicitly supported Russia, indicative of their strategic cooperation moving in a positive direction.

The Russia-China relationship has become particularly important in this scenario. Although the Chinese have by and large stood with Russia, they have also spoken about protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is important to note that at present, there is nothing much that China can do to promote Russia’s interests in Ukraine. It will be celebrating that Russia is stuck on the western front and the US is stuck along with them. The developing situation is thus quite complicated.

Geopolitically, Russian security has plummeted as of today and the Chinese are poised to take the best advantage of this.

US Perspective

After the current chain of events, one can expect that the US-Russia relationship is going to be extremely turbulent. On the domestic front, for the next three years with the congressional national elections taking place at the end of this year, President Biden will need to show a strong response to Russian actions. While the US has clearly stated that no military intervention will be carried out in Ukraine, its response will be geared towards imposing severe economic sanctions and strengthening its presence in NATO countries.

With the 2024 presidential elections coming up, President Biden will be high-pressed with projecting himself as a strong and capable leader. There are also some sections in the US that are not that critical of Putin and believe that Ukraine is not as important and that Russia is not as adversarial as China. How these sections shape the US elections is something to be watched out for.

The crisis has allowed the US to consolidate its alliances and partnerships. After the first round of Russian actions, as the Russian steps have evolved, the US has conducted more than 200 meetings and consultations with their allies and partners regarding this issue at all levels. They have worked to consolidate their alliance structure in order to determine unified positions. Eventually, both Germany and France have also fallen into line with the US position with Germany shedding its initial reticence and freezing the Nord Stream 2 (N2) pipeline. The cancellation/delay of the N2 pipeline works to the US’ advantage as it allows them to increase their own exports to Europe. The US has also been able to consolidate NATO, and once again enhance its relevance which had considerably failed after the debacle in Afghanistan.

From Biden’s perspective, the events in Europe will also take the attention away from the US failure in Afghanistan with the focus shifting to Europe, including the domestic debates and political maneuvering within the US. President Biden will try to generate further domestic consolidation using the challenge from Russia in Europe, using the emergent threat to mass major legislation and bills.

From the US point of view, there is a belief that they will be able to successfully dent Russia’s image globally and mount appropriate strategies in the UNSC and the UNGA. In the recent UNSC debate, most members were very critical of the ongoing Russian activities.

There is also some loss of credibility for the US as it technically did fail to prevent the Russian invasion.

The current situation may lead towards an enhanced Russian dependence on China, which doesn’t work well for the US.

The US is now facing a two-front challenge, which is not something they have faced with this intensity in a long time. Basically, it is seeing a challenge to its global role on two fronts which brings up the question of will it be able to handle this challenge? And in the inability to do so, will it then try to accommodate one of the powers? And which power will it eventually accommodate? It is speculated that parties in the US may recommend accommodating China due to its deep economic linkages and its vital position within the Asia-Pacific.

Implications for Europe

As a direct result of this conflict, one can expect that all the NATO countries, particularly the eastern, central and western members will significantly enhance their defence expenditures.

There will be a push for lessening the European energy dependence on Russia. 25 per cent of the current European energy use depends on gas. 90 per cent of this requirement is imported, out of which, 50 per cent comes directly from Russia. And for Germany and Italy, these figures are even higher. So there will be a move towards reducing this dependence.

Chinese Perspective

The Chinese position with regard to Ukraine and the Russian action is far more nuanced than what is directly acknowledged. China is not entirely comfortable with Russian military operations in Ukraine for quite a number of reasons.

While the Russia-China joint statement from the summit meeting in Beijing did indicate further alignment between the two angled categorically against the eastward expansion of NATO; at the same time, it is not entirely endorsing a Russian position as visible in the Chinese statement.

The China-Russia partnership suggests that China can be relatively helpful when it comes to helping Russia deal with the consequences of sanctions being imposed by the US, Europe and the UK. This will need to be carefully observed as China will not like to sacrifice its own economic interests to support Russia.

In some areas, it may even take advantage of the sanctions, for instance emerging as a buyer for Russia’s hydrocarbon resources. With the loss of Russian export options in Europe, Russia will be forced to depend even more on China as a buyer of its hydrocarbon resources. Much of the trade between the two is RMB denominated so it will be largely unaffected by US sanctions. On the flip side, with the increase in prices of crude and gas, China’s increasing dependence on Russia for energy needs may pinch its GDP in the long run. To what extent China will bail out Russia to deal with the negative consequences of the sanctions is something that will have to be watched very carefully.

China has a lot of stakes in Ukraine. It is a big part of the BRI and several Chinese entities have made large investments in Ukraine. Ukraine is also a supplier of critical defence equipment and machinery to China. Although Chinese inroads into Ukraine have increased considerably, Chinese investment in Ukraine is only 200 million USD. So China could possibly walk away if the situation worsens.

The Ukrainian crisis may also have domestic implications for China’s 20th party congress. Domestic stability, as well as international stability, is the main concern for China. If the crisis intensifies, it will also have ramifications for domestic Chinese policies.

China would be waiting to see to what extent Russia is able to grab western attention and therefore assess the space created to pursue its own objectives in the Indo-Pacific.

This crisis may also lead to another Galwan-style situation on the India-China border. In order to gain traction, China may be bold enough to take some action in the India-China border areas, if they happen to see this as an opportunity.

China will continue to take a nuanced position on Ukraine. It is not unequivocally supporting Russian action in Ukraine. It is stopping well short of endorsing Russia. Here, it is important to note that China is yet to acknowledge the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

China is critical of the US and maintains that the US has been spreading misinformation on the invasion. They have suggested a peaceful resolution of the dispute. A protracted war between US and Russia is beneficial to China in the long run.

This invasion so far is a disaster for everyone concerned; including Russia. The worst consequence for India is the shifting of attention from the Indo-Pacific to Europe. The stream of high profile visits to Moscow by Western leaders indicates that the West did try to assuage Putin’s concerns, which is why the sudden military intervention into Ukraine took several by surprise. It is speculated that perhaps, Putin is looking to define a legacy for himself in the annals of Russian history and is on a personal quest to restore Russia to the glory days of the USSR. Whatever his true motivations may be, the consequences of this conflict will be severe. Indiawill have a tough road ahead navigating through this.

At the moment, there are several things that need to be assessed and carefully monitored in the days to come: the impact on the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad and the overarching impact of the sanctions. As the conflict unfurls further, only then can it be assessed whether or not Putin has overplayed his hand and what the long term impact of this will be for Russia and the region at large.

One week since the beginning of the Russian military incursion into Ukraine several new developments have taken place ranging from continuing Russian attacks to severe sanctions being imposed across the board. Russian forces continue to battle in order to take control of strategic cities in Ukraine, with the city of Mariupol under siege and continued shelling in Kharkiv.

One Week after the Invasion: whither Russia?

At present, the situation seems grim for Russia. With no information coming out, there is a distinct lack of clarity on the Russian narrative and their military and political activities.

As the conflict unfolds, it has become glaringly obvious that Russia has lost the information war with the global narrative largely in favour of and sympathizing for Ukraine. It is important to note that, the objective that Russia has put out is of demilitarization and de-Nazification. These objectives don’t necessarily justify war and hence since day one the narrative has been against Russia. Russia has started on a wrong note by outlining objectives improperly.

The impact of the invasion on the domestic political dynamics in Russia needs to be assessed. A significant number of Russian casualties have been recorded so far. Even if things do manage to calm down in a few days, Putin has lost all legitimacy with the West and will continue to face an intensified adversarial approach from the US and Europe.

Furthermore, there also needs to be an assessment of the sustainability of Russia’s offensive, both in the military and political sense. The West is bound to take advantage of this uncertainty bringing up the question of how Putin will contain this damage.

The course of the invasion across the past week has led to several surprises, comedian turned president, Zelenskyy has emerged as a strong leader and most importantly the glaring incompetence of the Russian military has come to the fore. There is a visible and abject lack of preparation which strikingly shows no lessons learnt from their losses in Afghanistan. There is also severe logistical incompetence.

It is unclear whether socio-psychological profiling of the Ukrainian populace was conducted before the invasion. The anticipated support from the local public towards the invading forces has fallen through. People haven’t joined with the Russians except for within the Donbas region, which has been a conflict zone since 2014. In larger areas, they have received little to no support from the people on the ground.

There is also a glaring gap in their intelligence and logistics networks. Night fighting isn’t being carried out. Precision Guided Missiles (PGM) are showing strong faults in their functioning. Consequently, the quality of Russian technology previously thought to be superlative is increasingly being questioned.

There is an obvious lack of command and control. For instance, in the first couple of days that the Russians landed, they wanted to do an airborne landing for which they flew in 18 IL76s to land off the Kyiv airport. However, due to severe opposition, all 18 had to go back, after which two came back which were promptly shot down with 300 on-board.

On the cyber front, there has been an unexpected silence leading to doubts regarding Russia’s much-touted for cyber warfare abilities.

A more successful operation for Russia would have been to take on one part of the country and work towards solidifying that position. They should have focussed on building a road link to Crimea and which would have allowed them to secure one flank completely. Going from all directions like they did was not an effective strategy.

The Airpower Debate

The war in Ukraine has witnessed a distinct lack of airpower use, particularly by the Russians. A lot of debate is going on regarding the Russian usage of airpower and a lot of questions are being raised about the PGM technology and the lack of coordination between the ground forces and the air force. One of the main reasons that can be attributed to this is a simple miscalculation on the Russian side. Russia thought that the invasion will be a cakewalk and it will not have to use too much force (airpower).

It is also speculated that the Russians may be trying to preserve their high-value assets in this fight as some of the technology and platforms being used are also being used in China, and if they are taken out it could send wrong signals to the few buyers Russia has left today. There is also the issue of collateral damage in high population areas, the use of airpower would have certainly led to a lot of collateral damage, and would have led to the escalation, with the possible involvement of EU air forces.

The lack of US air force elements in Europe can be attributed to the fact that the US is actively trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia. It is also important to note that the US and NATO integration in terms of airpower is relatively weak; while earlier the US airforce did conduct regular courses and capsules in NATO countries, this has not been the case for quite some time now.

Options and Lessons for India

India’s continued abstention is the right choice. The students’ crisis and the emerging visuals of the invasion have increasingly moved the public opinion in India against Russia.

The stringent sanctions imposed will have both direct and indirect consequences for the Indian economy. The West’s blockade of high-technology supplies to Russia could directly impact Russia’s defence industry consequently impacting Russo-Indian defence ties.

While the fertilizer industry hasn’t been directly sanctioned as of yet, paying for those fertilizers can become a big problem for India. There are similar uncertainties regarding several supply chains with key nodes in Russia. Even though specific transactions or products are not directly sanctioned, the suppliers may start getting overcautious thus leading to a much bigger impact.

One way out of this quagmire for India could be by strengthening the Rupee-Rouble arrangement. However, increasing negative reactions in western public opinion may lead to even tougher sanctions which may extend to the Rupee-Rouble arrangement as well. Thus, India needs to be mindful of the fact that the ability to find alternatives will be largely conditional on the mood in the West. India also has to be mindful of incurring certain reputational damage due to its stance on the invasion, particularly in terms of opinions within the US and Europe.

Any impact on the Russian defence industry will adversely impact the Indian Air Force which gets 60-65 per cent of its equipment from Russia. Similarly, the Navy is dependent on Ukraine for gas turbines and engines. A clear lesson for India would be to widen its airpower basket away from Russia.

Subsequently, there is a dire need for greater investment in its military industry, especially aviation. India’s capacity for indigenous production needs a serious boost in capital, human resources and R&D for it to move toward self-reliance.

Diversification of supplies is highly important for the Indian defence industry. Much more needs to be done to get the private sector in a stronger position in order to bolster the indigenization process.

It is recommended that India’s outlook on this conflict should be geared towards both the short term and the long term. The situation so far indicates that no matter the outcome, Russia is going to weaken further and is going to develop closer ties with China, an unfavourable outcome for India. In the long term, India must work towards weaning itself away from dependence on Russia for military technology.

An important lesson and takeaway for India from this war is the importance of enmeshing airpower with military strategy. At present, Indian airpower is not as enmeshed in its military strategy as it should be. India’s adversaries have strong air capabilities and surface operations will be hugely impacted by a strong air force on the other side. This is something that India needs to bear in mind and work upon. There are also lessons to be derived from the current actions regarding the vital significance of grand planning.

As a direct result of this crisis, India’s cooperation with both the West and Russia is going to suffer. With the focus shifting to Europe, the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific will have to be monitored.

There has been clear messaging so far that indicates that India is also engaging with the other side. In all Indian statements, ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’ have been highlighted. The virtual Quad Leaders’ meeting convened recently, further shows India’s seriousness regarding engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Within the Indo-Pacific, India has consistently emphasised a rules-based order. Therefore, in the current situation, it is recommended that going further the messaging in the narrative evolved by the GOI must also include an emphasis on a rules-based order in addition to territorial integrity and sovereignty. This will ensure that a values-based approach is sustained.

The positions taken by India so far are spot on, given the historical complexities of the issue and its huge dependence on Russia for military equipment, there was no option other than abstention. India has taken a balanced position. However, the sustainability of this stance and dependence needs to be urgently assessed. It is recommended that a special group be set up that can expedite work towards salvaging the situation in terms of deriving benefits and reducing dependence on Russia.

Impact of Sanctions

Post-Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been unwillingness in the US to engage robustly in military engagements outside. There is a lack of domestic political will to engage in a military standoff. Hence, the American response has deliberately focused solely on the economic domain.

Ironically, President Putin seems to have achieved something considered largely unachievable: the unity of Europe. In a unified gesture, the West has imposed stringent sanctions and is trying to internationally isolate Russia.

The sanctions imposed by the West are unprecedented with a visible impact on Russia. Within a week into the war, the rouble has taken a serious hit and has devalued considerably. To add salt to injury, the West has also effectively blocked the usage of a large part of the Russian central bank reserves. Two of Russia’s banks with 70 per cent of the overall assets have been barred from carrying out transactions and activities with the West. Many of them have also been taken off the SWIFT system. While the Chinese alternative has been frequently touted, it is not a true substitute. There is a significant impact on the Russian economy which will need to be assessed further.

So far the West hasn’t sanctioned energy in order to avoid global volatility and Russian profits due to rising prices. A large number of countries are linked to Russia’s economic trade and energy; thus these sanctions will heavily impact global energy prices in addition to jobs and economies of Russia, Europe and the US. The severity of this impact is already visible, with crude prices already reaching over 114 USD per barrel.

These sanctions will also impact the supply of key inputs in Russia’s defence industry such as semiconductors which largely come from Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and China.

It is thus safe to assume that there is going to be a major reordering of global supply chains which needs to be watched out for.

Whither China?

China, while not trying to entirely distance itself away from Russia, is signalling to the West that it is maintaining a measured distance between itself and the Russian position.

The Sino-Russian relationship is driven by the top leadership without much engagement at the ground level. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement on the crisis highlights the issues of safeguarding sovereignty and emphasises on keeping the Russian interests in mind while chastising NATO for expanding. It is important to note the change in the tone and tenor of the statements coming out over the last ten days. In his last phone call with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Yi said that he deplored the conflict reflecting displeasure with the Russians. While they may not support Russians overtly, it is apparent that the Chinese indicate unpleasantness regarding the conflict in private conversations. It is speculated that the Chinese may not go against the Russians in the near future considering the relationship between the two leaders at the top level.

It is important to note that Gazprom has signed a major new pipeline contract with China on 28 February, 4 days after the commencement of the war. Thus, it is becoming increasingly clear that China is going to make use of this opportunity to deepen its economic ties with Russia.

Conclusion

While it was widely thought that alliances and blocks were a relic of the cold war era, it is becoming increasingly clear that these constructs have become relevant once again. This will impact the new security architecture in the days to come. Vulnerable small states will be drawn into choosing sides and joining alliances in order to quell their security concerns.

For Russian interests, it is increasingly important that this exercise be ended as soon as possible. The longer it lasts the larger the cost for them and for India as well. Thus, it is recommended that it is mutually desirable for India to talk to the Russians about concluding this military excursion.

In any invasion, an exit strategy is very important. In this case, it will be very difficult for the Russians to show success on the basis of the objectives they have set. And the West will ensure that they will not be able to project success so that they remain bogged down. So in Ukraine with all opposition and weapons coming in from the West, for Russia to fashion a viable exit strategy will be exceedingly difficult.

It is increasingly pertinent for India to be agile and deftly handle the evolving situation and focus on tangibly manoeuvring her interests. It needs to go beyond rhetoric on talks of self-reliance; this should be a wake-up call to seriously invest in indigenous technology and R&D.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>



Image source: https://inews.co.uk/news/world/ukraine-invasion-map-where-russia-troops-attack-war-putin-kyiv-explained-1480175

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