Now in its fourth month, the Russian juggernaut is slowly, resolutely and remorselessly moving forward, taking more Ukrainian territory in the Donbas region every day. President Volodymyr Zelensky has termed the fighting in Eastern Ukraine an “extremely difficult situation” with nearly 100 to 200 Ukrainian soldiers getting killed and more than 500 to 800 injured each day.
Many Western media and experts that had been egging Kyiv on to fight are now sounding cautionary whistles on whether Ukrainian forces can sustain and maintain fighting capability under such ferocious and sustained attacks from Russian forces. The support from Europe and US has not ebbed. French, German and Italian leaders are set to visit Kyiv ahead of G7 summit in Germany.
Kremlin has not lowered its rhetoric either. It has accused United States and European Union of adding fuel to fire by supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. It threatens to hit wider, newer targets if Western armament supplies make a strategic difference to the war. To make a point, Russian forces have hit several depots outside Kyiv where tanks and howitzers sent by its Western allies were parked.
While there are any number of customary questions on everyone’s mind, the main one is whether President Putin has changed the original declared policy that Russia does not aim to occupy Ukrainian territory.
Russian Ruble is now the currency in Kherson and other occupied areas. Russia is establishing its administration in several towns seized by its military and beginning to give out Russian passports. By all accounts Russians are prepared for a long war and settling in for a long occupation. More fundamental question now is whether we will see a cease fire and a diplomatic conclusion of this conflict, or will the hostilities fester for months or even years?
Most relevant to us in India is how long can the Indian economy resist economic and political pressures emanating due to the war and whether it can hold on to its tightrope walk. These are intricate questions which could evade clear-cut answers.
For India, it is no longer possible to stay away from the conflict saying that it is a distant, mainly European affair. After the evacuation of tens of thousands of Indian students from the war zone, the war is now reaching Indian households with high petrol prices and inflationary pressures. The interdependence of nations has never been so starkly visible in impact on local economy due to international conflicts in faraway places.
There could come a point in time when many other countries like ours may have to assert themselves more and make longer term deals in their own interest rather than towing the European and US line. Europe and US also face grim economic crises caused by runaway inflation and high energy prices.
Things are not going so smoothly for Russia either. Let us face it. A near consensus at the beginning of the war was that Russia would complete its mission swiftly and leave after installing a dummy government in Kyiv which could be manipulated from Moscow. Moscow expected a quick capitulation of the Ukrainian forces. It turned out to be a pipe-dream.
At the start of operations, President Putin directly addressed the Ukrainian army to carry out a coup and overthrow President Zelensky, stating, “it will be easier for us to reach a compromise with you than with some addicts.”
Instead of coup and capitulations that Kremlin expected, Ukrainian resolve, preparedness, fighting capability and morale shook Russian leaders. Kremlin had clearly underestimated the effects of years of Western training, intelligence, cyber and logistical support Ukraine has received.
There are consequent reports of frequent changes of Russian tactics on the ground, and while Russia now controls nearly 13 per cent more of Ukrainian territory since the start of war, it has also ceded several gains and retreated from several theatres of war.
On the economic and diplomatic front, the severity of Western sanctions seems to have unsettled Kremlin. Russian state media which was triumphant and jubilant in the early days of invasion is now alternately angry, confused and depressed.
On the 26th day of the war, a Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is close to Kremlin, published a report claiming 9,861 Russian troops had been killed and 16,153 wounded. The report has since been denied but the numbers shocked the Russian public.
New allegations of war crimes with images of dead bodies and completely charred city blocks have shocked the whole world and Russian public is no exception.
The war has already displaced more than 10 million people and several towns and villages in Eastern Ukraine have been completely destroyed. The total death toll is unknown.
The conflict’s ethnic roots became stark in the Donbas city of Mariupol where a largely ethnic Russian population found itself a defensive shield of extreme right-wing Neo Nazi “Azov” militia and Ukrainian troops. Russians have let it be known that there will be no mercy toward these Neo-Nazi battalions. Foreign mercenaries are already being sentenced to death by firing squads by pro-Russian breakaway regions of Donbas.
The United States and its allies are united in statements of sanctions, embargoes and painful economic measures against Russia but continue to buy Russian oil and gas at Russian terms. Russian foreign gold and currency reserves have been seized, but Russia is earning windfall profits from high oil prices.
All Russian flights to and from the Western hemisphere are banned but Gulf countries, Turkey and India have flights to and from Russia. Numerous embargoes against Russian exports, money transfers are now in place. Nearly all leading Western companies have left the Russian market.
Ironically however, within Russia, many economists and nationalist politicians welcome these Western sanctions and see them as a boon in disguise for a boost to indigenous manufacturing and agricultural development. It is also a lesson in “self-sufficiency” Indian leadership seems to have embraced during the pandemic and this war.
It is unlikely full peace between Russia and the West could be achieved even after an inevitable diplomatic solution to end the war is found. Russia faces decades of isolation, sanctions and economic warfare from the world’s richest nations. The whole security, economic, cultural and political mosaic of Europe has been altered irreversibly by this war. Ramifications and reverberations of this clash of Western and Russian civilisations will be felt by India for years or even decades to come.
How India will ensure its best interests and balance its influence and power in the coming months and years is the greatest test yet for Indian diplomacy.
Dr.R.K. Raghavan is a former High Commissioner of India to Cyprus and Ajay Goyal is a security strategic analyst based in Europe.
R.K. Raghavan is a former Indian envoy to Cyprus and Ajay Goyal is a security strategist based in Europe.
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