THE first anniversary of the tragic ‘war of choice’ that Russia embarked upon in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, marked by the detritus that lies scattered in the war zones and beyond, signals a blood-soaked punctuation as the global community seems to be sleepwalking into another world war.
Somnolence induced by the heady cocktail of emotive nationalism and a selective recall of a burnished past by Moscow has led the world into a sullen strategic impasse, wherein most of the major powers have been drawn into this war either directly, or by proxy, and there is no credible modus vivendi for a cessation of hostilities on the horizon.
History rhymes more often than it repeats itself and hence it is unlikely that the contour or chronology of World War III will be similar to the ones of the last century — with one caveat. The six-year-long World War II ended when atomic bombs were used by the US against Japan and this was a period when there was a monopoly apropos of the possession of the nuclear weapon. Will the apocalyptic mushroom cloud emerge again?
In the current strategic grid of the world, there are multiple nuclear powers — nine at last count — though the US and Russia still account for more than 90 per cent of the global nuclear arsenal. Reflecting the brittleness now permeating the nuclear domain, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared this week that Moscow was suspending its participation in the New START treaty — the last of the arms control agreements between the US and Russia. Putin said he took this decision since the US and NATO wanted to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia and get to its nuclear facilities. This was described as a ‘big mistake’ by the US.
Concurrently, US President Joe Biden paid a surprise visit to Ukraine in the run-up to the first anniversary of the war and on February 20, pledged support and western solidarity with Kyiv in its resistance to “a brutal and unjust war.” On February 21, Biden visited Warsaw, where he declared that Ukraine would “never be a victory for Russia.” A day later, the US President met leaders of the Bucharest Nine — countries along NATO’s eastern flank — which included Poland, Bulgaria and Lithuania that were earlier part of the Soviet bloc and had joined the US-led NATO after the end of the Cold War. Here again, the Biden pitch was to frame the war as one that was “not just for Ukraine, but for the freedom of democracies throughout Europe and around the world.”
In a significant politico-diplomatic move on the eve of the war’s first anniversary, Beijing sent its top diplomat Wang Yi to Moscow; in a departure from the protocol, Putin received his Chinese visitor on February 22. While there has been speculation that China is exploring the possibility of negotiations to end the Ukraine war, the official remarks were more about the partnership between the two nations and a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow in the near future.
Wang stated that this partnership was not aimed at any other nation and added: “Together, we support multi-polarity and democratisation in international relations. This fully meets the course of time and history; it also meets the interests of the majority of countries.”
Thus, the world is grappling uneasily with an intractable polarisation, where the US-led western alliance and other partners are ranged against Russia over its February 2022 ‘special operations’, while Beijing is seen to be providing critical support to a beleaguered Moscow. The US has cautioned China about the consequences of providing direct military aid to Russia and this adds to the simmering tension that already exists between Beijing and Washington over the balloon controversy.
Whether these assertive remarks by the leaders of the US, Russia and China are more about posturing or indicative of an escalation remains a moot point, but one silver lining is that the nuclear threat is being sought to be diluted, with officials in Moscow noting that the existing restraint protocols would be respected — a sentiment shared by the US and other nations concerned.
The ground situation in the second year of the war in Ukraine, where both sides will seek to gain tactical advantage once the winter recedes, will be shaped by the kind of military and fiscal support that the US and its partners provide to Kyiv and the military offensive that Russia is expected to unleash in mid-2023.
For India, the Putin invasion of Ukraine was and is a complex challenge and the Modi government has walked the politico-strategic tightrope in a deft manner in the first year by way of ensuring that its ties with both the US and Russia remain on an even keel. However, this may prove to be more difficult in the second year when Delhi is seeking to burnish its own profile as the G20 president. The Indonesian experience of last year when Jakarta held the baton is instructive.
The more immediate security concern for Delhi is the Chinese incursion in Ladakh. Besides, the Ukraine war has placed India in a difficult position, given the strategic and military dependence on Russia. The resumption of diplomatic talks with China (External Affairs Ministry Joint Secretary Shilpak Ambule’s Beijing visit) is encouraging.
The texture of the Beijing-Moscow relationship in the second year of the Ukraine war may prove detrimental to Delhi’s aspirations for demonstrating strategic autonomy and becoming a credible interlocutor in the current impasse.
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