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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Russia’s friends are finding it harder to look the other way

Those who remained ambiguous in their reactions to the Russian invasion seem to be changing their stand so as not to be stranded on the wrong side of history

Written by Shyam Saran |
Updated: February 28, 2022 9:13:29 am
A Ukrainian soldier walks past debris of a burning military truck, on a street in Kyiv. (AP)

Ukraine is enveloped in the inevitable fog of war and it is difficult to assess whether Russian forces are on the threshold of overwhelming the much less capable Ukrainian forces. Vladimir Putin’s calculations — that the shock and awe of the Russian invasion would lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government and surrender of the Ukrainian forces — have proved to be premature. This may still be the eventual outcome but would not have been achieved without considerable expenditure of blood and treasure. The longer it takes to bring Ukraine to heel, the greater the compulsion to use much greater levels of violence than we have witnessed so far.

The images of wanton destruction and streams of traumatised Ukrainians streaming across their borders into neighbouring countries are a public relations disaster for Putin. At the same time, there are stories and visuals of brave resistance by the Ukrainian forces, the taking up of arms by ordinary citizens and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself reincarnated as a heroic leader, standing by his people in their hour of peril, prepared to go down with the ship rather than accept a swift evacuation into safety. Russian attempts to vilify him as a leader of a “Nazi” gang planted in Kyiv by the American CIA have failed. The projection of Ukraine as an artificial state is belied by the displays of national pride and courageous resistance, which are being played on TV screens across the world. There is a David versus Goliath feel to what is unfolding in Ukraine. Zelenskyy was a comedian and stage performer before entering politics and he is using those theatrical skills to good effect. As his international standing soars, the damage to Putin’s reputation is already palpable and will be hard to repair. Putin may still win the war but he may be losing the plot.

There is a rising level of discomfort among Russia’s friends who have chosen to look the other way. The geopolitical calculations that led to artful ambiguity in reactions to the Russian invasion are now shifting so as not to be stranded on the wrong side of the fence. The Chinese who, in more senses than one, enabled Putin’s Ukraine adventure, are trimming their sails. During the initial phase of the military campaign, Chinese official statements refused to describe it as an invasion, but chose instead to use the Russian description – “special military operations.” There was a reluctance to affirm, as the Chinese usually do, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. Instead, here is what the earlier statement said: “China is closely following the situation in Ukraine, we call on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent the situation from getting out of control. We have stated China’s position multiple times on the Ukraine issue. The issue has complex historical background and merits and the result we are seeing today is at the interplay of multiple factors.” The last sentence appeared to be an implicit endorsement of the Russian narrative on Ukraine’s history as umbilically tied to Russia.

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This has undergone a slight shift in China’s latest statement at the UN Security Council while abstaining on a western sponsored resolution “deploring” the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The observation that the Ukraine crisis is “at the interplay of multiple factors” has been repeated, but now there is a clear reaffirmation of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states as a matter of principle: “China is deeply concerned about the latest situation in Ukraine. Currently, it has come to the point which we do not want to see. We believe that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states should be respected and that purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be jointly upheld.”

China continues to harp on the negative consequences of “military blocs” and the eastward expansion of NATO and the need to ensure equal security. To that extent, its support for Russia’s position remains undiminished.

One Chinese scholar has now suggested that a solution could be for Ukraine to enter the European Union while refraining from joining NATO. This is not a suggestion that Russia would welcome.

It was expected that India would not support any Security Council Resolution condemning Russia. But the Indian statement explaining its vote of abstention comes fairly close to criticising Russia’s resort to arms. Unlike China, India has neither criticised NATO nor made any comment about the expansion of NATO as a trigger for Russian action. It has reiterated the principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and stated that “all member states need to honour these principles in finding a constructive way forward”. More importantly, there is an implicit criticism of Russia in the expression of “regret that the path of diplomacy was given up”.

Prime Minister Modi’s phone call to Putin urging the cessation of violence was also a departure from the past and may have helped deflect western pressure to take a more explicitly critical stance on the issue. What is more interesting is PM Modi’s readiness to receive a call from the beleaguered Zelenskyy on February 26. The read-out on the call states: “The PM expressed his deep anguish about the loss of life and property. He reiterated his call for a return to dialogue, and expressed India’s willingness to contribute in any way towards peace efforts.” Considering that Russia regards Zelenskyy as an illegitimate leader who it is trying to defeat and topple from power, PM Modi’s gesture of sympathy if not support could hardly be welcome to it. India may be sensing the shift in international public opinion against Russia and adjusting its position accordingly.

A resolution condemning Russia is now likely to be introduced in the UN General Assembly, where there will be no veto available to Russia against its passage. Russia can no longer be certain that the large constituency of developing countries, including African countries, will vote against or abstain on the resolution. The strong condemnation of Russian action by Kenya is a pointer to the sentiments among African countries. It will be interesting to see how far China will be ready to deploy its considerable influence among developing countries, in particular African countries, in support of Russia. It may be hesitant to do so in the light of international opinion shifting unmistakably against Russia.

India may also need to weigh its vote in the General Assembly in the light of the rapidly changing situation but one suspects that abstention would still be the preferred option.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 28, 2022 under the title ‘What Russia stands to lose’. The writer is a former foreign secretary and senior fellow, CPR

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