The world is hurtling towards a far-reaching geopolitical and economic crisis, in part precipitated by the war in Ukraine. The secondary effects of the war are now reverberating across the world. The risks of escalation are increasing. The first priority of the international community has to be finding a creative solution that ends this war. But it is becoming equally clear that the world is in the grip of a deadly combination of denial, surrealism and opportunism.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a moral abomination of the highest order. What else can one call the will to destroy a nation of 40 million? There is no justification for this invasion. Even Putin does not take recourse to the pretexts that his apologists in Indian circles provide.
It is difficult to predict the course of the war. But it has been clear for a long time that neither Ukraine nor Russia will achieve the objectives they have stated will count as a victory any time soon. The Ukrainian resistance is heroic; but they will not be able to fully dislodge Russia from Ukrainian territory. The Russian military has not suffered losses that are unsustainable, Russia’s economy has not been brought to its knees, and the political stakes of a defeat are too high for Putin to let go. It is unconscionable for anyone to ask Ukraine that has sacrificed so much to defend its rights, to simply give up and appease Putin. But the war has dragged on long enough that the human cost of the war will become a factor in Ukraine’s calculation.
Now one might think this is a good time for diplomacy, and many well-meaning people have called on the G-20 to be the forum to take an active role. But there are three challenges with the diplomatic route. The first is simply that no one quite knows Putin’s endgame, and his political definition of a victory here. He has shown a kind of ruthlessness and expansive ambition, and staked so much nationalist pride on this that the threshold of what it will take to diplomatically pacify him is probably very high already. It’s funny that none of the calls for diplomacy are directed at Putin.
Second, there is the chicken and egg problem. Diplomacy requires the cessation of hostilities, or at the very least, it will require the West slowing down military support for Ukraine. But that in turn could simply be a ruse that allows Russia to reconsolidate and break whatever momentum Ukraine has. It is hard to see Putin negotiating without demanding some immediate gesture that asymmetrically disadvantages Ukraine. The question is, who will take this risk?
Third, there is the brute fact that Putin has no incentive to negotiate. In Western Europe and the rest of the world, the secondary effects of the war are already strengthening Putin’s hand, he will be hoping that a combination of fatigue, energy disruptions and inflation gives him the upper hand. Biden’s approval ratings are plummeting, and it is more likely that the war causes more regime changes in the West than in Russia. It is also often the case that a regime that has the ruthlessness to optimise on just one outcome has an advantage: It can direct all its energies and resources to that outcome.
For the West, on the other hand, Ukraine is just one amongst many things it is trying to achieve, and consequently it can also be made vulnerable in a number of ways. Western support for Ukraine is entirely warranted. But it has been in complete denial about the effectiveness of sanctions, and its inability to carry the rest of the world along.
India and China have been consistently calling for a diplomatic settlement. But let us be brutally honest. At this historical juncture, India and China are the obstacle to a possible diplomatic solution. There is an argument out there that diplomacy can succeed only if there is a reservoir of goodwill; that a good mediator needs to ingratiate themselves with the contending parties. But in Putin’s case it is not clear that goodwill will count for anything. There are no carrots to offer Putin either that will deflect him from inflicting suffering on Ukraine. So the only condition under which diplomacy might succeed with Putin is if there is a possibility of sufficient penalties if diplomacy fails. It will have to be a form of diplomacy that is backed with pressure.
This is where India and China are an obstacle. They have morally equivocated on Ukraine’s claims. But they have also, in effect, bailed out Putin. So long as Russia can effectively trade with China and India, it can ride out Western sanctions and has no reason to come to the table. So, in effect, China and India are not helping the cause of peace and an honourable settlement in Ukraine by effectively reducing Putin’s incentive to negotiate. There are no guarantees of success with Putin, but surely the fact that we are economically bailing him out makes a difference. All talk of diplomatic initiatives is simply cheap talk if they don’t recognise this fact.
The West has its history of imperial crimes. The US badly misjudged how the way it went about sanctions on Russia would lead to a splintering of the world system. India’s creation of a facility to settle trade in rupees is arguably not just a response to Russia, and hitching our star to Russian oil. It also comes from a legitimate fear that the US can now widen the arc of sanctions. So we are right to look for alternatives to SWIFT. The Chinese position is also more consequential than ours. Russia is more dependent on them. China is also the biggest strategic beneficiary of the prolonged war in Ukraine and in all likelihood has an incentive to prolong the conflict.
So it is all too easy to talk of diplomacy. But diplomacy will have to get India and China aligned on putting pressure on Russia. Otherwise diplomacy with Russia is a non-starter. It will then have to traverse that difficult terrain of a settlement that does not constitute a humiliation for Russia or a defeat for Ukraine. Is anybody going to bet that these conditions can be met? There is no option but to try. But diplomacy in G-20 is now about deflecting blame rather than coming together to solve a problem. The world is hurtling towards a precipice.
The writer is a contributing editor at The Indian Express.