Amid a growing deployment of Russian troops around Ukraine, its President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a speech at the 58th Munich Security Conference on 19 February. While asking the West to drop their policy of ‘appeasement’ towards Moscow, he called for a clear time frame for Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as well as the European Union (EU).[i] Two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a televised speech, recognised the independence of Donetsk People’s Republic DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).[ii] He also signed the Federal Law "On Ratification of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the Russian Federation and these newly recognised republics. The Federal Law was adopted by the State Duma and approved by the Federation Council on 22 February.[iii] President Putin followed this with the approval of a full-scale attack on Ukraine via land, air and sea, which he referred to as a “special military operation” on 24 February.[iv] This marked the beginning of a retaliatory response from Russia for the security guarantees[v] that it demanded from the United States (US) and NATO in December last year.
Since then, Ukraine is embroiled in a fresh wave of crisis which has resulted in a stiff resistance from the West. This paper examines the roots of the current crisis and the responses it has generated from the West. It concludes by outlining India’s response and the implications of a renewed US/EU- Russia confrontation for India.
In 2013, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt refusal to enter into an Association Agreement with the EU triggered a wave of protests at Ukraine’s Maidan which grew violent in the ensuing months. Yanukovych’s decision to abandon the EU deal was premised on the rationale of not antagonising Russia. With widespread protests over the abrupt departure from the said deal and a mounting pressure to quit, Yanukovych fled Kiev on 22 February 2014 and took refuge in Russia. Soon afterwards, Russia held a (debated) referendum in the Crimean Peninsula and occupied it. While the international status of Crimea still remains disputed and is regarded as an ‘annexation’, Russia regards Crimea an integral part of its territory. Meanwhile, the Russian speaking eastern flank of Ukraine-the Donbas region comprising of Donetsk and Lugansk is inclined towards Russia and has continued to be embroiled in clashes in the last eight years. Russia’s sudden recognition of these breakaway regions and ratification of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance on 21 February and a launch of a ‘special military operation’ on 24 February marks a new phase of hostility between Ukraine and Russia. The presence of the DPR and LPR leaders- Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik respectively in Moscow at the time of ratification also highlights the East-West divide of Ukraine itself.
As the events in Ukraine continue to unfold, Russia and Ukraine talks[vi] have not resulted in any breakthrough so far.
Drivers for Russia’s Actions
The 2014 crisis in Ukraine was the beginning of a new phase in the EU-Russia confrontation over the common geographical space between the two which Russia refers to as its ‘Near Abroad’. Earlier, this confrontation had also played out in Georgia in 2008. While the Russian response in 2014 was a result of Ukraine’s ‘association’ with the EU, the current response is essentially targeted towards NATO and the US.
Russia has often accused the West of breaching their ‘promise’ to prevent eastward expansion of NATO. The successive waves of NATO expansion to include Poland, Hungry and the Czech Republic (1999); Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004); Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020) have been met with scepticism in Russia. The NATO expansion, combined with EU’s eastward expansion around the same time has been viewed in Russia as the Western attempts to isolate Russia. It is important to note here that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Russian foreign policy priority was to integrate with Europe. However, NATO’s expansion, EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy and later its Eastern Partnership Initiative were met with increasing disappointment in Russia. These Russian grievances were expressed explicitly in President Putin’s famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 where he condemned NATO’s eastward expansion.
Seen in this context, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is a culmination of Russian grievances and demands which it feels the West has ignored. While Russia has made several attempts in the past to stop NATO’s expansion, it went a step further in December 2021 when it handed a “draft treaty between the Russian Federation and the US on security guarantees”, as well as “a draft agreement on measures to ensure the security of the Russian Federation and NATO member states”. With these, Moscow demanded security guarantees including commitment from NATO “to refrain from any further enlargement” and to not “conduct any military activity on the territory of Ukraine as well as other States in the Eastern Europe, in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia”[vii]among others. The country’s actions on 24 February was thus a desperate attempt to stop the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership which it regards “not just a neighbouring country but “an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space”[viii] as well as to force Kiev to comply with the Minsk agreements.[ix]This approach was evident in President Putin’s speech where he noted that “…in the current situation, when our proposals for an equal dialogue on fundamental issues have actually gone unanswered by the US and NATO, when the level of threats to our country is growing significantly, Russia has every right to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security. That is exactly what we will do”. As such, the ongoing crisis has demonstrated “Russia’s readiness to use military force to prevent further expansion of the Western alliance into former Soviet territory” for the first time since the end of Cold War.[x]
In this respect, the main drivers for Russia’s actions are its security interests in the region. Additionally, Ukraine’s orientation towards the West and its aspirations to be a part of Western institutions has also been a cause for concern in Russia owing to their shared history. As Russian scholar Andrey Sushentsov puts it, “Over the past three decades, Russia has sought to find its place in this world, in a way that was in accordance with its interests. At first cautiously and even timidly, and then more persistently, Russia signalled that ignoring its interests would lead to a worldwide crisis”.[xi]
Russia’s actions have been met with sharp criticism from the West. US President, Joe Biden referred to Russia’s operation as ‘premeditated’ and noted that the US and its allies and partners would ‘respond in a united and decisive way’. He committed to coordinating with its NATO Allies “to ensure a strong, united response that deters any aggression against the alliance”.[xii] Similarly, the EU as well as individual member states within it have been critical of the use of military force in Ukraine.
The EU and the US have imposed further sanctions on Russia as a retaliatory measure against the Ukraine ‘invasion’. Most prominent among these is the decision to cut "selected" Russian banks out of the SWIFT global payment system; ''restrictive measures'' on Russia's Central Bank; shutting of the US and EU airspace for Russian aircraft; cutting off sales by Apple Inc. its products in Russia; halting of theatrical releases in Russia by Universal and Paramount, among others. The EU has also decided to sanction Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for aiding Russia.[xiii]
Although the full extent of damage these sanctions would have on the Russian economy will be clear in the coming months, it is clear that the current sanctions are stricter and would isolate Russia from the Western economies even further. The cutting off from the SWIFT system in particular would raise several complications for Russia. Russian currency-Ruble has already crashed to a record low against the US dollar as a result of which the Russian Central Bank has doubled its key interest rate from 9.5 percent to 20 percent per annum to “compensate for the increased depreciation and inflation risks” and in order “to protect the savings of citizens from depreciation.[xiv]
At the same time, these sanctions are likely to impact the US and EU economies as well due to their SWIFT transactions with Russia. In addition, at over $ 100 per barrel oil prices continue to surge, leading to concerns over disruptions of global energy supply. In his latest State of the Union Address, President Biden announced that the US would work with its partners “to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world” and would contribute by “releasing 30 million barrels from its own Strategic Petroleum Reserve to limit the price surge.[xv]
It is also important to note in this context in the last eight years Russia has learnt to cope with sanctions and has also been preparing to use them to its advantage. In order to minimise the risks, Moscow has been taking steps to secure its domestic financial system by doing domestic transactions through the National Payment Card System since 2014. In the same year, the Central Bank of Russia also set up a System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS), aimed towards “replicating the functions of the Brussels-based interbank transfer system.[xvi]Notwithstanding the protective measures undertaken by Russia, the sanctions would have detrimental effects on the Russian economy due to their widened scope and intensity.
Conclusion: Implications for India
The conflict in Ukraine has brought to fore the ‘competing rationalities’ and policies of the US/EU and Russia in Eastern Europe.[xvii] While Russia regards Ukraine “not just a neighbouring country” but “an integral part of” its “own history, culture, spiritual space”[xviii] the West has often emphasised on Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and to choose an independent path of itself. However, it has also shied away from laying down a clear framework on Ukraine’s integration in its institutions.
On a global level, the crisis in Ukraine has brought back the focus on and limits to NATO’s in European Security architecture. There is a growing realisation among EU member states to secure strategic autonomy. For instance, in an unprecedented move Germany has reversed its policy of not supplying weapons to conflict zones. It agreed to send weapons to Ukraine and also decided to increase its defence expenditure to more (2 percent of GDP).[xix]
Another crucial outcome of the present conflict is a further consolidation of a Russia-China understanding in the latter’s competition with the US. The negative trends in Russian economy as well as its further isolation from the Western economies would push Russia further towards China, a factor that would have counter effects for the West as well as India.
Amid this tussle between the West and Russia, India remains in a tough spot owing to its growing ties with all sides involved. While it shares a ‘special and privileged’ strategic partnership with Russia, it also shares close and growing relations with the US as well as Europe. In addition, it also shares a cordial relationship with Ukraine which is one of the major destinations for Indian students, especially in the field of medicine. As a result of this dynamic, India has been urging all parties to choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue to resolve the ongoing crisis. So far, India has abstained from voting against Russia at the UN Security Council and at the United Nations General Assembly, but has supported international community’s call for ‘immediate ceasefire’.[xx] PM Modi has also held telephonic conversations with both Russia[xxi] and Ukraine[xxii] and has called for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
Overall, it is becoming increasingly clear that the evolving situation in Ukraine would have ramifications not only on the European security architecture but also on the emerging World Order. This would carry inevitable implications for India as the country seeks to preserve its national interests and navigates its partnerships with different stakeholders.
*Dr. Himani Pant is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views are personal.
[i]Zelensky’s full speech at Munich Security Conference , The Kyiv Independent, 19 February 2022, https://kyivindependent.com/national/zelenskys-full-speech-at-munich-security-conference/, Accessed on 21 February 2022.
[ii] Message from the President of the Russian Federation, The Kremlin, 21 February 2022, Accessed on 22 February 2022, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828.
[iii]President signed Federal Law On Ratifying the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the Russian Federation and DPR and LPR , The Kremlin, http://kremlin.ru/acts/news/67834, Accessed on 26 February 2022.
[iv] Address by the President of the Russian Federation, The Kremlin, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843, Accessed on 24 February 2022
[v] Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, MFA Russia ,https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790803/?lang=en&clear_cache=Y, Accessed on 21 December 2021.
[vi] Russian-Ukrainian talks not cancelled, merely postponed — diplomatic source, TASS, 2 March 2022, https://tass.com/world/1414779?utm_source=google.com&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=google.com&utm_referrer=google.com, Accessed on 2 March 2022.
[vii] Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790803/?lang=en&clear_cache=Y, Accessed on 21 December 2021.
[viii] Message from the President of the Russian Federation, The Kremlin, 21 February 2022, Accessed on 22 February 2022, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828
[ix] Kommersant, “The Russian flag on the front line in the Donbass will sharply raise the stakes in case of an escalation”, 22 February 2022,https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/5229110?from=author_3&stamp=637815534464867893, Accessed on 24 February 2022
[x] Dmitri Trenin, Mapping Russia’s New Approach to the Post-Soviet Space, Carnegie Moscow Center, 15 February 2022, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/86438, Accessed on 26 February 2022.
[xi]Andrey Sushentsov, Russia-Ukraine: Quo Vadis?, Valdai Club, 26 February 2022, https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/russia-ukraine-quo-vadis-/, Qaccessed on 27 February 2022
[xii] Statement by President Biden on Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine, The White House, 23 February 2022, accessed online on 24 February 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/02/23/statement-by-president-biden-on-russias-unprovoked-and-unjustified-attack-on-ukraine/
[xiii]Statement by President von der Leyen on further measures to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine,European Commission, 27 February 2022 , https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_22_1441, Accessed on 28 February 2022.
[xiv] Bank of Russia increases the key rate to 20% p.a., Central bank of Russia, 28 february 2022, https://www.cbr.ru/eng/press/pr/?file=28022022_094500Key_eng.htm, Accessed on 1 March 2022.
[xv] Remarks of President Joe Biden – State of the Union Address As Prepared for Delivery, The White House, 1 March 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/03/01/remarks-of-president-joe-biden-state-of-the-union-address-as-delivered/, Accessed on 2 March 20222.
[xvi] Maria Shagina, “How Disastrous Would Disconnection From SWIFT Be for Russia?” Carnegie Moscow Center, 28 May 2021 , https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/84634, Accessed on 27 February 2022.
[xvii] Derek Averre, “Competing Rationalities: Russia, the EU and the 'Shared Neighbourhood', Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 61, No. 10, 2009, pp. 1689-1713.
[xviii] Message from the President of the Russian Federation, The Kremlin, 21 February 2022, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828, Accessed on 22 February 2022
[xix]Reuters, “Germany to increase defence spending in response to Putin war' – Scholz”, 27 February 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/germany-hike-defense-spending-scholz-says-further-policy-shift-2022-02-27/ Accessed on 27 February 2022
[xx]Statement by Ambassador T/S. Tirumurti, Permananet Representative of India to the UN, https://twitter.com/ambtstirumurti/status/1499073038154874881/photo/2
[xxi] Phone call between Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and H. E. Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, Ministry of External Affairs, 24 February 2022, http://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34898/Phone+call+between+Prime+Minister+Shri+Narendra+Modi+and+H+E+Vladimir+Putin+President+of+the+Russian+Federation, accessed on 25 February 2022,
[xxii] Prime Minister speaks to His Excellency President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine,
26 February 2022, Ministry of External Affairs, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34902/Prime_Minister_speaks_to_His_Excellency_President_Volodymyr_Zelenskyy_of_Ukraine, Accessed on 27 February 2022.