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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Will Modi, Gandhi, Kejriwal Look Up the Map and Note that Crimea is Not Too Far?

Wednesday 2 April 2014, by T J S George


In our obsession with the elections, we’ve lost track of the world. As it happens, the US is “just three steps away from war with Russia”, as an American strategist put it. A Russian commentator put it thus: “Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” Got the picture?

War won’t—or shall we say, may not—happen. Not because leaders love peace, but because the prospect of being reduced to ash is all too real for more than one country. Nevertheless, it is a finger-on-the-button confrontation.

The stakes in Crimea/Ukraine are high and the passions explosive. Russia sees Anglo-Saxons trying to encircle it militarily by absorbing Ukraine into the Eurocentric (anti-Russia) NATO alliance. NATO sees Russia using muscle power to annex nearby territories and thereby resurrecting the old Soviet empire.

The “annexing” of Crimea is a fait accompli. A referendum saw 96.6 per cent of the people saying yes to joining the Russian Federation. Within two days Vladimir Putin signed a formal treaty making Crimea a part of Russia. Crimea declared the ruble as a second currency to Ukraine’s hryvnia. It even switched to Moscow time which is two hours ahead of Ukrainian time. Putin’s longish speech at the Kremlin ceremony was full of emotional references to Crimea’s place in the hearts and minds of Russians and how the West, especially America, “cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back [and deployed] military infrastructure at our borders”.

Those were strong words. What we see is a return to the hostile mindsets of the Cold War era. Russia saw the recent violent upheavals in Ukraine as a Western manoeuvre to effect a regime change in the country, replacing Russia-friendly leaders with Russia-haters. For the West, checkmating Russia is central to its security agenda; Britain’s Foreign Secretary described the Crimean crisis as “the most serious test of European security in the 21st century”. For Russia, keeping Crimea is a historical obligation and an existential necessity.

A part of the Russian Federation until 1954, Crimea was “gifted” to Ukraine by Nikita Khru-shchev who rose in the communist hierarchy through the Ukranian party apparatus. (Some say he was an ethnic Ukranian, as Stalin was an ethnic Georgian.) Russia’s only warm-water naval base is on Crimea’s Black Sea coast. With-out Crimea, Russia will cease to be a strategic power. Without a friendly Ukraine and a friendly Georgia, Russia will cease feeling secure. So Russia will do what it takes to consolidate its neighbourhood, just as the US has done for years in Central American countries. If war is ruled out, the West can do precious little.

Are these developments of any concern to India? Of course yes. Firstly, this is a new global Great Game and there is no way a player of India’s size can stay in the margins. More importantly, the evolving strategic face-off is between the Atlantic West and what Russia is projecting as Eurasia which, naturally, would include India and China.

For the record, both India and China have told Russia to take the path of negotiation, respect international law, etc. In fact, though, both have indicated support to Russia. India took the clear position that “Russia has legitimate interests in the Ukraine developments”, as National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon worded it. Putin later had a personal chat with Manmohan Singh.

This is a good time for India to take a hard look at its diplomatic equations. Manmohan Singh’s pro-American tilt has always been one-sided causing economic loss to India (by following American diktat on Iranian oil, for example) and inviting diplomatic ridicule (by unilaterally giving privileges to US consuls in India while Indian consuls in the US are humilia-ted). Moscow, on the other hand, has stood by India on critical issues, like technology transfer for example. Perhaps Putin and the Eurasian idea can also help ease the relations between India and China. And Japan waits. Opportunity is knocking at India’s doors. But who is there to seize the moment? Modi, Gandhi, Kejriwal?

Amar Akbar Antony had more chutzpah.