Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine has ground into its fourth month. The script so far has defied the expectations of the entire world, not just Vladimir Putin’s. Nobody had imagined a mostly stalemated, grinding, conventional ground war 90-plus days on.
Much confusion and doubt still remain. It has moral, geopolitical and strategic dimensions. Let’s begin with the moral aspect, which is addressed easily, if rudely. So please give me anticipatory bail, and stay with me.
Here is what many wise people across the world are telling Ukraine right now. Henry Kissinger, a wise 99, says Ukraine should make a bitter compromise, cede territory and part sovereignty to mighty Russia. The venerable New York Times editorial board says Russia is too strong to be defeated, that even the US should stop taunting Putin, and Ukraine should make the best of a bad bargain.
Besides, there are other eminent scholars, from John Mearsheimer of Chicago University, Noam Chomsky to Kishore Mahbubani from Singapore. You can watch his conversation with me on ThePrint ‘Off The Cuff’ here.
These are, however, heavyweight intellectuals of the global debating circuit. If we get a sense of the larger popular opinion in India, and not just on social media, the response isn’t very different. That the West enticed, taunted and trapped poor Putin into invading Ukraine. That NATO’s eastward expansion was a grave provocation for Putin. The West will fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.
That Zelensky is an upstart getting his comeuppance. If he’s still got sense, he’d accept Russia’s terms. Many in the Donbas region see themselves as more Russian anyway. Or, he can watch his country destroyed.
Now let’s turn the gaze inwards and do some war-gaming. For abundant caution, let me underline again that this part is pure fiction. So even if you get angry with me, not too much please.
Imagine that this summer, or maybe any summer, China decides to ‘settle’ its boundary claims with India on its own terms and attacks on both fronts, Ladakh and Arunachal. A couple of weeks into the war and as our forces fight valiantly, the Pakistanis attack us in Kashmir, in cahoots with the Chinese.
Between China and Pakistan, India will face a power about six times its economy and seven times its defence budget. That is if we trust the Chinese budget figures.
The defence is tough, fighting brutal, and some territory is lost in the adverse momentum. Of course, our Quad allies and others like France and Israel, help. But we fight our own battles. At which point, Xi Jinping sends India and its allies, especially the US, a little note with his conditions to end the war. He says he also speaks for Pakistan.
Here are the conditions. India cedes Aksai Chin formally, accepts China’s 1959 claim line in Ladakh, gives up Arunachal Pradesh. Or maybe the Chinese would be ‘generous’ and seek only Tawang district. Throw in also the tiny slivers they claim in the central sector.
To Pakistan, India should hand over the Kashmir Valley. In true spirit of cooperation and peace-making, the Pakistanis might let India keep Jammu and give it access to Ladakh. And while you are at it, might as well “settle” Nepal’s claims on Lipu Lekh and ask Bhutan to hand over what China demands. India says go to hell.
The war involving three nuclear-armed neighbours alarms the world. The smartest people advise India on the futility of fighting on against impossible odds as missiles rain on cities and thousands die. Are these Himalayan wastelands worth risking your existence for? The Chinese are only demanding what they believe is theirs historically. China is too strong to be defeated.
And Pakistan? They’ve always had a claim on Kashmir. In any case, a lot of the Kashmiris in the Valley aren’t happy in India. Let them go. That’s how you can save your country from destruction, the world from a possible Armageddon, and usher in permanent peace.
Have I got you triggered? I hear you when you say things on the battlefield shall never come to such a pass. There can never be such military adventurism by China and Pakistan. Remember, that’s what we all thought until the morning of 24 February about Russia and Ukraine.
Next, you’d say, but we’ve got our Quad allies and the nukes. Again, Ukraine has much, much stronger allies among our Western friends. And Putin has the nukes, but the thing about these weapons is, as he must be realising, that no one can use them first. If India called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff in Balakot, the world has called Putin’s several times over. In modern warfare, if a nation reaches a threshold where the use of nukes becomes a choice, far too much is lost already. You don’t wish anyone you value, least of all your nation, to get there.
I’ve said repeatedly already that this is all pure fictional war-gaming. But it helps us understand how the Ukrainians feel today when asked to concede Putin’s demands and live happily ever after with a diminished territory and sovereignty. Russia, in fact, has sent a note listing these conditions. That’s the parallel I used for China in my war game.
People of any nation have a right to their nationalism. And as long as they are willing to fight for it, it’s obscene to lecture them to become supplicants, however formidable their adversary. In case our fictional scenario became a reality, God forbid, where would we Indians be?
We will be together as one, to fight back to defend our territory and sovereignty whatever the price. That’s what the Ukrainians are doing. And what will we tell those who advise us then to see the reality, and accept a bitter compromise? Even this suggestion will get us furious. And, maybe we will collectively scream at these ‘well-wishers’, in a tone as outraged as Greta Thunberg’s, how dare you!
Moral aspect sorted, the geopolitical and strategic ones are simpler. This war will leave Russia much weaker economically and strategically. That is, even if it wins and occupies all of Ukraine.
China will watch in consternation as its strongest ally is diminished. At some point, the US, Europe and China will repair their ties. There’s too much economics riding there. India will hasten its pivot to the West and dilute its military dependence on Russia or any one source. Overall, this will alter the global balance of power.
Strategically for India, this is a once-in-a-generation sweet spot. The global order is up in the air and India is fortunate to be fully out of the fight. It’s nonpartisan, wooed by all, and will see great new possibilities open as the crisis drags and finally concludes. A weaker Russia, a sobered China at a time when Xi Jinping is manoeuvring to protect his third term prospects, a reunited West, a chaotic Pakistan.
This is a perfect set of strategic circumstances. It opens up possibilities unimaginable until recently on economic, strategic and military issues. It is for India now to consummate this historic opportunity. Or blow it as we’ve done with some others in the past.