First things first. The world is witnessing the initial months of Cold War 2.0. And testimony to that is the six-month-long Russia-Ukraine standoff.
Few realised that the Russian invasion on February 24 this year would herald the beginning of another Cold War, 30 years after the end of the first.
What started off as an invasion, over the past 24 weeks, has turned into a low-intensity conflict with periodic crests and troughs. Ukraine did not realise it was the pawn that was being moved around on the global chessboard by the traditional superpowers of the West and a resurgent big power in the East. It promptly fell into the trap.
In the process, Ukrainians have had to endure needless destruction of their beautiful country and, worse, the tragic deaths of thousands of civilians targeted for no fault of theirs. And, all for what? For a seat at the NATO high table? Was the need so urgent that the Volodymyr Zelensky government had to sacrifice the country’s security and expose its vulnerability?
In retrospect, it is clear that the government in Kyiv miscalculated badly. A comedian who strayed into politics and won the presidential elections, Zelensky cannot escape responsibility for Ukraine’s tragedy.
A few days after Russian President Vladimir Putin commenced the invasion, Zelensky and some of his government officials realised that they were getting badgered. They said they were not keen on NATO anymore. But that made no difference, as by then the United States-led Western alliance had jumped into the fray supplying weapons, providing logistic support and exhorting Zelensky to stay the course. Incidentally, these have made little difference to the progress of the conflict.
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Any further US involvement would have resulted in a direct clash between the West and Russia. But Washington was not ready to risk that and held back.
Similarly, Russia, which, in a harsh response, started the invasion and laid siege to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, backed off partially. For, Putin had no desire to occupy Ukraine. He wanted regime change, preferably a pro-Moscow dispensation. But that did not happen, as the West was firmly backing Zelensky. Russia withdrew from the central parts of Ukraine and instead focussed on its long sought-after border territory of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.
That has been achieved and the east of Ukraine down to the south, including Crimea, is now in Russian hands. It is obvious who has gained from the conflict: Putin.
Paradoxically, the forcible redrawing of the map in eastern Ukraine has resulted in a paralysing standoff. If Zelensky declares he will kowtow to Russia, Ukraine will still have to reconcile with the loss of its eastern and southern region. If Putin ends the conflict without extracting an agreement with Kyiv, Ukraine will go with NATO. If the US decides to conclude the conflict, it will have suffered a massive loss of face. None in the former Soviet region will ever trust Washington again.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been drawn into the conflict in ways that indicate the future contours of global geopolitics. The US has been pressuring its allies to reduce their relationship with Russia, and instead enforce sanctions against it. Many, led by the NATO bloc, have dutifully gone by the US diktat.
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Russia has cautioned its allies not to desert it at this juncture. More importantly, it has the support of the newly-emerging big power China that has its own axe to grind against the US-led West.
India in a Catch-22
Caught between them is India, which cannot afford to antagonise the US, Russia or China. New Delhi’s plight has moved even hawkish Washington to ease the pressure on it. So, on the one hand, you have India in the US-led Quad and, on the other, it is forced to play ball with Russia and China. New Delhi is shortly taking part in military exercises conducted by Russia in which China too is participating.
This is a typical Cold War scenario. Obviously, there are differences with Cold War 1.0. In 1945, after the defeat of Germany, the US and the Soviet Union, which were allies during the war, divided the vanquished nation between them. They did not stop there. Each consolidated its power by directly or indirectly controlling other governments – resulting in the formation of the western capitalist and eastern socialist blocs.
Almost every nation on earth had to be either with the US or the Soviet Union, notwithstanding the attempt by some countries led by India to remain non-aligned. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War ended.
East vs West
Today’s situation resembles the start of another Cold War, as once again the world seems to be on the verge of polarising between the East and the West. Though Russia is nowhere as powerful as the erstwhile Soviet Union that is made up to a large extent by the support from China.
With the US challenging China too, as one saw in the recent visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, the lines are being drawn for a major geopolitical realignment. Russia and China on the one side, and the US-led West including many of the former Soviet nations on the other. Countries like India will have to eventually lean one way or the other. This time around the choice is not going to be simple – New Delhi has a huge strategic headache to deal with.
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In all this, the scapegoat is Ukraine, which has already undergone untold misery in this overarching fight between the Western and Eastern powers. And there is no saying if and when it will get any relief.
Already, with US-led sanctions against Russia and the inability of Ukraine to export grains to many countries, the world is experiencing a widespread crisis. Some sort of patchy agreement has been drawn up to enable food grain exports from Russia and Ukraine to resume. This offers a sliver of hope for an enlarged accord that will end the conflict. But, as explained earlier, none of the three core parties involved is in any position to offer concessions. Unless Zelensky bites the bullet and says enough is enough.
European Union countries, which, over the last three decades, got closer to Russia and had grown to depend on fuel from that country, among other things, will also need to recalibrate their options. Unsurprisingly, they will go with the US and need to work out alternatives for basic items like food and fuel, as they gradually move away from Russia.
For optimists hoping that Ukraine will wake up before further damage to their country, the biggest obstacle is the Zelensky government, which doesn’t seem capable of taking an independent decision by distancing itself from the West. Irrespective of the decision that Ukraine may take, the Cold War 2.0 is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future.