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EFSAS Commentary

South Asia’s reaction to the invasion of Ukraine has been self-interest driven


Irrespective of what powerful political leaders say or do not say, the tragedy that has engulfed the Ukrainian people over the past week is all too visible on our television screens for each one of us to see. The horrible realities of war, no matter the reasoning, motivation or historical justifications that surround any analysis of such aggression, have been stark and hard hitting. Like the rest of the world, the vast majority of South Asians have been moved deeply by the tragedy that has hit Ukraine, and they empathize closely with Ukrainians who have overnight had to abandon their settled lives, their homes, and most importantly their menfolk, to fight in a war in which they are vastly outnumbered and can lean on little other than their outrage and their courage to take on the powerful, marauding Russian army. Although the political leadership across South Asia has been similarly affected by the horrors unfolding in Ukraine and has called for an immediate end to the violence, unlike the people they govern the leadership has also had other more challenging existential strategic imperatives to consider. These challenges were considered grave enough by most South Asian governments for them to adopt somewhat nuanced positions on the Ukrainian crisis. How the evolving strategic alignments of these countries will play out as a consequence, and, indeed, how history will view the stands taken by them, only time will tell.

Before looking more closely at how the South Asian governments responded, some critical aspects that the Ukrainian crisis has thrown up merit mention. EFSAS, in the context of Myanmar as in the case of Belarus and Hong Kong, has consistently been calling upon the international community to wake up to gross and flagrant violations of the rules-based order that it had put in place three quarters of a century ago. It had been argued repeatedly that the international community has come across as divided, toothless, and lacking in conviction, and that unless this situation was corrected quickly the world may be forced to contend with a new world order in which democratic values had little place. It took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to galvanize and unite most of the democratic world in ways and to degrees that President Vladimir Putin would never have imagined to be possible at the time that he plotted the march beyond the Donbas. Almost all of Russia’s European friends have withered away in the process, and even Germany, which Putin must have banked on greatly due to its overwhelming dependence on Russian gas, has opted to choose coal and nuclear power over this blood-stained gas. Even as the war in Ukraine is intensifying and the end result remains unclear, one positive that has already emerged is the confidence and the security that the less powerful and geographically smaller members of the international community would take from the demonstration of unity and power of the more powerful countries. That they are capable of, and willing to, rise above their narrow self interests and divisions on issues of critical importance would have come as a big relief, and lent hope for the future. 

Another question that the world’s most powerful country and its allies would need to confront is the harsh reality of whether Donald Trump or a leader like him should remain electable after the immense damage that his single term as President did to the international order. The harm that choosing flawed, narcissistic, ill-informed and dangerous individuals for high offices can do is illustrated by the fact that it was Trump’s obsession with sowing and furthering divisiveness and chaos, which many of his critics believe happened at Putin’s nudge, that encouraged Putin’s invasion at a time when he assessed the international community to be disunited, distracted and confused enough to be incapable of a firm response. After all, the community had let transgression after serious transgression of the international rules based order go unpunished. Whether Putin would have deemed it safe to invade Ukraine had Trump not debased and weakened the carefully and painstakingly crafted international architecture and critical bilateral and multilateral relationships is moot.

On the other end of the scale from Trump is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Many who knew little or nothing about him till just very recently have seen the emergence of a truly courageous leader who has rallied the world to Ukraine’s side in a way no one could have imagined. As Keith Nobles and Jimmy Sengenberger pointed out in an editorial in Newsweek, “Zelensky and the Ukrainians have shamed the word into collectively doing what is right. Such widespread, cross-cultural responses weren’t on the table a week ago. Expelling certain Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial network was previously thought impossible. It’s happening. The US has targeted sanctions against Russia's central bank. In a break from decades-long policy post-World War II, Germany—heavily reliant on Russian energy — is sending lethal weapons to the embattled country. Turkey is implementing a pact limiting Russian warships to the Black Sea. South Korea has joined international sanctions”. Zelensky has come to represent the bravery of every single Ukrainian who is defending the country despite not to date understanding why exactly they had come under attack.   

The Newsweek editorial underlined the impact that the tremendous courage shown by the Ukrainians, as well as the display of unity and immense power by the international community, was likely to have in other conflicts involving authoritarian leaders. It said, “Observers widely recognized that Chinese President Xi Jinping viewed Russia's absorption of Ukraine as analogous to China's stance toward Taiwan. The CCP is certainly willing to take some pain to absorb Taiwan. However, the Zelensky Model enhances the probability of prolonged and bloody resistance by the Taiwanese should Xi eventually invade — and shows the mettle that could be brought by Taiwan's Western defenders. A firm rebuke of China by both the Taiwanese people, the United States (US) and their allies would undermine Xi's ultimate objectives. Unquestionably, Zelensky's Ukraine has changed the strategic situation in a way neither Putin nor Xi expected. The world is rallying to defend underdog Ukraine with extraordinary measures. For now, it is unclear if Zelensky can save his country, but it is entirely possible he has saved Taiwan — and indelibly changed the global dynamic”.

Coming back to South Asia’s response to the Ukraine crisis, Pakistan was the first country that was required to respond to the invasion as its Prime Minister, Imran Khan, was on his maiden visit to Moscow when it began on 24 February. Khan said he was excited to be in Moscow, and that his country had nothing to do with what was happening in Ukraine, a country from which Pakistan imports about 40% of its wheat and a wide range of military equipment, among other things. A Pakistani statement said that the “Prime Minister regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict. The Prime Minister stressed that conflict was not in anyone’s interest, and that the developing countries were always hit the hardest economically in case of conflict”. Khan’s visit to Russia had been projected by his government as a “prelude to a greater relationship”, despite Russia accounting for less than 1% of both Pakistan’s imports and exports.

Pakistan subsequently abstained from voting on the resolution in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) deploring the invasion and calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, and in so doing put all its eggs in the China-Russia basket. The Pakistani daily Dawn quoted a diplomatic source as saying that “Pakistan has decided not to take sides on this issue. Islamabad supports a peaceful and negotiated settlement”. When the Ambassadors of 22 countries, including European Union (EU) member States, had jointly called on Pakistan to support the UN resolution, the country’s human rights minister Shireen Mazari responded by calling the joint initiative “ironic”, adding that Pakistan did not support military force, and that the EU should not adhere to the UN Charter “selectively” as has been done “for decades”.

Pakistan’s tacit support for Russia over Ukraine is in line with Islamabad’s strong desire to strengthen its relationship with Moscow. Pakistan-Russia relations have indeed grown in recent years. Pakistan believes that the close ties that the US has promoted and evolved with India in recent years has given it the opening it needs to get into Russia’s good books. However, Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington cautioned in a recent article that “Islamabad’s balancing act is less intricate than New Delhi’s: Its relationship with the United States is tenuous, and it has long sought to leverage its alliance with China to work more closely with Russia, especially in Afghanistan and Central Asia. But Islamabad must be careful not to edge too close to Moscow, given its commercial relationships with Europe and its desire to play a greater role on the global stage”.

Pakistan has used its own geo-political reasoning to side with Russia in the Ukraine conflict. It would not have had much of a choice in any case given that China, whose advise Islamabad can ill afford to ignore on account of its deep dependence on Beijing in several strategically and economically critical sectors, would have told it unambiguously which side it should be on.

Like Pakistan, Bangladesh has also taken a neutral position on Ukraine and has not ascribed any blame. It has urged “cessation of hostilities” by all sides, in line with its “friendship to all, malice toward none” foreign policy. Bangladesh also owes a debt to Moscow because a Soviet veto in the UN Security Council had made its creation possible in 1971. Further, Bangladesh’s strong economic ties with Russia were a factor in its positioning on the Ukraine war.

India, which since the Cold War has had a special relationship with the Soviet Union and then with Russia, had the toughest decision to make owing to its burgeoning relationship with the US. India, therefore, abstained from voting both in the UN Security Council and in the UNGA. Since the conflict began, India has lamented that diplomacy was given up too quickly, emphasized the need to return to a path of dialogue and diplomacy, and reiterated the importance of adhering to the UN Charter, international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. It has refrained from directly attributing blame. Washington, meanwhile, has indicated some understanding of the Indian position when it said that India and Russia "have a relationship... that we don't have". It called on New Delhi to use its "leverage" with Moscow to help stop hostilities and search for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine.

India’s dilemma stems from several reasons, including its major reliance on Russian weaponry and the fact that Moscow had used its UN veto to bail India out of some difficult situations in the past. Even as it deepens its relationship with the US, India places great importance on its historical and “strategic” ties with Moscow. In reality, India today needs both the US and Russia primarily for one critical reason – to counter the threat posed by a confrontational and expansive China. While membership of US-led groupings such as the QUAD provide India with security against China in the maritime sphere, on land if there is any country that can plausibly intervene favorably with China on India’s behalf, it is Russia. Another factor that would have influenced India’s decision was the presence of Imran Khan in Moscow in particular, and the recent trend of the Russian leadership being open to humoring Pakistan in general. India would not like its “strategic partnership” with Russia to be tainted by deeper Pakistani ingress.

Nepal, a tiny Himalayan State, has so far taken the strongest position against Russia among all the South Asian nations. Nepal’s foreign office said in a statement that “Recognition of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent entities goes contrary to the provisions of the UN Charter. Nepal opposes any use of force against a sovereign country in any circumstance and believes in peaceful resolution of disputes through diplomacy and dialogue”. Nepal’s positioning in geo-politics essentially boils down to its relationships with India, China, and the US. Russia does not figure much in its economic or security calculus, and this accorded Nepal the freedom to choose a stance dictated by principle rather than realpolitik.

In the end, South Asian countries have reacted to the crisis in Ukraine in accordance with their self interests and their geo-political positioning, but they have all called for peace, dialogue, respect for the UN Charter and for international law, and for protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity.