Rajat Sharma

Will the war in Ukraine escalate?

akb fullIt is a scenario that could lead all of us to the brink of a Third World War. For the last two days, Russian armed forces have launched an invasion by land, air and sea, and have entered deep inside Ukraine. This invasion has caused widespread destruction and havoc in several cities. Russian tanks are moving towards the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, but its progress has been halted near Ivankov, halfway from the border to the capital.

People across the world watched in horror, visuals of ballistic missiles being rained by the Russian army on the Ukrainian capital and other cities. On Friday dawn, Russian army carried out rocket strikes on the capital, which was described by the Ukrainian foreign minister as “horrific”. He said, last time such attacks took place on Kyiv was in 1941, when German Nazi army had attacked the capital during the Second World War.

Fierce fighting is going on between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Trostyanets and Akhtyrka in Sumy region, and in Kharkiv, even as the Russian army has captured Chernobyl nuclear power plant and its army units are approaching the capital Kyiv, and several other cities. Russian air force carried out air strikes on Vilkovo and Tiraspol, while in western Ukraine, Russian army carried out heavy shelling in Starobilsk causing widespread damage. More than a lakh residents have started fleeing the cities of Ukraine in the face of Russian attacks, as the cities have been rocked by gunfire and missile attacks.

According to the Ukrainian President, at least 137 Ukrainians, including soldiers, have been killed since the Russian invasion, and 316 have been wounded. On the first day of the Russian invasion, Russia claimed, its army destroyed 83 specific targets inside Ukraine, while Ukraine claimed its army destroyed four Russian tanks near Kharkiv, killed 50 Russian soldiers in Luhansk and downed six Russian planes in the eastern part. All these claims could not be verified independently. Russian-backed separatists claimed they downed two Ukrainian planes.

The United States has decided not to send its armed forces into Ukraine. On Thursday night, US President Joe Biden said “our forces will not be engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine. …The US will defend every inch of NATO territory with a full force of American power”. Biden announced freezing of all Russian assets in the US, and imposed sanctions on four more Russian banks.

Describing the Russian invasion as “premeditated”, Biden alleged that the Russian President has been planning this invasion for the last several months. He said, the US will limit Russia’s ability to do business in dollars, euros, pounds and yen, to be part of global economy. Biden said, “Putin is the aggressor, Putin chose this war and now, he and his country will bear the consequences”.

On Thursday, the Ukrainian ambassador in Delhi sought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s help in defusing the crisis. Modi, after a top-level meeting Cabinet Committee on Security, had a telephonic talk with President Putin on Thursday night, during which he appealed for an immediate “cessation of violence” and called for concerted efforts from all sides to return to the path of diplomatic negotiations and dialogue”.

Modi also told Putin that India was concerned about the safety of its citizens in Ukraine, especially students, and said, India attaches the highest priority to their safe exit and return to India. On his part, Putin explained the “fundamental assessments” of Ukraine’s “aggressive actions against the civilian population of Donbass”. Putin told Modi that “given these circumstances and also the US and NATO allies’ military developments on Ukraine territory, unacceptable to Russia, he decided to launch the military operation.”

On Thursday late night, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had separate telephonic talks with Indian foreign minister S. Jayashankar. The Indian foreign minister told both of them that “dialogue and diplomacy are the best way forward” to resolve the crisis.

On the ground, the situation is now crystal clear. The US and its NATO allies have been issuing statements warning Russia, but on the ground, the West, led by the US, has refrained from sending its troops to help Ukraine from protecting its territory from Russian invasion. The only tangible steps taken till now have been severe economic sanctions against Russia by the US and its allies. US President Biden has called a virtual meet of all NATO countries, but it is unlikely that NATO forces will enter Ukraine to take on the Russians.

Compared to Ukraine, Russia is a giant. Ukraine has nearly 2 lakh soldiers, while the Russian army has 8.5 lakh soldiers. Russia has 544 attack helicopters, while Ukraine has only 34 attack helicopters. Already, Russian air force has gained air superiority over the Ukrainian sky. Russia has 12,420 tanks, while Ukraine has nearly 2,500 tanks. Russia has 772 warships, while Ukraine has 73. Russia has one aircraft carrier, 15 destroyers and 70 submarines, while Ukraine has none.

China has openly taken sides with Russia in the Ukrainian crisis. It has blamed the US for this crisis. It has alleged that the US is trying to build up tension by arming Ukraine. China has refused to call it a Russian invasion.

Chances of the United Nations Security Council are slim, because both Russia and China have veto power. Ukraine has sought India’s help, which is indicative of India’s growing clout due to Narendra Modi’s strong leadership. For India, choosing sides between the US and Russia is a difficult one. Russia is India’s old and time-tested friend. The US is India’s strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region. US-Indian relations have reached a new height.

India will now have to strike a balance between both world powers. India’s present focus is on the safe exit of nearly 20 thousand Indians trapped inside Ukraine. In my ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ show on Thursday night, we showed mothers crying for the safety of their sons and daughters, presently in Ukraine. Indian embassies in eastern Europe have opened helplines to provide assistance to Indian students trapped in Ukraine. Our students should have trust in the Indian government. I remember how Prime Minister Modi sent his minister retd General V K Singh to Yemen, for the safe return of Indians at a time there was firing and shelling from both sides.

The Ukraine war has caused a huge impact on world stock markets, including India, while the price of Brent crude has gone up. This will have serious implications in India, and there are signs that fuel prices in India may increase by the first week of March.

Strategically, what is happening in Ukraine is only a trailer of Russia’s military prowess. In a war, Ukraine stands nowhere against Russia, which has the capability to occupy the entire country within 24 hours, but Putin refrained from doing that. He named it as “special military operation”. By doing so, Putin has conveyed the message to the US and the West, that it does not bother the least about sanctions. Putin does not want the NATO forces to be deployed near the Russian border, if Ukraine is made a member of NATO.

Putin is insistent on his demand that the government in Kiev must announce that it will never become a member of NATO. Putin’s military pressure is aimed at achieving this limited objective. Putin is also taking advantage of the differences of opinion between France and Germany on this issue. Putin also knows that Russia has limited economic power, which can withstand the severe sanctions that have been imposed by the US and its allies.

From economic point of view, Putin cannot carry on the Ukraine war for long. The expected corollary is this: Putin may now seek a bargain, for bringing the invasion to a halt. He may demand that NATO forces withdraw from the Russian borders. But when a war begins, there are possibilities of escalation. A minor error can spread the flames of war. It is better to wait and watch. To jump to an early conclusion will not be correct.

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