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Russia’s military has moved into Ukraine despite threats of sanctions repeated ad nauseum by President Biden and other leaders of the West. Obviously, the repeated threats of sanctions have not made any difference to Putin’s behavior. This should not surprise anyone as the sanctions imposed on Russia when it annexed the Crimea in 2014 did not compel Putin to reverse the annexation. President Biden’s threatening President Putin with sanctions reminds one of Einstein’s saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different result”.

Now that war has broken out, let us try to understand why. This is a war of choice and could have been avoided by using diplomacy. I cannot help criticizing Presidents Biden, Putin, and Zelensky. They have by their commissions and omissions contributed to the tragic situation we find ourselves in, described by EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, as the darkest hour since the end of World War 2.

When President Putin demanded security guarantees from U.S. and NATO, he did not get a proper response. Putin had to give in writing what he wanted. This is not the best diplomatic practice. The right way is to discuss and then to reduce to writing, perhaps as a draft for further discussions. The principal demand of Putin was clear. First, NATO should not admit Ukraine as deployment of missiles so close to Russia was a threat to it. Instead of addressing Putin’s concern, Biden publicly stated and repeated many a times that Ukraine had every right to seek admission and NATO had every right to consider Ukraine’s request.

It is a pity that the State Department’s historian did not get a chance to tell Biden that 2022 was a repeat of 1962 Cuban missiles crisis. President Kennedy did not accept the argument that Cuba had the right to get weapons of its choice from the Soviet Union as it (Cuba) felt threatened by its big neighbor. Kennedy negotiated with Khrushchev who agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba against an undertaking from Kennedy to remove missiles from Turkey. Since it was embarrassing for Kennedy to give in writing about such removal from Turkey, Khrushchev agreed to accept a verbal promise. In short, Biden could have and should have handled the matter with better diplomatic finesse. We have every reason to expect mature diplomacy from him as he entered the White House with better and longer foreign policy experience than any other president in history. Is it the case that Biden was tempted to avail of a foreign policy crisis to reverse his popularity rating?

Coming to Putin, his national security concerns about NATO’s coming to Ukraine are legitimate. The NATO was established in 1949 to “keep the Soviet Union out and Germany down”. The Soviet Union is history and there is no reason to believe that the Federal Germany is going to be a military power wanting to dominate the continent. In fact, the unification of Germany took place in 1990 only because Gorbachev agreed to it and withdrew the Soviet military from East Germany. At that time the West gave an undertaking verbally, not in writing, that the NATO would not expand eastward.

In any case, when the Soviet Union collapsed there was a window of opportunity for America to free itself from the stranglehold of the military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower had warned his compatriots way back in 1961, and to induct Russia into a cooperative security framework. That was not done and the NATO expansion continued. Of course, such a drastic course correction could not have been expected of Biden.

Coming back to President Putin, while his security concerns are legitimate, he could have acted better. It may be that constant demonization by the West made him lose his cool. A leader is required to be as imperturbable as an Indian yogi. Putin’s public pronouncements to the effect that Ukraine had no right to exist as an independent nation in a way justified to an extent those who demonized him. He could have recognized the two ‘republics’ and waited for the response of Biden. It was clear that NATO was not going to send any boots and if Ukraine started military action against the two ‘republics’, Putin could have waited for a day or two, demanded that Biden use his clout to end such action and then reacted.

It is true that Putin has a war chest of about $620 billion and the economy can withstand the sanctions for a while. However, the relations between Russia and China will become even more unequal to the disadvantage of the former.

Coming to Zelensky, he has acted recklessly. He publicly asked the West to impose sanctions on Russia to prevent it from attacking his country. He should have known better. The Europeans were not in a hurry and in any case the slapping of sanctions would have provoked a military move from Putin. Zelensky should have known that if attacked, speeches at UN and money and arms from the West were not going to save him.

I do not expect any large-scale war in Europe. Putin will declare victory after he has made the territorial gains including a land corridor to the Crimea. He can even withdraw a good part of his forces too.

On the other hand, if NATO makes any move to further increase its forces in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and elsewhere, Putin might agree to the request of Belarus to have nuclear weapons placed there.

Coming to India, the 20,000 and odd students and others could have been evacuated earlier either to India or to a neighboring country. In such situations prudence should prevail. The larger question is whether India can keep its good relations with both America and Russia. Diplomacy requires the ability to dance with more than one partner at a time. I am confident that Indian diplomacy can do that. More specifically, India should not give in if it comes under pressure on S-400.

Ambassador K P Fabian served in Indian Foreign Service from 1964 to 2000 when he retired from Rome as Ambassador to Italy and Permanent Representative to UN in Rome. Currently, Ambassador Fabian is Professor at Symbiosis and at Indian Society of International Law. He has published ‘Common Sense on War on Iraq’ and ‘Diplomacy : Indian Style’. His book ‘The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t’ is due to be published by MacMillan.


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