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Russia-Ukraine conflict: It looks like a long battle and India may need to tackle multiple concerns, say international-relations experts

Russia may never get a status quo it wants from Ukraine, NATO and EU, and the offensive is already costing India

February 25, 2022 / 12:02 PM IST
Crash site of Ukrainian Armed Forces' Antonov aircraft. (Photo courtesy: Ukrainian State Emergency Service/via REUTERS)

Crash site of Ukrainian Armed Forces' Antonov aircraft. (Photo courtesy: Ukrainian State Emergency Service/via REUTERS)

The Russian offensive against Ukraine may end only after a friendly government is installed in Kiev, according to former diplomats.

A few who spoke to Moneycontrol were sceptical if any captured territory would be returned at all.

On February 24, Russia launched a military assault on its neighbour in retaliation to what it sees as North American Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) expansion to the east.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in his speech following the action called NATO an “instrument of US foreign policy”.

Former Indian Ambassador G Parthasarathy, told Moneycontrol that the trust quotient between the US and Russia is at its lowest “and it remains to be seen if captured territory is returned to Ukraine”.

One Indian diplomat, who had served in Moscow, said there was no question of Russia vacating the territory it now held in Ukraine. He added that installing a friendly regime there was Putin’s principal aim.

Read also: Market rout over Russia-Ukraine crisis, investors poorer by Rs 13 trillion in a day

There is little chance that NATO, the European Union (EU) or the Americans would agree to the Kremlin's stated demands: guarantees from the West that NATO would not accept Ukraine and other former Soviet nations as members, halt weapon deployments there and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.

India is caught in a tough spot. Said former Indian Ambassador Navdeep Suri: “A war is bad news for India. Both the USA and Russia want India on their side. Where do you go?”

What about fears that this act of aggression by Russia, who is China’s ally, could give impetus to the latter’s push into Indian territory? Suri dismissed such concerns.

“I don’t think that is true or believable,” Suri told Moneycontrol.

Import-bill hike

Besides placing India in a diplomatic quagmire, the conflict can also raise its import bill. 

Ukraine exports a huge quantity of sunflower oil to India. The present crisis has affected exports and if Russia stifles access of Ukraine to Black Sea, then exports of sunflower oil will become unviable for reasons of freight costs.

The alternative is palm oil and, within hours of the war being declared, its prices shot up. India imports nearly 60% of its palm oil from Indonesia and 40% from Malaysia, so the conflict indirectly benefits the Southeast Asian countries. 

With prices of edible oil and crude escalating, the spectre of inflation looms larger over India.

Read also: Five essential commodities that will be hit by the war

Stranded students

Meanwhile, there were SOS messages being sent out to some 18,000 Indian students stranded in Ukraine. An advisory by the Indian Embassy on 20 February had announced that in view of “continued high levels of tensions and uncertainties with respect to Ukraine, all Indian nationals whose stay is not deemed essential and all Indian students, are advised to leave Ukraine temporarily. Available commercial flights and charter flights may be availed for travel, for orderly and timely departure.”

India had announced a ban on all flights between India and Ukraine, even though Ukraine had kept its airspace open. But India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation has since lifted that ban under an ‘air bubble’ arrangement with Ukraine, and discussions are underway between the ministries of external affairs and civil aviation and several airlines about increasing the number of flights to bring back Indian citizens, but the cost of those flights is a concern for students.

It is particularly worrying because Ukraine’s infrastructure seems to be under attack. 

Putin’s counterpart, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had carried out missile strikes on Ukraine's infrastructure and on border guards.

Russia's defence ministry has denied attacking Ukrainian cities–saying it was targeting military infrastructure, air defence and air forces with `high-precision weapons’.

Tracking Russian advance

According to officials in Ukraine, tanks and troops have poured into their countries along its eastern, southern, and northern borders.

Russian military convoys have crossed from Belarus into Ukraine's northern Chernihiv region, and from Russia into the Sumy region, which is also in the north, Ukraine's border guard service (DPSU) said.

Belarus is a long-time ally of Russia with analysts describing the small country as Russia's "client state".

Eyewitness accounts say that Russian military convoys have also entered the eastern Luhansk and Kharkiv regions and moved into the Kherson region in the south, from Crimea–a territory that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Read also: India's position remains realistic, balanced

Battle of unequals

There is no comparison between Russia's army, which has about 280,000 personnel and its combined armed forces total about 900,000, while its 2,840 battle tanks outnumber Ukraine's by more than three to one, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Ukraine's forces have gained combat experience in the Donbass region in the east of the country, where they have been fighting Russia-backed separatists since 2014, and are highly motivated.

They also have short-range air defences and anti-tank weaponry, including U.S.-supplied Javelin missiles, which would help to slow any Russian advance.

Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.