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Ukraine has become a proxy war between Russia and the West: Venkatesh Varma, former Indian ambassador to Moscow

Varma feels that the current stalemate in the war will be broken with Russia gaining the upper hand.

February 24, 2023 / 04:38 PM IST
Venkatesh Varma, former Indian ambassador to Moscow

Venkatesh Varma, former Indian ambassador to Moscow

Note to readers: This is the first in a series of interviews with strategic experts on the implications of Russia's war on Ukraine that's ongoing for a year. You can read the rest here, here, and here.

Contrary to what was believed, the Ukraine conflict did not turn out to be a short war. It is now entering its second year without any serious attempt by the contending parties to prepare for negotiations to bring it to an end. The long war has disrupted the supply of energy, food and other essential items affecting the global economy and bringing misery and hardship to the poor and developing countries. In the coming days, the war is likely to intensify, worsening an already bad situation. India has been consistent in its call for the cessation of violence and an early return to the talks-table to restore peace and normalcy.

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D.B. Venkatesh Varma was a member of the Indian Foreign Service from 1988 to 2021. He is one of the best-known Russian experts in India. As a career diplomat, he has served thrice in Moscow, including as India’s ambassador to the Russian Federation until October 2021. He spoke to Pranay Sharma about the Ukraine war and how the conflict is likely to pan out in the coming days.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

The Ukraine War is now entering its second year. What should we expect in the coming weeks?

There is a military stalemate after a year of conflict, where the battlefield has shifted several times. Russia has occupied the whole of Lugansk and a substantial portion of Donetsk, apart from Mariupol, which gives it control over the Azov Sea. Ukrainian army defensive positions in Donbass are being eroded by Russian forces through slow attrition like last seen in the trench battles of the First world war. Russia is still too weak now to gain a decisive military victory and Ukraine is still too strong for its decisive defeat. But both sides are preparing for late spring military operations—Russia has mobilised new units and Ukraine is being armed by NATO with more modern tanks and artillery systems.

What is likely to happen?

While it is difficult to make predictions, my expectation is that this stalemate will be broken with Russia gaining the upper hand, which US and NATO are determined to prevent. However, Russia has demonstrated, despite a less than competent military campaign, to stay the course, undertake a massive military build-up despite sanctions and show strategic patience. In such situations, the side with greater resources and staying power will prevail. In this case, it is Russia.

Russia went into the war by describing developments related to Ukraine as posing an existential threat to it. How justified was Russia to frame it as such?

Big powers are geopolitical powers, where their security interests extend beyond their geographical borders. Russian weakness was the primary reason for the shrinking of this geopolitical space over time since 1991. Russia was too weak to prevent five waves of NATO expansion. Ukraine in NATO was always a Russian redline. Ukraine as an independent country is entitled to its foreign and security policy choices consistent with its internal preferences. On the latter, Ukraine was a divided country, with the East having strong Russian linkages. A civil war thus has morphed into an outright military conflict between Russia and Ukraine and a proxy war between Russia and the West. It’s now an existential conflict for both sides. Hence, the way both sides define war aims in absolute terms, making war termination and restoration of peace more difficult.

Vladimir Putin had thought the war would be over soon after it began. Why did he miscalculate it so much?

There was a miscalculation of Russian military competence, Ukrainian resistance and the massive assistance that the US and NATO were prepared to give to prop up Ukraine. But the Russian military has learnt its lessons and is incorporating them into its strategy in Ukraine. Russian losses have fallen but Ukrainian losses have not. This is the most significant differential in the ongoing war.

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In the initial days of the war, you had suggested that the United States will be dragged into the quagmire of Ukraine. In what ways has it been affected?

My assessment of a year ago is playing out fully. This is now a Russia-US proxy war. Russia is fighting against US proxy forces in Ukraine but it’s not just about Ukraine. Russia is fighting in its backyard. The US is fighting a new war, one without end in Europe. It is a quagmire for both, with global implications and will have a major impact on the US’ ability to conduct a viable Indo-pacific strategy against China. I do not think we in India fully realise the gravity of the global imbalance in the commitments of big powers, which currently favours China.

What does the incremental increase in the quality of weapons being supplied by the West to Ukraine mean with more sophisticated arms being given to Kyiv as the war drags on?

It is a recipe for open-ended escalation, despite the contending powers being nuclear-armed superpowers. It’s a dangerous situation in that neither side is prepared to seek mutual accommodation of interests on the negotiating table until they have an upper hand on the battlefield.

The US pitched the Ukraine war as a fight between democracy and autocracy and was extremely disappointed for India not joining the western countries against Russia. How justified has the Indian stand been?

India’s moderate stand has been vindicated. We have not accepted the western framing of the conflict. In fact, there are very few takers for it in the Global South. Having said that, India has conveyed to Russia and Ukraine our strong preference for peace and restoration of dialogue and diplomacy. We have preserved our relations with Russia in light of our vital interests in Defence and energy. I would say that Indian diplomacy has been effective and successful in promoting our interests.

Many western experts said the Ukraine war showed the weakness of both the Russian military and its weapons. Should this be an area of worry for India as it is dependent on Moscow for more than 50 percent of its arms?

There have been serious questions about Russian military strategy in the early phases of the war. While India has several Russian-origin weapons, we follow our own military doctrine and strategy. The Russian defence industry is going through some difficult times and as such creates downstream supply hurdles for our armed forces. These difficulties should not be over-exaggerated as due to increased budgets, the Russian defence industry will bounce back including with advanced battle-tested weapons. India should continue its policy of reducing dependence on foreign sources, be it Russian or others, and promote Make in India. Russia is well poised to support Indian defence manufacturing as seen in the commencement of the indigenous manufacture of the AK-203.

Russia’s dependence on China has grown significantly since the war began. How does this affect India, which continues to have tense relations with China?

Though there is no military alliance between Russia and China, both have a common but not equal interest in coordinating their positions against the US. China has for now stopped short of extending military aid to Russia though like India is a major importer of concessional energy exports, despite western sanctions. Despite its difficulties, Russia will not allow its relations with China to impact its relations with India negatively. China’s growth is seen as a threat in Russia. It is not so in the case of India’s growth and development, which is seen as consistent with Russian self-interest. That is the reason why our strategic partnership with Russia has survived so many storms but has emerged stronger.

Pranay Sharma
Pranay Sharma
first published: Feb 22, 2023 03:01 pm