Interview with Ambassador Pankaj Saran | War in Ukraine

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Interview with Ambassador Pankaj Saran | War in Ukraine
What next for Russia, Ukraine, Europe, South Asia & India, and China

  Harini Madhusudan, Rishma Banerjee, Padmashree Anandhan, Ashwin Immanuel Dhanabalan, and Avishka Ashok

I Russia

Harini Madhusudan: While EU, NATO have come forth and announced sanctions, the larger international organizations (except UNHRC) have remained silent over the war in the region. Is there a reason to this silence? Should we then assume that the war is between NATO and Russia? (This is referring to the active support of many countries in supplying intelligence, weapons and other things.) This is because many of these countries are giving Ukraine access to high- end ammunition and weaponry.

Amb Pankaj Saran: As far as the United Nations is concerned, there are laid down procedures on which organizations will be responsible for international peace and security. The primary organization is the Security Council. Other organs and specialised bodies like on trade or health or migration have their own mandates. For example, when you look at the flow of refugees, then the UNHCR has a role to play because there is a flow of refugees from Ukraine to its neighbours along with the question of the internally displaced persons.

As far as the reaction of the world is concerned countries across the globe have by and large maintained silence over the conflict. Countries that have taken frontal positions are basically the parties to the conflict, which are the Europeans, members of NATO, the US and its allies such as Japan, Australia and South Korea. There is a contest underway to shape an architecture of European security in which Russia is a major stakeholder. What is happening in Ukraine today is the culmination of several years of a proxy war to establish or promote the security of one country at the expense of another. The Russian position is that security cannot be one-sided. Russia wants security to be equal, and indivisible. The first warning signs came from the Russian perspective in 2014 when the pro-Russian President was dislodged and replaced by someone who wanted close relations with Europe. From 2014 to 2022, there have been several negotiations between the Russians and Europe, including France and Germany and NATO. The fact that we have reached this stage today is a reflection of the failure of diplomacy and the fault for that lies on all sides. There is a NATO-Russia standoff, in which Ukraine has become a battleground. Additionally, there are differences between Europe and the United States, and within Europe itself. It is also a function of domestic politics within the United States. The US had a fairly different policy towards Ukraine under the Trump Administration as compared to Democrats. But India should be able to step aside and take an objective of the situation. You will not find a solution or an equilibrium unless and until all sides are reasonably assured that their vital security interests are protected.

Harini Madhusudan: The Global Energy crisis began before the tensions that preceded the War. We know that the European countries had already been spending a lot to ease energy related inflation. Isolating Russian oil imports in the context of Biden stopping one of their pipelines and the drilling of natural gas in the US... would be a grave scenario for the oil and petroleum industry. One can see this energy supply being controlled. And we're also seeing them applying sanctions on Russia. While Russia remains the biggest supplier of oil, the sanctions attempt to stop supplies from the Russian side. How do we see this as an energy crisis? And how will it impact the rest of the world, India or China?

Amb Pankaj Saran: Historically, Russia was the largest supplier of gas to Europe, even when it was the Soviet Union. A whole network of pipelines and dependencies was built. Some countries like Germany were much more dependent. Ukraine was a transit point for taking this gas to Europe. Consumer countries are now using energy as a weapon to weaken Russia and its economic base. It is difficult to say what is the end objective of weakening Russia or crippling its oil and gas industry. Europe’s decision to reduce its dependency on Russia is going to take time to take effect and will not happen overnight. The Nord Stream II pipeline between Russia and Germany has been under construction for ten years. It is a multi-billion-dollar pipeline. In fact, there were problems between Germany and the United States due to this pipeline.

Russia was never a major supplier of energy to India, although India always saw Russia as an important energy partner. We have invested close to $15 billion in the last 10 years in getting stakes in Russian oil fields in Siberia and the Far East. For example, the first major acquisition of Russian gas and oil that India made was in Sakhalin-2 in 2002. And these investments made are with an eye on the future. India’s per capita consumption of energy is among the lowest in the world. If India wants to grow at eight to ten per cent a year, we will need every single drop of oil from every single corner of the world. We will not have the luxury of choosing. Thus, when some party tells India to import from A and not B it becomes difficult to concede to such an argument. India will always treat Russia as a potential source of energy for our growth and future requirements. In the short term, there is a certain disruption in energy prices and all players look to advance their

interests. The other big change is that America itself has now become an energy supplier because of shale oil and it has become one of the major suppliers of oil, gas and LNG to India. In the medium and long term, India should use this crisis as an opportunity to transit to non-hydrocarbon, non-fossil and green sources of energy such as solar, wind and hydro in an attempt to become energy independent.

II Ukraine

Rishma Banerjee: The western weapons, which Ukraine’s forces have already been trained on are gradually coming in now. Do you think this will shift the momentum in Sievierodonetsk, or broadly speaking Eastern Ukraine? Or are we more likely to see it fall to a similar fate as Mariupol, after prolonged fighting?

Amb Pankaj Saran: The supply of weapons to Ukraine is a double-edged sword. If the war keeps getting prolonged the worst victims will be the people of Ukraine. So while Ukraine may like and welcome Western military supplies, the victims of the collateral damage are going to be the Ukrainians.

A second aspect is that Ukraine also has an absorptive capacity problem. How much of these weapons can it absorb? How well- trained is its military to utilise these and will this flow be sufficient to repel the enemy and defeat the Russian forces? And if not, will the demands for more sophisticated weapons grow? Should it escalate into more lethal weapons? It must be remembered that the Russian Armed Forces are structured and equipped not to fight Ukraine, but to fight NATO. Therefore, the scale and the magnitude of the Russian armed military machine can be imagined. To imagine that there will be a Ukrainian victory which will not be contested by Russia is difficult. It should be assumed that the Russian Army will, in the long term prevail.

Rishma Banerjee: We know president Zelenskyy has said that to Ukraine, victory will be, going back to the pre-2014 configuration of the country. Meanwhile, Russia initially had the aim of a regime change in Ukraine. Then they said their goal is to liberate Donbas. So, after over 100 days of the war, what do you think victory now looks like to Russia? Or what kind of achievement in the country should Russia consider a victory?

Amb Pankaj Saran: What is the basis of the assumption that this is a conflict which can be counted in days and not in months? Why is it being assumed that the Russians are not ready to stay there for one year or two years? On what basis is it being presumed that Russia wanted to do something in one week? We have no evidence to prove this assertion. After all, in Afghanistan, the NATO was there for 20 years. The US and western powers were there in Iraq, Syria and Libya for years. There was huge loss of life particularly on the civilian side. What distinguishes a major military power from the rest of the world is that it has the capacity and the will to fight and use hard power. Russian forces will continue to stay. They do not seem to be in any hurry to come out until such time as they have calculated that they have reached a point of diminishing return and that the primary objectives have been fulfilled.

They have also had Russian military operations in Afghanistan and in Syria. The Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan but the Russian military operations in Syria were a success from their point of view. They realise that they should not fall into should not fall into the trap of a second Afghanistan. The final Russian objectives are unclear. Is it to occupy the Donbass and Luhansk? Is it to comprehensively defeat the Azov battalion and the anti-Russian forces so that they do not attack Russian citizens and civilians, say for the next 10 or 20 years? Is it to completely destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure? What President Putin seems to be doing is to convey a signal to the current government in Ukraine and to the Europeans and NATO that Russia has a problem with the current situation in the Donbass region. I do not believe Russia is targeting any other European country. It is not a classical military conflict but an overlay of ethnic and religious and cultural tensions and a lot of historical baggage. In some ways, Russian victory is already there, because Russia has shown to Europe and to NATO that they are prepared to take the extreme step to preserve and to defend their security interests in Ukraine. The Minsk agreements were a negotiated agreement. But they were complicated and extremely difficult to implement. They had a component of internal devolution of power, similar to the proposed 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka’s Constitution which sought to give autonomy to the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The logic accepted by all sides was to recognise the cultural differences of the Russian population in the Donbass region.

Rishma Banerjee: North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, all these countries have been looking to expedite their accession to the EU. Sweden and Finland are doing the same for NATO. How far do you think the conflict in Ukraine is responsible for this increased haste, and has Russia’s invasion been counterproductive to their interests in the region? Which organization between NATO and the EU do you think Ukraine will be able to join first?

Amb Pankaj Saran: If you look at the European Union's history, they started with the Steel and Coal Community and gradually went on to economic and then political integration. They realised after the Euro crisis that they had problems. The European ability to govern itself came under question. Brexit added to the loss of confidence in the EU. The EU’s internal mechanisms and structures are complicated. Even today, among the 27 of them, decision making is difficult. So, it is not as if the Ukrainian application will be accepted today or tomorrow. Turkey has been waiting for thirty years. During the economic crisis in Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain, there was a significant divide between Southern Europe and Northern Europe. The EU will be careful about unbridled expansion.

The European Union’s expansion is not, in my view, a great problem for Russia. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, one of the visions that they had was of a common Euro- Atlantic community which included Russia as part of Europe. There was this famous speech by President Putin about a European community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. It was a kind of a visionary thing that never happened. But the paradox is that the economic integration of Europe has taken place much more with China than with Russia. This is a reflection of the failure of the Russian economy, that despite being a neighbour of Europe, its integration with Europe is limited. China’s trade and economic ties with Europe on the other hand have boomed. In terms of which organization Ukraine is likely to be admitted first, some sort of association with the EU seems more likely, rather than NATO membership. Even when it comes to the EU, there are doubts within Europe about Ukraine's internal governance, corruption, democracy, neo-Nazi racist ideology, etc, which are not in sync with “European values”. NATO is a treaty based military alliance whose member states have legal obligations. These could even lead to war with Russia. The NATO will therefore be cautious in taking in Ukraine atleast at this time.

III Europe

Padmashree Anandhan: How do you think Russia would respond or should respond to NATO’s expansion in the eastern, northern Europe especially in the Baltic and Nordic region? How will the future cooperation be in terms of Arctic research between NATO and Russia?

Amb Pankaj Saran: On the question on NATO’s expansion, one of the Russians had commented the other day that insofar as Russia is concerned they already treating neighbours like Finland and Sweden as de facto NATO countries. I do not think Russia has many choices if these countries actually become members of NATO because there is not much Russia can do about it. The only thing which will happen is that Russian military expenditure will grow and so will the importance of the security establishment within the Russian Government. So you might perhaps see a more militarised Russia. You will just have a more dangerous Europe and it will not be good for us as India or for global stability.

The Arctic is a futuristic area of geopolitical and geostrategic contestation, because the Russian Arctic coastline constitutes fifty per cent of the entire Arctic area. India has just released its Arctic Policy document. The Northern Sea Route is something that needs to be studied by us to assess its implications. There are differences between Russian and Chinese interests, apart from the dynamics between the US, Russia and the Nordic countries.

Padmashree Anandhan: Belarus, Hungary, and Turkey are few European countries causing a challenge to the EU’s integration and decision-making progress, how will Russia’s influence take shape or will it intensify to deepen the divide.

Amb Pankaj Saran: Each of these countries has a different history. The EU did not accept the results of last year’s elections in Belarus in which President Lukashenko was re- elected. The relationship between Belarus- Russia today is strong. The greater the European pressure on Belarus, the more Russia and Belarus will coalesce.

Turkey is the odd man out. It is a member of the NATO. In some ways it is the opposite of Ukraine. It has already got NATO membership but the Europeans are not admitting it. Despite advocating human rights and universal values of equality, the EU has reservations about Turkey on account of its religious character. Turkey is also playing all sides by keeping good relations with Russia and cooperating with it in Syria.

Hungary is an interesting case, which shows the problems within the EU. The Hungarian Prime Minister basically said no to everything else the EU was saying on Russia. There were similarly sharp differences among the European countries during the Syrian refugee crisis a few years ago, when they were welcomed by Germany but there was opposition by many other countries. As India, we should study and be aware of the internal contradictions within Europe which are not being reflected adequately in our public discourse.

Padmashree Anandhan: Minsk agreements, peace treaties or the Normandy format talks held after the Crimean annexation failed. If any such agreement is signed post-Ukraine war or after the conflict slows down, how far Russia will stand put. The gap between Crimean annexation and Ukraine invasion is less than a decade, if Russia would launch war in the next decade, which state would be its target?

Amb Pankaj Saran: There is a concept in international politics of frozen conflicts. There are some conflicts for which there are no solutions. I do not see Crimea going back to Ukraine. But in every war, you always have agreements, treaties, and Accords which provide an honourable exit or a face saver to all sides. The negotiations will be difficult, and whatever settlement is reached has to be acceptable domestically to the people in Russia, Ukraine and to the Europeans. This is the only sustainable solution. In the Minsk agreements, Russia was not a signatory. Now that this war has happened, it will take years of negotiation to find a successor agreement to Minsk. It will require real leadership from Europeans. We will have to see if a leader or a group of leaders from Europe or outside can emerge who are in a position to be genuine mediators between Russia and Ukraine. Like a Contact Group of the kind there was during the Korean War when India was also involved.

I do not think Russia is targeting any other country. Its primary goal seems to be to ensure security on its periphery. At the broader military level, both sides, ie Russia and NATO will continue to ensure conventional balance and nuclear parity between them. This is not going to change. Neither side will allow any new asymmetries to develop.

South Asia & China

Ashwin Immanuel Dhanabalan: With the war in Ukraine continuing and the growing authoritarianism rising in South Asia, be it with Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, what role could India play within the region?

And what role could India play globally, as even Lavrov had mentioned that India could be a mediator in the war a few months back? Not looking at the war as a crisis but more as an opportunity, what is your perspective?

Amb Pankaj Saran: Rather than a trend towards growing authoritarianism, the trend is more towards growing nationalism, away from the idea of a global village which India believes in. The behaviour of major powers in the last few years has been narrow and self-centered. This is true of the policies and actions we have seen from the US or China and now from Russia. They have kept their national interests uppermost while taking decisions on matters that affect the world. For example, the American decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was taken not to serve any larger good but because it was a domestic political issue. This is when it was well known that sudden US withdrawal would create serious problems for Afghanistan and the region.

The other feature of the current crisis is that you cannot identify a leader or a nation which can step up and try to find a solution. It is of concern that the traditional “guardians” of the global international order are today the ones who are at loggerheads with each other. The five permanent members of the Security Council were the ones who were supposed to be the sole arbiters of global peace and security. Of those, two that is Russia and China are on side and three are on the other side. If that inner sanctum sanctorum is in conflict with itself, where would countries like India or anyone else go to with their problems? It is a crisis of international management. It is a reflection of the inability of the United Nations system to solve contemporary problems. Cynically speaking, every country is on its own. And if you have a problem, you better be equipped to deal with it. We learned this the hard way during COVID-19, and it led to the concept of Atma Nirbharta or self-reliance. One needs to strengthen national power to deal with a crisis, whether it is a health related one or military aggression of the kind we saw from China in 2020.

With regard to South Asia, India’s role is always going to be a dominant and leading one. Sometimes it is welcomed; sometimes, it is not welcomed, but India is there to stay. Our neighbours are there to stay. The phenomenon of authoritarianism in Afghanistan, Myanmar, or Sri Lanka is real but it does not have any linkage with Ukraine. Each of these countries has its own dynamics and its own history. We should treat each of them on their own. The situation in Mynamar revolving around the takeover of power by the military junta has its own unique characteristics and impact on India’s security along the border. In Afghanistan the impact on India of the takeover by the Taliban is different. One of the biggest casualties of the Ukrainian war is the Afghan people. Their plight has been forgotten. Afghanistan is a disaster waiting to happen. Its economy has collapsed, the administration has collapsed....the impact of Afghanistan will be felt in India in terms of security, radicalization, extremism and drugs. Therefore, in this milieu we must continuously enhance our national power in all dimensions.

Avishka Ashok: Considering the unconditional friendship between Russia and China, the past few years have however seen much closer relations, primarily because of the heads of the two states. However, Xi and Putin may be closer to the end of their tenure and there may be a change in leadership in both these countries. What kind of future leadership can we expect in Russia and how would this affect the bilateral relations between the two countries?

Amb Pankaj Saran: The evolution of Russia’s political system has a common thread running through it, that of a strong centre and a strong leader. The Communist Revolution tried to democratize governance through the creation of Soviets or local parliaments, the cooperatives and collective farms. Despite Lenin’s vision, the country had a leader like Stalin for over three decades. Even the Gorbachev phenomenon was not a result of a democratic election. He was the product of the Communist Party who had a meteoric rise in the party at a young age. The closest Russia has come to a democratic election is during the tenure of Boris Yeltsin in 1991. That system, however, did not endure after Yeltsin’s failing health. The selection of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor is also shrouded in mystery.

When we speak of the future of Russia after Putin, we should see if there is a realistic mechanism that provides for transfer of power and gives genuine democratic choice to the people of Russia to choose their political leader. There have been numerous amendments to the Constitution and it is undecided if President Putin will, at some point, step down or ask the people to elect a new leader. What we do know is that Russia has a young a modern population. The post- 1991 generation has close affinity with Europe and a desire for a good lifestyle and access to the world. On the other hand, the security apparatus and other related sections of the establishment in Russia are powerful. They will also have a major say in the running of the country in the future.

Russia and China have become closer in the past few years, mainly because of Western pressure on Russia which pushes the country towards China. There is however also the latent feeling in Russia that unlike it, China did not go through a 1991 type catharsis and is at present an economic powerhouse and global leader. It hurts Russia’s pride at being considered a junior partner to China. It is simplistic to assume that the China-Russia relationship is smooth and without problems. China is increasingly challenging Russia’s defence export markets and its position as a technology power. Russia will always look to diversify its foreign policy options and that is where India plays a significant role.

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