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A storm brewing in Kyiv for New Delhi; India must prepare for impact of military conflict in Ukraine

Source : The Economic Times

A storm brewing in Kyiv for New Delhi; India must prepare for impact of military conflict in Ukraine
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Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach may have had to step down as Germany’s navy chief for his comments in India on being more accommodating to Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine stand-off. But the faultlines he identified are at the heart of the strategic conundrum that inform a potentially volatile situation that can have serious implications for India – essentially, the future of the Russia-China nexus. Schonbach assessed in what has now been termed as ‘ill-advised’ comments by his government that the West needs Russia in its larger effort to contain China.

Now, even if Berlin rejects this, the truth is that Moscow’s aggressive move on Ukraine is pivoted on the premise that this was the best time to drive a hard bargain with the West, given its strategic preoccupation with countering China. This is no ordinary bargain, but a very high stakes brinkmanship by Putin, where it now appears he is prepared to exercise the military option if a deal is not worked out. In other words, force a hard bargain. New Delhi will undoubtedly feel the impact of any imminent military action.

Russia has amassed close to 60 battalions, which is over 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border. The US has ordered evacuation of dependents of diplomatic personnel, London has put out a list of Russia’s chosen few who would lead the government in Kyiv, and Nato has been authorised to transfer military equipment to Ukraine. So, the probability of military action is, perhaps, the highest now.

What does this mean for India? First, any military conflict will lead to sanctions against Russia. That, in turn, will provoke Moscow to cut gas supplies to Europe and drive up oil prices. The Donbass region of Ukraine, the main flashpoint with Russia, holds the biggest reserve. Moscow quite likely will work out an oil and gas exchange with Beijing in case the conflict progresses. An oil shock at this point, when the economy is just about recovering, could prove to be debilitating for India. New Delhi will have to build options with Russia, which would come with a sanctions risk – a dilemma India does not want. Next, the consequences such an action will have on China.

Would a military action against Ukraine prompt a US pre-emptive action on Taiwan, under the assumption that a Russia-China nexus is at play? On Monday, China flew some 39 fighters through Taiwanese airspace signalling worrying intent US and Japanese warships in the area. Essentially, Russian military action in Ukraine could impact – possibly shrink – Washington’s options on Taiwan. Because the US will not want to lose its military pre-eminence in Taiwan, where it’s legally bound to protect Taiwanese territory. In some ways, the gaze on Taiwan could distract Beijing from the border stand-off with India.

But it’s unlikely to change its overall approach or military posture. The bigger worry, in fact, would be for India to balance Russia in a situation where its dependencies on China would have increased manifold. India will have to factor in the impact any of this could have on Russian military supplies. The other balance it will need to maintain is with the US, which would stand clearly arraigned against both Russia and China. Clearly, as Schonbach also indicated, there are other powers, too, who don’t want to be caught in this dilemma. Washington is by far New Delhi’s most important strategic partner.

The India-US dynamic is central to its strategy to counter China, build options in the Indo-Pacific and more importantly, create supply chain alternatives that could both secure and benefit Indian economy. Unlike Donald Trump’s presidency, the Joe Biden administration will be more aggressive on Russia given the Democratic Party’s stand on Russian role in US domestic politics. In many ways, the stand-off with Russia may provide Biden some political impetus after all the flak his office has received on account of Afghanistan. It’s quite possible that the US will want India to recalibrate its position on Russia. That said, it’s unlikely the US will push the boundaries beyond a point, given how critical India is to its Indo-Pacific strategy. Yet, New Delhi will have to brace for some tough calls, delicate diplomacy and hard bargains. At best, India will be able to manage the balance. But would that be enough given China’s aggressive stance on India? The US way forward could well be to chart out a course of action against both Russia and China.

Needless to say, that will present a difficult choice for India. Therefore, in sum, a military conflict in Ukraine is undoubtedly strategically undesirable for India. What’s worse is that New Delhi can hardly do much to influence the course of events. That’s why it needs to prepare for the impact. At present, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is at play and, perhaps, the only chance at avoiding a conflict. India needs to get its ear in and be nimble, so as not to get caught off guard.

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