Russia on the back foot in Ukraine

Will Putin step back from the abyss or pull the world into it? That is the question confronting the international community today

K C SinghUpdated: Friday, September 23, 2022, 10:30 PM IST
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The Ukraine War will complete seven months today. After the initial setback in the battle for the capital, Kyiv, the Russians made rapid advances in the south and east to capture Donbas region. They also moved to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. In the last three weeks, however, Ukraine has been able to turn the tables on them by rapid re-capture of Kharkiv province. Ukraine has cut off one Russian supply route from north to central Donbas and is about to disrupt another. This puts paid to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fallback strategy of severing the entire eastern region of Donbas comprising four provinces.

Mr Putin came to the SCO summit on September 15-16 in Samarkand hoping to get some public endorsement or even military aid from China and possibly India. The two Asian giants had kept Russia’s foreign exchange income flowing by purchasing discounted oil. By some estimates India saved ₹ 20,000 crore in the last year through this. However, first Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointedly argued that the war had caused energy and food prices to escalate. Mr Modi’s quote about now not being the era of wars was recalled by US and French presidents when addressing the UN General Assembly on September 21.

But as high-level delegates from 100 plus nations wound their way to the UN headquarters on the East river in Manhattan, Mr Putin had already made his television address. Perceived as being on the back foot at home and abroad, he recalibrated his stand. From his declared stance of conducting merely a “special military operation” he now reframed it as an existential battle for Russian survival. He called Ukraine a pawn of the “military machine of the collective West”. The New York Times in its analysis wrote that “Mr Putin cornered is Mr Putin at his most dangerous”. He is telling his people that the war has been thrust upon Russia and thus Russia must wage a defensive battle like one against Napoleon or Hitler.

US President Joe Biden in his UNGA speech targeted Russia repeatedly and directly. This was the first time a US president singled out another nation for berating after 2002 when President George Bush attacked Iraq. President Biden asserted that “no one other than Russia sought conflict”. He condemned the overt nuclear threat by Mr Putin, dubbing it a “reckless” act. French President Emmanuel Macron lauded the Indian Prime Minister’s forthright criticism of war during his meeting with Mr Putin in Samarkand. He added that those nations remaining silent “are serving the cause of the new imperialism”.

The United Nations looks helpless, as the US president pointed out, because a veto-wielding permanent UN Security Council member has attacked a neighbour. The UNGA debate got hijacked by the Russian president’s escalatory rhetoric. Important issues like climate change and food security got eclipsed. The real escalatory moves are Mr Putin’s announcement of partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists and the holding of snap referendums in the four provinces, two of which are only partially occupied by Russian forces or associates. The first indicates a resolve to dig in and fight back despite setbacks. The second is especially dangerous, as once the occupied areas of Ukraine are annexed they become Russian territory. Any future Ukrainian moves to recover those areas are likely to be treated as an attack on Russia.

This Russian posturing, no doubt dangerous, is being read by some as a prelude to possible dialogue. Others see it as an attempt to scare off NATO supporters of Ukraine. One positive development was that as Putin rattled his sabre Russia quietly agreed to a prisoner exchange. Significantly, over 100 troops of the Azov Battalion that fiercely defended the last little stretch at Mariupol, including its top two commanders, were released by Russia. Some of them are being detained by Turkey till the war ends. Russia also saw protests in many cities against mobilisation and there was a big rush of individuals trying to fly out, to escape being conscripted. Putin can surely read these signals while maintaining a tough external posture.

From NATO’s point of view a right-wing party’s win in Sweden and likely success in Italy is bad news; those on the extreme right tend to be soft on Putin’s Russia which, besides Russian nationalism, projects itself as a defender of the Christian faith. There is also worry about the impact on European economies of the high price of energy. It is estimated that industrial production is down by 2.4% in July as compared to last year. In China also the “zero-Covid” policy, property sector crisis and drought are dragging growth down.

The Economist magazine surmises that synchronous tightening by central banks — as in 1982 — can cause global recession. Will Putin step back from the abyss or pull the world into it? That is the question confronting the international community today.

The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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