February 24 marks one year of the Ukraine war. It began within days of Russian and Chinese presidents declaring “no limits” friendship. Russia was expected to steamroll Ukraine into quick capitulation. Instead, it brought global escalation of food and fuel costs, on top of pre-existing mayhem caused by Covid. Its likely trajectory in 2023 and implications need analysis.
The 59th Munich Security Conference, held on 17-19 February, provided some clues. The discussions were naturally dominated by Ukraine. The consensus was that a fractured world poses dangers. Concerns about China’s future role hung in the air. Ironically as China's top diplomat Wang Yi addressed the conference on February 18, the US President surfaced in Kyiv. On an eight-day European tour, Yi revealed that President Xi Jinping would soon present a peace proposal. To create a fissure between Europe and the US he said to obtain peace Europe must “manifest its strategic autonomy”. Simultaneously he derided the “near-hysterical” reaction of the US to the Chinese balloons. He surmised that those opposed to peace “might have strategic goals larger than Ukraine itself”.
Europeans showed no cracks in their resolve to back Ukraine with economic and military aid. The Chinese peace proposal was greeted with scepticism. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg termed it as “quite vague”. Concern is that the peace proposal is intended to reduce diplomatic pressure on Russia, as another condemnatory UN resolution is in the works on the first anniversary of the war. The concern is that China should not behind the fog of its diplomatic moves begin military assistance to Russia. It has avoided doing that so far.
President Joe Biden on the other hand during his Kyiv visit backed Ukraine firmly. The French and German leaders also argued that aggression cannot be rewarded. Battlefield reports from Ukraine indicate that the spring offensive by Russia has begun. However success has been limited despite Ukraine still awaiting new offensive weaponry like tanks and armoured vehicles. Once these arrive the Ukrainian military may commence its counteroffensive, the success or failure which will determine the eventual outcome. Meanwhile President Biden also met nine Central and Eastern European leaders to make the NATO support “absolutely clear”.
However the rest of the world has remained largely neutral. The Gulf and West Asian oil and gas producers have played a balancing game. They have ratcheted up supplies to Europe to cover the gap left by curtailment of Russian supply of 1 million barrels per day of oil and almost the same amount of oil products. Gulf suppliers have limited surpluses after meeting supply commitments to Asian clients. Simultaneously, they sided with Russia in accepting OPEC+ group’s decision last October to cap production. They are thus balancing strategic ties with the U.S. against economic interest elsewhere.
Some Gulf nations like UAE and Qatar have also benefited from Russian finance and real estate investments. UAE recently authorised a license for Russia’s MTS bank. That is why UAE continues to be on the grey-list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). In case the US imposes a secondary set of sanctions the Gulf sanctuary may end for Russians. Practicing the art of two-timing, new refineries are becoming operational in South Africa, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman to cover the shortfall in Europe, where diesel stocks are running low.
India is similarly stuck between the two warring alliances. It has benefited from discounted oil purchases from Russia but realises that increased Russian dependence on China is not in its interest. An Indian diplomatic envoy was in Beijing for discussions. There has been little progress in further deescalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Chinese forward deployments in Depsang Plains etc are persisting. Against this backdrop came the surprisingly submissive statement by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar that China being the bigger economy, India could hardly confront it. A cardinal negotiating rule is not to soften public positions until private settlement is finalised. Unless the intention was to signal to China, before the G-20 summit in India, that India had no desire to join any alliance aimed at containing China militarily or economically. Less than a year before the next Lok Sabha election the BJP would benefit electorally if China is seen as rolling back its aggressive military posture along the LAC. China may also have realised that it is counterproductive to needle a swing power like India, when it is challenging US hegemony.
In Ukraine one more trial of military resolve is inevitable in coming months. The outcome can be marginal gains by either side or breakthrough advances in some sectors. Wars end normally if one side is victorious or both reach exhaustion. The second possibility is greater and may be reached by the end of summer. India would welcome that, as the success of the G-20 summit it hosts this year increases if the members are no longer distracted by war and confrontation.
KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs