Limits of western power, Global South’s autonomy: Two years of the Ukraine war

There are takeaways from how sanctions played out and India’s stance of ‘principled pragmatism’.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
Putin and Zelenskyy standing back to back.

February 24 marked the second anniversary of the Ukraine war, arguably the largest war in Europe since the end of the Second World War. As it enters its third year, there are no immediate signs of it nearing to an end though Moscow has gained an edge in recent months with its more focused, resolute military operations.

In terms of the broader splits among countries forming the global order, the war saw two basic divisions on different lines, albeit with some exceptions. These divisions are clear signs of the limits of this older order of US-led western powers that are militarily and financially aiding Ukraine in what seems like a proxy conflict. At the same time, they also reflect an emergent polycentric or more defined multipolar world order. To add to that, the war shows the vulnerability of the flow of fuel, food and funds to the vagaries of geopolitics. 

All this means that the war will be seen through the prism of its possible impact on the nature of the world order in the current flux of geopolitics.

One of the more significant splits seen in the wake of the ongoing war was on the lines of the west and non-west, which some analysts tried to frame in the classical mould of the east and west divide. Countries among the US-led western powers, including regional blocs like the European Union, couldn’t convince members and emerging powers of the Global South, particularly in Asia and Africa, about their hostile economic sanctions against Russia. As the west’s two-pronged plan against Russia hinged as much on military supplies and aid to Ukraine as on crippling the Russian economy with harsh sanctions, the failure to take along a large number of countries clearly meant that Russia found a way around it.

The sanctions also underestimated Russia’s vast reserve of energy resources and its robust military industrial complex. Even if the sanctions made a dent in its energy export revenues, the Russian energy economy found new ways to quell the effect of sanctions. Moscow relied on sending discounted crude oil to large economies like China, India and Brazil and a number of Asian and African countries that didn’t see the merit in west-imposed sanctions.

Moreover, the rebuilding of the Russian economy and its continued strong performance, acknowledged by the IMF, is now being discussed in western capitals with a “sober tone”. This is far from the doomsday predictions seen in western commentary when the sanctions were imposed, even if some attribute the current resilience to an overheated war economy.

The limits of western power wasn’t only seen in the refusal of many countries to enforce sanctions against Russia but also in their rejection of the narrative through which the west wanted the rest of the world to view the Ukraine war. The Global South didn’t buy the argument that the west had “rule-based international order” as its motive for sanctions. Moreover, the west’s dubious record on this count, not least in the case of NATO’s expansion towards Moscow’s doorstep, didn’t help in dispelling such sceptical assessments.

In the process, as the bipolar adversary to a US-led geopolitical alliance, China was placed as Russia’s tactical recourse, even when it looked like Moscow was strategically adjusting to play second fiddle to Beijing in the partnership. This meant that China, one of the two biggest powers in global politics, is a beneficiary of the big power tussle between Russia and the US-led bloc.

The China-Russia convergence of interests isn’t what the west wanted, or even a scenario it foresaw. But the fact remains that the west pushed sanctions despite such possibilities as Washington chose to restrict options available to Russia. By choosing to look away from the possibility of an emergent Beijing-Moscow alliance, or even forcing it, the west must carefully see how it will play out if the bilateral understanding persists in the long run.

Beyond the west, and for a very different reason, the Beijing-Moscow convergence of interests is a complex alliance to navigate even for countries like India, walking a tightrope in their diplomatic response to the Ukraine war by adopting a neutral approach of strategic autonomy. The growing proximity between China and Russia is viewed by India as rooted in some western and west-led powers shutting their doors to Russia, thus limiting Moscow’s options. This is what India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar meant when he batted for giving “multiple options” to Russia. 

“I think it makes sense to give Russia multiple options. If we railroad Russia into a single option and say that’s really bad because that’s the outcome, then you are making it a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. In asking other countries to engage with Russia, he observed that a power like Russia, having a deep tradition of statecraft, will not be naturally inclined to depend on any one bilateral relation since it would “go against their grain”. 

In the last two years of the Ukraine war, India has been consistent in its response which has placed New Delhi’s “strategic autonomy” at the core, refusing to be swayed by the west’s dictates of aligning with it. While calling for cessation of violation and exhorting the diplomatic way out of the conflict, India also recognised the value of choosing the side of its interests in protecting traditionally deep and strategic ties with Russia. Thus, resisting the enticement of playing the “swing state”, India’s multiple abstentions in the UN vote on Ukraine war resolutions, which mostly condemned Russia’s military action, were followed by explanatory notes by India’s representative in which New Delhi’s endorsement for a diplomatic solution and end of military hostilities were clearly expressed. 

This is clear in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a “cessation of hostilities” and also in his G20 quip that this is “not an era of war”. However, India made it a point that “one-sided” narratives on Ukraine did not slip into the G20 summit hosted by New Delhi last year. India prioritised elbow-room for balancing its interests by putting its stand in the context of the tenets of its foreign policy as well as its response to strategic interests. 

Additionally, India’s approach of “cessation of hostilities” can be traced to the early days of the conflict. Any claim to the contrary is to misread India’s stand. The subsequent diplomatic interactions and voting patterns at the UNSC made it clear India isn’t anywhere near being weaned away from taking a strategically autonomous stand on its time-honoured ties with Russia. This is why, after two years of the war, an editorial comment termed India’s response to the Ukraine war as one marked by “principled pragmatism”.

As the war drags into its third year, geopolitics must grapple with the complex arena of military action in Gaza. If it hasn’t already caused fatigue in the western bloc, it’s surely divided attention among two different zones of war. This is evident from the lack of consensus among policymakers within this bloc and those seeking to have sway over policy. The west’s limited capacity to influence the behaviour of a number of key countries, and that of the Global South, reflects the shifting sands of geopolitics where the conventional power matrix is unable to explain a polycentric world order in the making.

In the process, many emerging powers like India will opt to navigate their interests with their eyes firmly set on strategic autonomy.

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