Making Sense of the Russia-Ukraine war: What it means for the world

What might be the fallouts—economic, social, humanitarian, geopolitical? Sundeep Waslekar and Vivek Kelkar discuss

Founding Fuel

This is perhaps the biggest conventional military action since WWII. The implications for global order are staggering.

Sundeep Waslekar, president, Strategic Foresight Group, a leading think tank that advises governments around the world, in conversation with Vivek Y Kelkar, co-editor and co-founder, The Cosmopolitan Globalist, an international current affairs online magazine.

For the last two years, in our annual masterclass on the World in 2021 and 2022, Waslekar has consistently talked about the role of Russia in the global equation.  

This conversation covers three broad themes

  1. The genesis of what led to the crisis: the immediate and historical context
  2. Scenarios of what might happen next—early trends
  3. Implications for the global world order and the economic fallout

Key Takeaways

The historical context

Ukraine’s distinctive status 

  • A curious bit of history that Putin has tried his best to obfuscate is that even when the USSR was formed, Lenin formed it as a free association of nations. He believed the Czars had followed a policy of Russification of all the lands under their empire. Ukraine was a distinct nation with a distinct identity and historical trajectory. It is one of the original signatories of the UN charter as an independent country, along with the USSR.

The turning points leading to today 

  • Much of the story begins with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. A host of treaties and tacit conversations when the unification of Germany happened have led to the situation today.
  • In Andriivskyi Descent, in Kyiv, before the war you’d find old people sitting on the footpath, selling medals/emblems/uniforms/insignia of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers who fought in WWII. The soldiers fought for these medals, and national honour—and this national honour was now available for 2 euros. One would have thought Russia and Ukraine would know that excessive national pride, and excessive dependence on the military is worth 2 euros 50 years down the line. Yet they’ve been on the brink of war for the last 10 years.
  • Ukraine became independent in 1991. In 1994, it signed an agreement with the US and the Russian Federation to renounce its nuclear weapons in return for a promise to protect its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity. This was later ratified by the UK, France and China. It is the only nation where this is guaranteed by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council. 
  • In 1997 Russia and Ukraine signed a bilateral protocol where Russia gave additional guarantees to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thus Russia is a protector by law of Ukraine’s sovereignty.  

Nato vs Neutrality 

  • After signing the 1994 pact, Ukraine had an opportunity to declare itself as a neutral state like Switzerland, Austria or Finland, instead of being caught up in the competition between the American and Russian empires.
  • Under Leonid Kuchma, the second Ukrainian president from 1994 till 2005, Ukraine managed to have good relations with Russia, America and Europe. But under Victor Yushchenko it became pro US, and pro-Russia under Vctor Yanukovych. 
  • In 2008 Nato declared its intention to make Ukraine a member. Ukraine, according to Russia, supported Georgia in it’s war with Georgia in 2008. This is where the modern conflict between Russia and Ukraine began.

Crimea and the conflict in Donbass 

  • Russia promoted insurgency in the Donetsk and Luhansk region in the eastern part of Ukraine, together known as the Donbass region. 
  • In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea [which had become a part of post-Soviet Ukraine in 1991]. And the US, the UK and France failed to fulfil their obligation under the 1994 treaty to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia too of course, undermined the treaty. 
  • Both the Russian and the successive Ukrainian governments sponsored rival militias in the Donbass region. In the last 8 years, almost 14,000 people have been killed in this area.

Nato and Russian aggression

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky also had an opportunity to decale Ukrainian neutrality on the terms that it would join the EU for its economic prosperity, but not Nato in order to keep out of military alliances. And the conflict increased.
  • The counter argument is that if Russia goes into Ukraine, it will be on Nato’s borders anyway.
  • Ukraine’s insecurity also arose because of the previous Soviet aggression with Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Romania. These states’ insecurity led to them becoming members of Nato. Ukraine too has felt consistently insecure, because despite the treaties with Russia there were enough voices within Russia that regretted Ukraine’s independence. Putin too looked like he had his eye on the old Soviet empire (the wars with Chechnya, Crimea’s annexation, Georgia, etc)
  • That’s why states on the borders of the Russian Federation want to join the Western alliance. They are also not great admirers of the post-Soviet Russian economic model (an oligopoly and a Kleptocracy). They want to join the European Union for economic reasons. 

So, what might happen now?

The war’s uncertain endgame

  • Now Russia has proven that it’s not trustworthy.
  • No one in the world knows what Putin has in his mind. Maybe no one in the Kremlin also knows.
  • The stated endgame according to many Russian experts is the demilitarisation of Ukraine—which isn’t going to happen. 
  • Since we don’t know the endgame, we don’t know how long this war will last. If it goes on for months, the media will not give it the attention it is giving today.

The impact on Ukraine

“I don’t know what might be left of Ukraine in terms of modern civilization, if this war goes on for several months” - Sundeep

  • Will the heritage sites in Ukraine be protected? Russia has already declared its intention to destroy the industrial and energy capacity of Ukraine.

Discontent in Russia

  • Meanwhile there is some protest against the war in Russia. We don't know to what extent it represents public discontent, and whether that will explode or not.

New institutional arrangements

  • This spells out a new era in institutional arrangements across the world—we are seeing a strengthening of Nato; the EU is showing an amazing form of unity; Georgia and Moldova have applied to become a member of the EU, though Moldova is part of the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States. Georgia and Ukraine, both former members of the CIS, have applied too. 

Expansion of the West

  • The US tried to provoke Ukraine, as much as Russia tried to provoke constituents in Ukraine to be hostile towards the other side. So the US wants Ukraine in its world. 
  • Nato has declared its intent to go as far as it can. It is going to expand to the border of Ukraine. It will go the extra furlong to protect the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The general fear is that if Russia gets its way in Ukraine, they will be the next target. In that case we are looking at the possibility of nuclear war.
  • The EU is the slowest bureaucracy in the world. They may make a declaration of political intent to include Moldova etc, but it could be years before any of these states become a part of the EU.

Remilitarisation of Germany and Japan

  • Germany had more or less frozen its military expenditure. But now it will rearm itself. Minimum expenditure will cross 2% of its GDP. And this is a decision by a newly formed government of socialist and green parties—both are pacifist parties.
  • Japan also has a debate to rearm, potentially with nuclear weapons.
  • The EU could slowly be dominated by Germany or a German-Franco alliance.
  • And how will Germany manage its industrialisation when it depends on Russian gas?

Russia 

  • Russia too is strengthening its relationship with China and the Middle East.

“We could see the polarisation of the world in a kind of a bipolar world more than a multipolar world” - Sundeep

China’s stakes in the game 

  • China abstained from the UN resolution; historically it has tended to stay away from conflicts. 
  • They’ve formed huge economic relations with Russia over the last many years: 

“Russia and China are going to be mutually dependent” - Sundeep

Gas, water, food, transport and space

  • The new Russian gas pipelines had to be completed with Chinese money. The deal for the Soyuz Vostok pipeline was signed in the middle of the war.
  • China is dependent on Russia for natural gas. 
  • In the long-term China will seek cooperation with Russia for its water resources—they are already negotiating to divert some Russian rivers to China. China has serious environmental and water problems, which will have long-term impact for food production in China. 
  • With global warming and Arctic melting, Russia will have excess water. And in 10-15 years it will become a major agricultural power as a result.
  • The Arctic also has massive resources, including energy, water and transport. And the Russian-Chinese alliance in the Arctic is all but announced. They talk about a vertical sea route from Arctic to China (the “Ice Silk Road” or the “Polar Silk Road”)
  • China and Russia are also cooperating in space. The current International Space Station, which is a US-Russian cooperation, is expected to be de-orbited by 2031. The Chinese will have the only space station in a few years. And China has declared it will run it in cooperation with Russia, but under Chinese leadership.
  • Despite reasons for tensions, the two countries will come together. Plus they will carve out interest sections in the Middle East.

“The closer the China-Russia cooperation is, the more the world will be bi-polar.” - Sundeep

Economic fallout of the Russia-Ukraine war

  • Gas is still flowing from Russia to Germany. There are conflicting reports in the media that the flow is reducing and that it is normal.
  • Sanctions against Russia: How are payments for the current gas contracts going to be made? How are companies going to manage in the short term since they can't access capital markets?
  • Certain amount of Russian money is still in the trade finance system, which we expect will be there for some time.  

“There are too many balls in the air to predict sharply, but it does look like Russia will be hamstrung.” - Vivek 

  • What happens in areas where Russia is strong—like fertilisers which are transported by sea. What happens to the Black Sea exports with Turkey closing the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles on the Sea of Marmara?
  • Russia is a big importer of seeds. If it can't import for this sowing season in Spring, it’s wheat exports will be constrained.

The Indian position

Should India retain neutrality? Or will we put ourselves in a corner and suffer US sanctions?

  • If there is a China-India conflict of a serious nature, Russia will try to play peacemaker. It cannot afford to lose either China (a big market for agriculture) or India (for its defence equipment). And New Delhi expects it.
  • Despite all our bravado, we know we are weak vis-a-vis China. South Block will want to have its options open to resolve conflicts so we can continue on our path of economic development.
  • This is not the first major invasion in recent times. Russia has attacked Chechnya, Georgia. The US has attacked Iraq, Syria, Libya for flimsy reasons; Serbia has attacked Bosnia and Herzegovina and squeezed its neck for three years. Nato has attacked Serbia. So, attacking other countries is a common game. There is no long peace that Steven Pinker and others claim. And the world has accepted these invasions. 

“I don't recall India’s stance when America invaded Iraq… Now we are talking about India’s neutrality.” - Sundeep

  • The world, including India, has to answer a fundamental question: Do we want a world governed by principles, or by politics of power? If we want a world governed by principles, we have to make every possible effort to come together as an international community and stop invasions. It is not a question of choosing between Russia and Ukraine.
  • As a country, if we think we are civilised, governed by morals, we should oppose it. If we believe in power politics we can change our policy as we like.

Resolving the war

  • States are not run by personalities. Wars are fought for three reasons: Honour, interest and fear. Putin has combined all three. It is not Putin who matters. If a future leader combines these three, he will be inclined to war.
  • If Russia remains strong, Ukraine will have no option but to find some compromise and neutrality; if Russia becomes weak, it will be a different state altogether. We are too early in the game to make predictions, except the one that in another 5-10 years, you will find the medals won in the 2022 war for 2 euros. That’s the value of hypernationalism.  

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