The evolving Ukraine crisis seems to be exposing post-Cold War fissures in the US-led NATO combine as only their post-9/11 Afghan engagement had done earlier. There is now an add-on difference. Continental powers like France and Germany, unlike the UK that is relatively far away, do not want to be handed down a fait accompli any more. Nor do they want the 20th century tensions—beginning with the two World Wars and later the Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union— returning to their doorsteps. Should Russia ‘behave’, NATO’s relevance too may be lost for many European member-nations.
The Franco-German reservations about the US threats to Russia on Ukraine are standalone affairs but understandable. Unreported, they were also peeved at the unilateral US pullout from Afghanistan, the same way Washington had drawn them into the Afghan war earlier—but without the kind of post-9/11 moral authority it had at the time.
France’s strong reservations about Australia’s nuclear submarine deal with the US after cancelling the committed orders for non-nuclear subs from Paris was also an expression of resentment over the independent American creation of Quad and Indo-Pacific without consulting and involving them. Their experience is that the US won’t hesitate to unilaterally draw NATO into the Quad’s future wars in the Indo-Pacific, if any.
There is nothing to suggest that France and Germany are acting in tandem, or there are consultations between them. There is also nothing to suggest that they have not been in touch. There are however reasons to believe that Washington did not consult NATO allies, especially France and Germany, who count the most in the Continent, on a NATO war in Europe if Russia wanted one on Ukraine.
As in the past, the US began the Ukraine initiative and seems to hope to suck European allies into it by urging them to mediate with Russia. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not involve NATO as an idea. But the threatened European war on Ukraine is about NATO admittance for Ukraine. The US wants to make it a NATO war, if fought, over a non-NATO member. It is both ironical and illogical.
The question is who blinks first, how and when. If the US yields and says NATO won’t admit Ukraine, it loses face on the global stage, and President Joe Biden loses votes nearer home. If NATO admits Ukraine, then they could have a war in Europe, which western Europe at least seems to want to avoid. Yet, can they allow a limited war on Ukraine, with Russia possibly winning it?
President Vladimir Putin has told leaders from western Europe that if Ukraine was admitted, NATO would be at Russia’s doorsteps, and together the two sides would face eternal tension (as during the Cold War). But a Russian annexation of Ukraine, or even a war for Ukraine, too would do that. For Europe to breathe easy, NATO should not admit Ukraine, yes. But Russia too should give verifiable, iron-clad guarantees that it would not start a war on Ukraine later on. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea does not give such confidence.
In the midst of it, by staying away from the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the West provided the best global stage the other side could have hoped for in this pandemic era, or even otherwise. India did not attend the inaugural but the specific reason was linked to China choosing a Galwan soldier as a torchbearer. By appearing in the inaugural and using the occasion for bilateral talks with host Xi Jinping, Putin and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan diverted some of the global attention away from Ukraine and Europe, and back towards China and Xi.
The message is more crucial for India than for the US and Europe, not necessarily in that order. Any escalation of current tensions in Europe could simultaneously spread it across India’s northern neighbourhood—along the border with China and Pakistan, going all the way through Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. India has security interests up to Afghanistan, starting with the protection of the border, viz. China and Pakistan, and also trade and political interests elsewhere.
But India’s dilemma would be more directly related to ties with Moscow, not knowing what to make out of the triangulated ties with China at the apex and Russia and Pakistan forming independent, yet interdependent arms. The question is how far could Russia let China relations in the Ukraine tensions not influence its India ties—and by extension, an India-Pakistan situation, if it came to that. India will also come under added American pressure now, especially over Russia-supplied S-400 missiles and threatened US sanctions.
Under the changing environment outside NATO but impacting the grouping’s future over the medium and long terms, New Delhi will be watching with interest the evolving Indian Ocean geopolitics and geostrategy, where the European Union jointly, and France and Germany separately, have unfolded their own versions of Indo-Pacific, if not a Quad-like arrangement as yet. Already, the EU has begun scouting for Indo-Pacific allies in India’s neighbourhood, beginning with Sri Lanka.
Germany is a quiet economic power waiting to shed its 20th century political past. France has more island territory in the Indo-Pacific than any other global power. It is as much a military supplier for India as the US is a military ally in the post-Cold War era. A lot of food for Indian thought.
N Sathiya Moorthy
Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, ORF