Realities of war in Ukraine are sinking in

Delhi should factor in the likelihood of Russian forces shortly advancing deeper into Ukraine beyond the “new territories” of Donbas, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson to create a buffer zone
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The renowned political writer and author Seymour Hersh quoted verbatim an American intelligence official telling him the following about the recent peace summit on Ukraine hosted by the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah at the behest of the Biden administration:

“Jeddah was [US National Security Advisor Jake] Sullivan’s baby. He planned it to be Biden’s equivalent of [President Woodrow] Wilson’s Versailles. The grand alliance of the free world meeting in a victory celebration after the humiliating defeat of the hated foe to determine the shape of nations for the next generation. Fame and Glory. Promotion and re-election. The jewel in the crown was to be [Ukraine President] Zelenskyy’s achievement of Putin’s unconditional surrender after the lightning spring offensive. They were even planning a Nuremberg-type trial at the world court, with Jake as our representative. Just one more (mess-up), but who is counting? Forty nations showed up…”

India was one of those forty mavericks taken for a ride by Sullivan. With Biden due to visit India shortly, the government probably had its own calculations to depute NSA Ajit Doval to Jeddah for interaction with Sullivan. These are extraordinary times when the government cannot bring itself to say ‘no’ to American entreaties.

However, the bizarre episode has a larger meaning that should not be lost: For the trio of war hawks in Biden administration’s foreign policy cluster led by state secretary Tony Blinken, Sullivan, and acting deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland, Ukraine’s spring offensive is turning out to be an unmitigated disaster. The trio genuinely hoped that with all the advanced American weaponry in the Ukrainian armoury, the Russians would be lethally wounded. How far the Biden administration brainwashed Indian officials with foolish notions we do not know. But Doval’s presence at the Jeddah conclave cannot but be signalling a subtle shift away from Russia in the Indian policies.

What emerges is that when the government rushed in to exploit the breakdown in Europe’s energy ties with Russia last year and sourcing imports at heavily discounted prices, it was the lure of money rather than a principled assertion of India’s “strategic autonomy” that was in play. Delhi knew that the Americans didn’t really mind India’s oily embrace of Russia — in fact, they acquiesced in it — since Biden’s thinking was crystal clear: keep oil prices low, therefore, by all means, encourage unfettered oil flow into the market.

But there has been a paradigm shift since July, as the price of Russian crude rose above the $60 barrel price cap set by the G7 nations in December. The Urals crude is presently selling at $72 or so. Curiously, Western authorities are unperturbed. They are unwilling or unable to enforce the cap or monitor which Western companies are providing services, such as insurance to ships that are owned by non-G7 countries and so aren’t constrained by the cap.

Meanwhile, OPEC+ slashed their output in recent months, tightening supply further. In effect, the G7 price cap is having a diminishing impact on Russian oil revenues. This trend will continue, as Western governments are unlikely to impose more sanctions on oil flows. Meanwhile, Russia is creating an entire ecosystem outside of the G7 price cap. And its income is rising. Therefore, its critical dependence on the Indian buyer will reduce, although India is unlikely to turn its back on Russian oil.  

The stunning thing is that US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s hare-brained project of the G7 price cap, which she confidently predicted would destroy the Russian economy and trigger social unrest and political upheaval in that country, has had exactly the opposite outcome. Not only is the Russian economy growing, Putin’s rating hovers around 82 per cent. Those who tom-tommed the G7 price cap have fallen silent.
Suffice it to say Delhi should know that the US narrative about Ukraine is largely bluster. India should not have risked annoying Russia by attending Sullivan’s pantomime, where again, the Biden administration goofed up about Ukraine’s spring offensive, which is turning out to be a spectacular flop sparking a blame game in Western capitals and Kiev.  

Russia has gained the upper hand, and an offensive to complete the unfinished business of retaking territories in the Donbas from Ukrainian forces has begun. An attack on the strategic northeastern city of Kupiansk on the edge of Donetsk oblast, which is a major military resupply route and a rail hub, is underway. The strategy also aims to bring Russia closer to securing all of the eastern Luhansk oblast. Western media has reported a massive Russian concentration of over 100,000 troops with over 900 tanks and 370 rocket launchers. Kiev and its Western mentors, with eyes fixated on Crimea in the south, have been surprised that the northern front of the Kharkov Region is turning into the epicentre of hostilities.

In all probability, a bloody confrontation is about to erupt, which may overshadow Biden’s arrival for the G20 summit on September 9-10. Russia’s interest in peace talks has been rendered obsolete since it estimates that the US has no intention whatsoever to concede Russia’s expectations of a neutral, independent Ukraine or Europe’s security architecture. The Russians won’t bite the territory-for-peace formula that Americans are peddling to buy time to stave off defeat. This strategic deadlock seems insurmountable, leaving Russia to secure its legitimate interests on the battlefields.  

Biden is desperate to avoid a humiliating defeat before the November 2024 election. Delhi should factor in the likelihood of Russian forces advancing in the coming months deeper into Ukraine beyond the “new territories” of Donbas, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson to create a buffer zone. Meanwhile, if Poland, egged on by Washington, moves in to occupy Western Ukraine, all bets are off. In this scenario, the Zelenskyy regime’s future looks bleak. By mumbling about the sovereignty question, Delhi side-tracked in Jeddah. It should at least have pressed for Russia’s inclusion in any such future “peace initiatives” by Washington.

MK Bhadrakumar

Former diplomat

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The New Indian Express