Those in New Delhi who assume that the turmoil in Ukraine is happening on another planet and is of no concern to them ought to recall one of the many variants of the perceptive adage from George Santayana that “those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes”.
Flashback to Ukraine in 1995. The post-Soviet government in Kiev decided that year to sell arms to Pakistan — a heresy in New Delhi’s eyes because, for decades, those very armament factories that would now make killing machines for Rawalpindi’s Army General Headquarters had guaranteed the territorial integrity and security of India against its most troublesome adversary. Unlike today, the United States of America had been unwilling, then, to supply even the most basic defence items to India. In any case, the country had no foreign exchange for such purchases: with Moscow, such equipment — indeed, like everything else — had been traded through rupee payments. Besides, the ink had not fully dried on a comprehensive report on how New Delhi should cope with the break-up of the Soviet Union, which had a finger in every Indian national pie since the 1950s. The report had been painstakingly prepared after 12 secretaries to the government of India visited Moscow to map a future of picking up pieces from the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
A high-level emissary was sent to Moscow — mind you, not to Kiev — to deal with this Ukrainian problem. As a result of that emissary’s visit, which had the stamp of the government of India at its highest level, Yevgeny Primakov travelled to Kiev in secret. Primakov was then head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, better known by its Russian acronym of SVR, the successor organization to the First Directorate of the Soviet spy agency, almost universally known by its Russian acronym, KGB. Shortly thereafter, he became Russia’s prime minister.
Primakov had two advantages in a mission like this. He had already built a formidable reputation as Russia’s leading martial artist in foreign-policy terms — a reputation that went back to years when he was the Middle East correspondent of Pravda. Stories are legion from those years when he undertook delicate diplomatic missions for the USSR in the Arab world although on paper he was a journalist. He knew whose arms to twist, and precisely when, in dealing with a problem like this. Primakov’s second advantage was that he is Ukrainian, born in Kiev although he spent many impressionable years in Josef Stalin’s native Georgia. The dramatic result of Primakov’s dash to Kiev at New Delhi’s behest was that Ukraine’s arms deal with Pakistan at that time fell through. This columnist recalls the Ukrainian ambassador in New Delhi bitterly complaining that India would not buy weapons from Ukraine and will not allow his country to sell arms to others either.
Events that followed were like a security wish-list for India and for the future course of Indo-Russian relations. The Russians simply took control of the Ukrainian plant in Kharkov, where critical parts for the T-80 main battle tanks for Pakistan were being manufactured. India modestly contributed to this take-over despite its difficult economic situation at that time.
The whittling down of Moscow’s ability to influence events in Kiev in the wake of last week’s changes in Ukraine are, therefore, integral to New Delhi’s security concerns even today. The European campaign for regime change in Ukraine and a parallel, but differently structured, strategy by the US are not events that India can turn a blind eye to except at great cost to its national interests.
The defence relationship between Ukraine and Pakistan has since see-sawed. Last year President Viktor Yanukovich was tempted into signing another defence-supply deal with Pakistan, although it was for a modest $50 million. But make no mistake about it, any new political formation in Kiev that comes into power with the backing of the European Union and the US, in which Moscow has little to no influence, will become a major supplier of weapons to Islamabad and, therefore, a source of concern to New Delhi.
Like several of the eastern and central European countries, which eagerly leapt into the embrace of the EU in the last two decades with hopes that sometimes turned out to be false, the political opposition in Ukraine, which is on the way — at least for now — to becoming the ruling establishment, is naïve. Yanukovich, who has lost the fight for political control in Kiev, is no saint. In fact, he is very much a part of the problem. But the intentions of neither the EU nor the US — without whose active participation, the process of regime change in Kiev would have been impossible — are altruistic. The people of Ukraine will realize in the months and years ahead that they were mere pawns in another ‘Great Game’, and that neither Brussels nor Washington acted because they had the paramount interests of Ukrainians as the reason for meddling in Kiev’s affairs.
America’s ambition to gain control of Ukraine is nothing new. In his seminal treatise on ensuring US dominance over Eurasia in the post-Cold-War era, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, wrote as far back as 1998 that “without Ukraine Russia ceases to be empire, while with Ukraine — bought off first and subdued afterwards, it automatically turns into empire.” Brzezinski argued forcefully in this book that Ukraine must be made the Western anchor to obstruct the recreation of the Soviet Union.
All the recent events in Ukraine have the hallmarks of the Brzezinski doctrine to slice Kiev away from Moscow. The Europeans are wary of the Brzezinski doctrine, yet US and EU interests overlap when it comes to regime change in Ukraine. Buffeted by an economic crisis, which is spilling over into a political crisis in ‘new’ Europe, the EU needs a lifeline to demonstrate not merely that it is still relevant, but it also needs to assert its waning power and influence. Expanding into Ukraine will do just that. Ukrainians will realize sooner than later — just as many former socialist states in central and eastern Europe with once-thriving industrial bases did — that greater cooperation with the EU will largely be a one-way road. It will open up Ukraine’s market for western Europe’s goods and services at the cost of their own.
New Delhi must sit up and take note of the tide of change in Ukraine also because it represents a turning point in what lies ahead geopolitically for the rest of this decade and well beyond. It represents a stark revival of the Cold War because a full-scale civil war in Ukraine is a clear prospect of the outcome of regime change. What is disturbing is that — although it will never be spelt out as such — Washington prefers that outcome to closer ties between Kiev and Moscow. There will be consequences for India if Russia is drawn into such a civil war, inevitable because of the large Russian population in Ukraine and vice versa. Even if there is an influx of ethnic Russian refugees into the territory of the Russian federation, it can be destabilizing for Moscow.
Ukraine has resurrected shadows of old conflicts within Europe too. The EU may appear unified on Ukraine for now, but Germany and Poland have both historically cast their eyes on Ukraine. It was not a coincidence that the German and Polish foreign ministers travelled together to Kiev during the last phase of the crisis there. Its significance has set off subterranean tremors in both Paris and London with potentially long term consequences. The irony for New Delhi is that the Ukrainian people have nothing against India. Ukraine’s role as merchants of death in Rawalpindi in selling arms to Pakistan is merely motivated by its need for cash, not for any reasons of strategy. This is why India will have to think long and hard and climb on a tightrope in dealing with what lies ahead in Eurasia.