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Be clear-eyed about great power behaviour

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The Russia-Ukraine war is showing no signs of abating. The largest ground war in Europe since World War II has forced nearly five million people to flee Ukraine, and has displaced another seven million inside the country. Despite the Russian withdrawal from the northern areas of Ukraine, cities in the east and south remain under siege. The mayor of Mariupol has said that about 21,000 residents of the port city have been killed in the Russian invasion.

The Centre for Economic Policy Research estimates that it will cost between $220 billion and $540 billion to rebuild Ukraine after the war. Accurate figures for military losses are hard to come by, but it is evident that the Russian military has also suffered severe damage. In addition, World Bank projections show that Russia’s economy has plunged into recession, with output projected to contract by 11.2% in 2022.

Experts have given several reasons for the war. The eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Ukraine’s NATO ambitions were viewed as a serious existential threat by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a televised address to the nation before the war, Putin stated that Ukraine never had “real statehood” and that the country was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” Any western encroachment into this space would, therefore, not be tolerated. The ease with which Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the weak western response could have influenced Putin to believe that a quick victory was possible through military force.

All these reasons are valid to some extent, but one underlying cause of this war is the behaviour of great powers in the international system. The realist school of thought believes that the international system is anarchic due to the absence of any legitimate authority to regulate disputes between sovereign States. This induces nation-States to compete for more and more power.

American political scientist John J Mearsheimer put forth the theory of “Offensive Realism”, in which he argues that “status quo powers are rarely found in world politics, because the international system creates powerful incentives for states to look for opportunities to gain power at the expense of rivals… A state’s ultimate goal is to be the hegemon in the system.” Great powers will do everything to weaken other rising powers. This dynamic has been playing out between the United States (US) and Russia in Europe.

Following the breakup of the erstwhile Soviet Union, the US emerged as the unchallenged superpower. With a weakened Russia, between 1999 and 2009, 12 Eastern Europe and Baltic countries joined NATO, moving towards the Russian border. But, as the first decade of the 21st century was coming to a close, Russia was pushing back to reassert authority over its sphere of influence, with military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and cyber-attacks in Estonia and Ukraine.

The US’s focus has also shifted from the global war on terrorism to great power competition. A reading of the 2015 and 2017 National Security strategies and the 2018 National Defense Strategy reveals a primary focus on great power competition with Russia and China. President Joe Biden’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance also talks about the changing “distribution of power across the world” and “growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states.”

Russia invaded Ukraine not because it wanted to occupy territory, but to display its power and authority over its traditional sphere of influence. The lack of major military victories in the two months of conflict has provided an opportunity to the US to weaken Russia by getting it embroiled in a long and bloody war. Apart from crippling economic sanctions against Russia, the US and NATO have provided more than $3 billion in military aid to Ukraine. Whichever way the war unfolds, it is clear that Russia will emerge as a much feebler power in the future.

What about the smaller nations? While the world talks about universal respect for sovereignty, as Thucydides writes in The History of the Peloponnesian War, the reality is that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Ukraine is putting up a heroic resistance but will suffer devastating destruction. United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has warned that rising food and oil prices caused by the Ukraine conflict “could throw up to 1.7 billion people — over one-fifth of humanity — into poverty, destitution, and hunger on a scale not seen in decades.” However, the plight of the underdeveloped nations will rarely be a reason for initiating a peace dialogue between great powers.

The new power balance, which will emerge after the Ukraine war, will undoubtedly influence the ongoing great power rivalry between the US and China. It is premature to assess how this could play out, but the broad aims of the two sides will remain unchanged. China will continue to strive for regional hegemony while the US will attempt to prevent China from becoming a peer competitor. In this geopolitical environment, India must be clear-eyed about great power behaviour and national interests.

Lieutenant-General Deependra Singh Hooda is former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Northern Command. He is senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group The views expressed are personal

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