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The Ukraine war exposes glaring analytical gaps

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Less than two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conclusions are already being drawn about its outcomes. With Russia’s advance on Kyiv halted, some are perhaps prematurely suggesting a Ukrainian victory, while others believe Russian forces are reorienting for a more protracted conflict. For some, United States (US) and European sanctions on Moscow have been punishing, while others point to their undermining long-term faith in the dollar. There remains an open debate as to the war’s implications for the Indo-Pacific and for India’s relationships with Russia, China, and the West. In all these cases, it is simply too early to tell.

That said, the Russia-Ukraine war has exposed some glaring gaps in our collective knowledge of a number of issues. Some are questionable assumptions that took hold among analysts and scholars of international relations. But other gaps have been exposed in India’s independent analytical capability, with potentially serious implications for its national security.

On a global scale, Russia’s actions have defied what were once widely-held beliefs about countries’ incentives to wage large-scale conventional war over territory. Despite decolonisation in the mid-20th century, the dissolution of the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Yugoslavia, and a handful of independence movements such as in Bangladesh and South Sudan, national borders have held relatively stable since 1945. The nuclear dynamics and alliances of the Cold War and the interdependence of the post-Cold War period suggested that major conventional war between countries would be a thing of the past, even if civil conflict in places such as Syria, Libya, Rwanda, and Congo; interventions such as in the First Gulf War and in the Balkans, and counter-terrorism operations and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan would continue.

But the warning signs were there. Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 came at considerable risk to its energy and defence exports. Moscow was also willing to bear the costs of expulsion from the G8. Similarly, China’s fast-tracking and widening the scope of a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, in contravention of “one country, two systems”, came at an economic and political expense that Beijing seemed willing to bear. China’s unilateral island-building and militarisation of the South China Sea was another example of revisionism at the risk of mutually beneficial relationships. The optimism of international politics between 1991 and 2008, which continues to linger in the popular consciousness, in some academic circles, and in business communities, now seems oddly quaint.

In a related vein, the Russia-Ukraine war has also further exposed the fragmentation of information systems in increasingly networked societies. It is not just different viewpoints. Individuals in Moscow, Munich, or Manhattan are likely to disagree about the basic facts surrounding the war, despite copious amounts of information being available, often in real time. The rampant proliferation of propaganda and disinformation should sow further doubts about projecting or mirror-imaging one’s worldview onto others. Rather than offering clarity, an open information environment often exacerbates the fog of war.

Further shortcomings have been exposed with more immediate implications for India. Since the end of the Cold War, the field of Russian studies in India has atrophied, which is surprising, given how much Russia remains an important partner for India. At the outbreak of a war that might have the greatest implications for Indian military procurement in decades, there were few independent Indian studies of the Russian military, its organisation, recruitment, capabilities, and operational culture. This was despite more than six decades of Indian cooperation and contact with the Soviet, and later Russian, armed services. Moreover, political assessments were found wanting: Leading experts were still suggesting a limited intervention by Moscow even after President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” against Ukraine.

The past is the past. The important lesson is for future challenges to be anticipated and gaps to be filled. The biggest uncertainty involves what may be the most important geopolitical debate in India today – but one in which the blind are debating the blind.

On one hand, there are those who see the China-Russia partnership as having crossed an irreversible threshold that will have adverse implications for India. They point to the China-Russia joint statement of February 4, 2022, when the two sides declared that their friendship “has no limits [and] there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” Russia’s positions on Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Indo-Pacific, and at the UN Security Council have also been noted, as has the qualitatively improved defence relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

On the other hand, there remain those who believe that India still has the ability to meaningfully alter Moscow’s calculations. They believe that India has enough influence, through diplomacy, arms purchases, and economic incentives, to ensure Russian neutrality and autonomy amid unfolding competition between India and China. But there is a lot riding on this assumption.

Whatever the future of the Russia-China relationship, the repercussions for India will be tremendous. Scholarship and detailed analysis on the relationship between Moscow and Beijing in India are sorely needed. This ought to be a gap to fill before India faces its next major geopolitical crisis.

Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director, ORF America 

The views expressed are personal

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