President Vladimir Putin in an address to the nation announced Russia’s recognition of the Donbass Republics, Moscow, Feb 21, 2022
India’s dilemma over humanitarian intervention is revisiting it, with Russia’s recognition of the two self-proclaimed Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states. India is certainly not going to follow the Russian footfalls. The heart of the matter is that India has adopted a consistent position on issues involving genocide, human rights and self-determination.
In 2008, when the United States promoted Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, India refused to get on board the Western caravan rolling across the dismembered territories of former Yugoslavia. To date, it refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent nation.
Clearly, geopolitics is not the factor in the Indian calculus. The American analysts and their camp followers in India are talking absolute rubbish when they try to establish that India is facing a Hobson’s choice in regard of Donbass, called upon to take sides between Russia and the West.
These propagandists do not realise that it is far from Russia’s thoughts to canvass Indian support for Donbass’ recognition internationally. Russia is upfront acknowledging that it acted in self-interest and due to its special relations with Ukraine historically and culturally.
President Putin touched on this aspect at some length in his address to the nation last night. Putin stated:
“I would like to emphasise again that Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. These are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.
“Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.
“It seems to us that, generally speaking, we all know these facts, that this is common knowledge. Still, it is necessary to say at least a few words about the history of this issue in order to understand what is happening today, to explain the motives behind Russia’s actions and what we aim to achieve.
“So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought…”
“Then, both before and after the Great Patriotic War, Stalin incorporated in the USSR and transferred to Ukraine some lands that previously belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary. In the process, he gave Poland part of what was traditionally German land as compensation, and in 1954, Khrushchev took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and also gave it to Ukraine. In effect, this is how the territory of modern Ukraine was formed.”
India understands that the Russia’s compulsions are unique to it, and while India may empathise with them as a friend, it cannot and will not act upon them. In fact, there is no need to, as Donbass is not a litmus test of India’s strategic partnership with Russia.
It is useful to differentiate Russia’s involvement in Donbass from the US’ in Kosovo. The US is neither a Balkan country geographically nor is a Slavic nation culturally. Yet, it promoted the NATO’s dismemberment of former Yugoslavia (without even a UN mandate, by the way) and created later an independent state of Kosovo, largely due to geopolitical considerations.
On the contrary, India’s consistent stance is riveted on sound principles and is impervious to the gyrations of geopolitics. If it draws comparison at all, well, ironically, is is with China with which it has a close similarity!
Thus, neither China nor India has accorded recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia or Kosovo that are aligned with Russia and the US respectively.
India’s principled stance is rooted in its modern history insofar as ever since Jawaharlal Nehru’s generation wrested India’s national sovereignty from the British Empire at a terrible cost, a core doctrine of independent India’s foreign policy was respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and a strict non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. Of course, India has insisted on its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Abnegation of international law was never an absolute ‘red line’ for India, as was evident from its 1961 seizure of Goa from Portuguese colonial rule, despite international condemnation. But India has largely couched its diplomacy inside the extant architecture of international law.
The creation of Bangladesh was a unique situation. Today, even Pakistan admits its own wrong decisions at that point in time. As far as India is concerned, the four interlocked claims for intervention in East Pakistan that it advanced remain credible and legitimate: arguments from human rights, genocide, self-determination, and India’s own sovereignty.
Conceivably, Russia’s compulsions over Donbass today are strikingly similar to India’s vis-a-vis Bangladesh fifty years ago. Genocide took place in the Donbass region too, when the neo-Nazi extreme nationalists, emboldened by the western intelligence, went on rampage against ethnic Russian population during the mayhem that followed the 2014 coup and regime change in Kiev.
The ethnic Russian population numbering over 18 million refused to accept the regime change and chose to pursue their own destiny. Human rights violations took place on a large scale as the new regime launched the “Ukrainisation” programme, cracking down on Russian language and all manifestations of Russian culture, including by severing the umbilical cord that connected Russian Orthodox Church with the Ukrainian people historically.
In fact, in December 2018, the anti-Russian regime in Kiev, to the great amusement of Americans, went to the extent of erasing Russian identity by creating a brand new Orthodox Church of Ukraine as the sole canonical body for the territory of Ukraine!
Nonetheless, Russia is not going to demand that India too should recognise the Donbass Republics by next weekend. What is not always obvious to the naked eye is that the strategic partnership between India and Russia is seamless and provides space for both sides to act independently.
That said, admittedly, there is also some poignancy here. In 1971, although the Soviet leadership of Leonid Brezhnev initially agonised over the precedent-setting issues of violation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity in the East Pakistan crisis, when the crunch time came, it acted as a pillar of strength for Indira Gandhi — even in face of the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sailing into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate her.
Today, in regard of Donbass, India’s real dilemma is about self-determination, given the ground realities in its own far-flung territories. India will continue to assert a legal view of self- determination that does not apply to its own populace. Period. The point is, like many postcolonial states, India fears ethnic or religious separatist movements.
Interestingly, the case for self-determination is particularly obnoxious to China, too. Thus, India is on a safe wicket. While self-determination has considerable weight in the US strategies — Tigray rebels in Ethiopia being the latest example — secession remains forbidden under international law in almost all circumstances, and is also ruled out by most national constitutions.
However, what India needs to be wary of is that since the end of the Cold War, self-determination has gained some limited ground, in a manner reminiscent of the aftermath of World War I. The West promotes it, as it dovetails into their neo-colonial strategies to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. One can see that the government is increasingly warding off the UN watchdogs.
After all, a number of powerful Western governments, led by the US, did dismember Yugoslavia — a plural society like India — and subsequently even carved out Kosovo from the successor state of Serbia in 2008. When Serbia protested in the UN, Britain snapped back that Kosovo’s independence had already been recognised by almost all European Union countries! The stark message was: ‘We, the West, will write the rules.’ Welcome to the “rules-based order”!