Russia-Ukraine Conflict and Implications for South Asia


South Asian Spillover of Russia-Ukraine War

by Rajesh Kumar Sinha     6 March 2022

The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is going on while creating ripples in the global geopolitics. Though the western media analysis of it as a likely cause for the world war seems far-fetched, the horrors of the limited war, undoubtedly are visible for all to see. While the role and actions/inactions of major powers Russia, US, Europe and NATO as a whole are to be seen and analysed by many, in their respective ways, it would be interesting to make an assessment of implications that it will have on the whole of south Asia.

Two major powers in the region, China and India, have found themselves in an unenviable situation. Both have very close politico-strategic relations with Russia but neither wants to take an open stance against Ukraine either, on account of their proximity with US-led Europe. It is evident in the fact that while both have failed to openly support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they have asked for peace and abstained from three crucial UN meetings on the issue, leaving Russia to resorting the UNSC Veto and fend for itself.

In case of China, it has significant economic stakes in Ukraine. It is the largest trading partner while Ukraine is one of the major stakeholders of Xi Jinping’s ambitious political masterpiece Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. Both Russia and Ukraine are military suppliers to China as well. However, in spite of Chinese political rhetoric of relations with Russia with no upper limit, its reactions in the ongoing conflict indicate that it was caught off-guard. It could not anticipate Putin’s determination and failed to issue relevant advisory to its citizens in time. While Singapore and Taiwan issued guidelines to their limited number of citizens in Ukraine as early as 13th and 16th February, the Chinese embassy was found clueless about the impending conflict.

Further, China has more of ideological and strategic affinities with Russia rather economic. The bilateral trade between the two at US$ 147 Billion is about 2% of Chinese global trade while its trade and economic stakes with Europe is much more important. Irrespective of the frequent diplomatic and political skirmishes with the US, China knows very well that it cannot afford to get into a full-throttle political, economic or diplomatic battle with the US and its European allies.

India on the other hand, has almost 20,000 citizens in Ukraine, mostly students studying medicine there. It has major political, strategic, diplomatic and economic relations with Russia and thus cannot afford to antagonize it. A major chunk of its military supplies, including hardware and spares, along with S-400 air defense system too, come from Russia. Though in recent years, its dependence on it has been reduced considerably, mainly due to import diversification to countries like the US, Israel, France and also on stress on indigenous ramping up of production, R&D capabilities in defense.

Also, Russia has on all occasions in the last five decades stood by India, politically and diplomatically, including using the crucial veto in the UNSC once on the Kashmir issue. Ukraine meanwhile has good working relations with India but has voted openly against India on its nuclear tests in 1998, supported the UNSC sanctions and provided a fair amount of military hardware to Pakistan, to be used against India. But of late, relations between the two are on an upswing and India would not like to go against jeopardizing its relations with either. A comparative cost-benefit analysis of national interests though certainly outweighs any explicit diplomatic hysteria on the lines, demonstrated by the west against Russia currently.

Hence, India is currently indulged in a delicate balancing act. It has expressed its concerns against invasion to Russia at the highest levels privately while appreciating their security concerns. It has also conveyed to the US and major European countries of its need to perceived neutrality. At the same time, it is working in tandem with both Russian and Ukrainian governments, to ensure safety and evacuation of its citizens, at the earliest.

As for the direct and short-term implications, trade and military supplies for both China and India, are certain to be affected. Both are preparing for a significant disruption in their exports to the two warring nations. For India in particular, the timely supply of remaining S-400 systems are of critical significance given the uncertain state of its current politico-military relationship with China. The middle kingdom on the other hand, must be watching the outcome of this conflict keenly since it could provide it an opportunity to re-orient its possible invasion of Taiwan strategy in due course of time.

For Pakistan, a good number of its citizens stuck in Ukraine are students. Initially confounded and even putting up a statement of financial limitations, its government now is trying to evacuate its citizens. Many of the Pakistani and Turkish citizens reportedly have been evacuated from the war zone, by identifying themselves as Indian and hoisting Indian flags on their vehicles since India has strongly demanded the two warring sides, to ensure safety of its citizens who neither side wishes to antagonize.

Its PM Imran Khan visited Russia the day, Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine. For Pakistan, it became a very awkward moment since the west became furious with his meeting with the perceived aggressor, Putin at that very moment. The National Bank of Pakistan became the first casualty with US imposing a sanction of US$ 55 million on it while politically, the country remains at the receiving end of western fury.

Bangladesh with about 3,000 citizens stuck in Ukraine, too has good working relations with both countries. With Ukraine, its economic relations are growing rapidly and the latter is helping it out in developing infrastructure, steel and ports while Russia is politically too important to be disowned and criticized by it. Nepal too has few citizens left in the war zone that have reportedly been evacuated by the Indian authorities and brought back home. Maldives, the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean has started feeling the impact of war since a considerable number of its foreign tourists involve both Russian and Ukrainians.

Though the south Asian region remains a bit far off from the battle raging on yet it has certainly affected countries there. The Russo-Ukraine war has also resulted in delicate diplomatic balancing by countries around the world and China and India, primarily are on the radar.

The role of the UNO in failing to prevent and stop the war, raises another big question mark on the utility of the world body, coming closely on its dilly-dallying approach on the genesis and gradual spread of Corona worldwide and its consequences. The efficacy of the US-led NATO too raises doubts, both among its members and non-members. However, to prevent widespread destruction and disorder, the early the war is stopped the better that would be for the world and the humanity.