China and India’s distance from Russia’s war on Ukraine may become a trap

Recently, Beijing and Delhi have shown a certain distance towards the Russian aggression against Ukraine and suggested to Moscow to stop it and accept negotiations. However, one should not look at these steps with naive optimism, because it is not a question of letting go of Russia, far from it. These countries continue to assist Russia in circumventing the sanctions. But more than that, increased pressure by those countries on the Kremlin, which could seduce a part of the Western countries, can constitute a formidable trap and revive a dangerous and foolish temptation to engage in peace negotiations.

Many foreign policy analysts have noted in recent weeks that, with the growing failure of Russian arms in Ukraine and the recapture by Ukrainian forces of some of the territory conquered by Moscow in the northeast and south, some countries, officially neutral but in fact implicit supporters of the Kremlin, are increasingly distancing themselves. The latest episode of the allegedly “partial” mobilization of Russian reservists and its setbacks have accentuated their muted criticism of Putin’s war, the outcome of which they do not see. Many analysts are now stressing the growing “isolation” of Moscow — it became a kind of commonplace —, as evidenced by the votes at the UN General Assembly, the latest of which concerned the videoconferencing of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech, since the beginning of the new Russian invasion. Only seven countries voted against it (Russia, Syria, Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, North Korea and Nicaragua).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi explained to Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit that it was “not time for war”. His Minister of Foreign Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, faced with threats of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine or elsewhere, had to outbid him by affirming, without however explicitly condemning the war, that it was necessary to end it and distanced himself from the massive crimes committed by Moscow. As for Beijing, without directly blaming its Russian partner, it called for “dialogue” and a “ceasefire” and, at the UN, its Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, called for “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries”. On the sidelines of the General Assembly, he was to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. It should be remembered that People’s Republic of China also has important economic interests in Ukraine, which are themselves problematic.

A power accustomed to playing on ambiguities in the conduct of its foreign policy, Turkey should have gone even further in this direction. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who intends to continue to play the role of mediator, as he had already done for the loosening of the Ukrainian wheat blockade and the release of some Azovstal hostages, was to concur in this sense by declaring once again, among other things, that Crimea was indeed Ukrainian. The persecution of the Crimean Tatars by the Russian occupiers is a politically important issue for Turkey. One cannot put Ankara on the same level since it is also a significant supplier of drones to Ukraine. While Turkey had until now been willing to circumvent Western sanctions — one of the hallmarks of its permanently ambiguous positions — its recent withdrawal from the Mir payment system also reflects an even greater distancing from Moscow.

Without doubt, no one can regret the evolution of the People’s Republic of China and India — Turkey being a different case —, but it would be wrong to discern in it an abandonment by these countries of Putin’s regime. Beijing and Delhi continue to circumvent Western sanctions, especially financial and on oil and gas. Secondly, their motives are clearly not linked to humanitarian concerns or international law — it should be remembered that China has followed Russia in most of the vetoes (9 on 17) at the United Nations Security Council on Syria. If Moscow had quickly won its war against Ukraine, there is no doubt that neither Communist China nor India would have budged. However, the prolongation of the war represents for these two countries, as for others, a disruption factor for their trade and, more generally, for their economy. Undoubtedly, Putin’s nuclear threats are also a form of red line that they cannot accept. No doubt they also fear the political consequences of a collapse of Russia, where China has significant interests and which is an important supplier for India.

Paradoxically, therefore, they hope for a form of continuity of the regime in Moscow, which they perceive to be possibly threatened by Putin’s extremism. In a way, they have no problem with Russia’s imperialist policy, but they do not want it to go too far either, as it is a multiplier of uncertainties. In sum, Beijing and Delhi want Moscow to end its war as soon as possible, but they do not call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from territories it has occupied since February 24, 2022, let alone since 2014.

This is precisely where a possible trap for Western democracies lies. Neither Beijing nor Delhi really intends to defend Ukraine and meet its legitimate and non-negotiable demands for territorial integrity — i.e. the recovery of the entire Donbass and Crimea — nor for the fundamental and equally non-negotiable demands for the punishment of the perpetrators, from the Russian leaders down to the common soldier, of the aggression and the massive crimes of war, against humanity and genocide, nor for reparations for war damages and compensation for the victims. They are ready — and this is also the meaning of China’s call to engage in peace negotiations — to sacrifice Ukraine and they are pushing for compromise.

For the time being, the front of the European Union and NATO countries is united in its demands on Moscow. It is also firm on sanctions, even if these are insufficient and have many loopholes in terms of depth and scope. It is also firm on international justice. But if the war lasts, if the threats to use nuclear weapons, a classic and ancient Russian means of trying to dissuade all states that might be tempted to respond to the Kremlin’s aggression, continue, if public opinion becomes increasingly tired, what will happen tomorrow?

Let us imagine that, for example, China and India exert more direct pressure through non-public channels on the Kremlin to stop the war and for Putin to accept it. Let us assume that the Kremlin unilaterally decides on a cease-fire, presented as a “token of goodwill”, and that Beijing and Delhi speak, just as discreetly, with certain Western states, strongly suggesting that they push for negotiations under these allegedly new conditions? If Russia, after having pushed for escalation through mobilization and threats, decides to stop the fighting, there is a danger that the Allies will then stop supplying new weapons to Kyiv and that it will become increasingly difficult for the Ukrainian army, both in terms of image and material means, to reconquer its entire territory.

From then on, certain Western countries could once again, as before February 2022, urge Ukraine to agree to sit down at a negotiating table and consider territorial compromises. This would be a betrayal of their previous commitments, but they would be tempted to present this retreat as a necessity “in the name of peace”.

Let us not misunderstand the meaning of the words: this would be a defeat for Ukraine and a victory for Russia. Ukraine would be permanently amputated and Moscow would have won the war, albeit with a lesser magnitude than hoped for.

It would also be a terrible defeat for the Western world, which would lose all credibility in the defense of its values and the unyielding demands of international law, both in terms of borders and criminal law. With Putin and his followers remaining in power in Moscow, the security of Europe and the world would remain permanently and strongly threatened. Putin could even regain some of the lustre of his former allies who are tempted to distance themselves from him.

This would finally be a catastrophic defeat for the Russian people. While, with the defeat of the Russian regime in Ukraine, the possibility of Russia’s evolution towards a less totalitarian reality is beginning, albeit timidly and with great caution in the forecast, to be envisaged, the hope, one day, of a free Russia would be permanently closed. The reality is that what should be a goal, albeit a silent one, for the Allies, but also for Russian dissidents, namely the end of Putin’s regime, would be permanently compromised. China and India, as well as many autocratic and above all dictatorial regimes, from Syria to Burma, from Cuba to Venezuela, from Belarus to Nicaragua, would no doubt view this with favor. Other regimes too, even if they are less linked to Putin’s regime, would not be unhappy that the authoritarian world is in some way reinforced and that democratic revolutions are dissuaded. Conversely, if Putin radically loses his war, one can reasonably expect virtuous chain effects on the dictatorial regimes and on the countries that still remain largely in the Kremlin’s orbit.

Faced with this risk of backsliding, it is therefore essential that the Allies solemnly reaffirm that they not only want a total victory for Ukraine and international justice to pass, but also that they will not accept a charade of negotiations under the present conditions. They obviously need to massively increase their arms deliveries to Ukraine without any limitations. They should certainly not even mention such peace talks. They must also make their own, even if they cannot express it publicly, the indispensable objective of ending the current Russian regime, with Putin or with another.

The hypothesis that we mentioned must remain what it should never have ceased to be: a nightmare quickly swept away by the first glimmers of daylight.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

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