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Watch | Two years of Russia-Ukraine war: How Russia and the world are changing

Two years on, where does the Ukraine war stand?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has entered its third year. What many thought on February 24, 2022 would be a swift Russian military operation against its smaller neighbour has turned out to be the largest land war in Europe since the end of the Second World War. This is no longer about Russia and Ukraine. This is now a proxy conflict between Russia and NATO, a trans-Atlantic nuclear alliance. Two years since the war began, where does it stand today, and how it’s transforming Russia and the world?

If one looks back at the beginning of the war, it’s not difficult to see that President Vladimir Putin made a grave strategic miscalculation when he ordered the invasion of Europe’s second largest country with less than 2,00,000 troops. Mr. Putin probably expected a quick victory, like he did in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. But that did not happen.

In 2022, Russians were forced to retreat from Kharkiv and Kherson. The West doubled down on its military and economic support for Ukraine. Russia had declared “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine as their objectives. Ukraine wanted to push back the invading troops and recapture the lost territories, including Crimea. The West wanted to use Ukrainian forces to bleed out Russian troops and weaken Russia as a great power. The wheels of war were grinding on. Who is meeting their objectives today?

Ukraine last year launched an ambitious counteroffensive with advances weapons from the West. Their plan was to make swift advances into Russia’s line of defence in the south and destroy Mr. Putin’s land bridge that connects the Donbas with Crimea.

Eight months after counteroffensive began, it’s now evident that the campaign has failed. Gen. Velery Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s former commander in chief who was fired by President Zelensky, had called for a mass mobilisation, suggesting that Ukraine was facing acute shortage of fighters on the frontline. They lost many of their West-supplied weapons in the counteroffensive and are waiting for fresh supplies. Ukraine is almost entirely dependent on the West for critical supplies, but aid from the U.S., the single largest supporter of Ukraine, is stuck in Congress amid growing Republican opposition.

On the other side, the Russians are on the offensive. In December, Russia claimed its first victory since the capture of Bakhmut in May when it seized Maryinka. Earlier this month, Ukraine was forced to abandon Avdiivka, a strategically important town in Donetsk. The Russians are now advancing westward in Donetsk and piling up pressure on Ukrainian forces in Krynky, Kherson, in the south.

The message from the battlefield is alarming for Ukraine and its partners in the West.

Take a look at the West’s strategy. The West, or NATO to be specific, had taken a two-fold approach towards Ukraine. One was to provide economic and military assistance to Kyiv to keep the fight against Russia going on; and the second leg was to weaken Russia’s economy and war machine through sanctions. With Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive and a changing political climate in Washington with the prospect of a second Trump presidency looming, the first pillar of this policy faces uncertainty, if not absolute peril. The second pillar, sanctions, has hurt Russia badly. Western officials believe that sanctions have deprived Russia of over $430 billion in revenue it would otherwise have gained since the war began. Europe has also curtailed its energy purchases from Russia. Sanctions have also made it difficult for Moscow to acquire critical technologies, including microchips, which are necessary for its defence industry.

But this is not the whole story.

Russia has found several ways to work around sanctions and keep its economy going. When Europe cut energy sales, Russia offered discounted crude oil to big growing economies such as China, India and Brazil. It amassed a ghost fleet of ships to keep sending oil to its new markets without relying on western shipping companies and insurers. It set up shell companies and private corporations operating in its neighbourhood (say Armenia or Turkey) to import dual use technologies which were re-exported to Russia to be used in defence production. China, the world’s second largest economy, ramped up its financial and trade ties with Russia, including the export of dual use technologies. Russia moved away from the dollar to other currencies, mainly the Chinese yuan, for trade, and boosted defence and public spending at home (its defence budget was raised by nearly 70% this year).

Does it mean that everything is going well for Mr. Putin? No it doesn’t.

Since the war began, two countries in its neighbourhood, Sweden and Finland, have joined NATO, expanding the alliance’s border with Russia. Now, if you look at the Baltic Sea, all basin countries, except Russia, are practically NATO members, which makes it look like a NATO lake.

Mr. Putin spent years, after coming to power, to build strong economic ties with Europe, which are now in tatters. Russia’s hold on its immediate neighbourhood is also loosening, which was evident in tensions with Armenia and the latter’s decision to freeze participation in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia is also increasingly becoming dependent on China, even though the Kremlin is careful not to upset the sensitivity of New Delhi.

But how does India look at the war?

India’s ties with Russia have multi-dimensions. While the energy aspect of this partnership, which flourished after the war, is seen largely opportunistic, the defence side is structural. India also sees Russia, a Eurasian powerhouse, as an important long-term strategic partner in tackling its continental challenges. But the elephant in the room was China.

Russia’s deepening ties with China triggered different arguments on India’s choices. One section argued that the growing synergy between Russia and China should serve as a wake-up call for India to revisit its Russia policy. Others, including yours truly, argued that India would be wary of pushing Russia deeper into China’s embrace by toeing the anti-Russian Western line.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar explained India’s thinking on this matter at the Raisina Dialogue recently. The world must give Russia more options, rather than “closing doors” on it and pushing it towards a closer embrace with China, Mr. Jaishankar said. The Minister’s comments underscored India’s concerns about a deepening China-Russia partnership, but his policy prescriptions were nuanced. “What’s happened today with Russia is essentially a lot of doors have been shut to Russia in the West,” he said. “We know the reasons why Russia is turning to parts of the world which are not West. Now, I think it makes sense to give Russia multiple options.”

Meaning, India’s ties with Russia are here to stay and expand, irrespective of what its western partners think of Moscow.

Script and presentation: Stanly Johny

Production: Richard Kujur

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