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Mainstream, VOL LX No 28, New Delhi, July 2, 2022

Russia’s War on Ukraine: A Letter to My Indian Friends | Anastasia Piliavsky

Friday 1 July 2022

by Anastasia Piliavsky *

A LETTER TO MY INDIAN FRIENDS

One deep moral dilemma I face, personally and professionally, is the (astonishingly unified) Indian response to the war in Ukraine. Having spoken to a number of thoughtful and caring Indian friends, this is my letter to them. I plan to circulate this widely in the Indian broadsheets, hopefully in several languages. Please let me know if you think there is anything I should add or further detail. The intended audience is maximally inclusive.

Dear Indian friends,

I am an anthropologist and have spent the last two decades listening to my many friends in India – which I have long loved – in an attempt to understand their country. Today I am asking my Indian friends to lend me their ears and listen to what I have to tell them about mine – about Ukraine. I know that Ukraine is a long way away, that it is difficult to make sense of the mad war raging there now and that it seems that this war is ultimately of little consequence to India’s fate. Still, I reel at the ubiquitous silence at, justifications of or outright support for Putin’s terror, which now prevails in India, at the ubiquitous #IStandWithPutin and #istandwithrussia hashtags. I am convinced that these reactions are less to do with malice and more with miscomprehension, some of which I will try to dispel in my letter.

1. Russia is not the USSR. Every Indian has a soft spot for the rusi bhai, India’s big brother, old friend and faithful ally in a world dominated by the predatory, imperialist West. While travelling around India, I have often benefited from this Russophilia, not because I am Russian, but because I come from the former USSR, which most people in India do not distinguish from Russia. Putin’s Russia is anything but the USSR. It is in fact its cardinal opposite. While the Soviet Union was the leader of the socialist world, offering an ideological and social alternative to the capitalist West, Russia today is a deeply commercial society, as relentlessly capitalist and consumerist as the US, where housewives wrestle over IKEA frying pans and wives of dead soldiers care more about pay-outs than their husbands’ deaths. The world looked up to the Soviet Union for its literature, science and chess, for its cinema, space programme, and military.

Generations of African and South Asian medics and scientists trained in the USSR. Today the world looks over to Russia only for oil and gas. While the Soviet Union was an anti-colonial champion, which opposed apartheid in South Africa and supported former colonies across Asia and Africa, Putin, for all his anti-Western rhetoric, threw most of his energies into economic and political ties with Europe and the United States, all the while developing Russia as Europe’s last empire.

2. Ukraine is not an American puppet-state and this is not an American proxy-war. Ukraine’s relations with the United States were strained from the start, when (in 1996) Bill Clinton bullied Ukraine’s president into giving up Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal. More recent American presidents have unabashedly taken Russia’s side. Barack Obama let Putin get away with annexing the Crimea and invading Donbass, and presided over the Minsk Agreements, which forced Ukraine into a series of concessions in exchange for a Russian ceasefire, which never materialised. Trump praised Putin for the capture of Crimea, called the build-up of troops on Ukraine’s borders “a genius move,” and prophesied that “the rest of Ukraine will fall…fairly quickly.” Biden relentlessly courted Putin right up to the war. During his first months as president, he waived sanctions on Nord Stream 2, established a new security partnership with Russia, and invited Putin to a lakeside summit, where he agreed to press Ukraine on Minsk. Biden’s administration consistently opposed Ukraine’s accession to NATO, denied Ukraine military support (beyond a handful of guerrilla weapons), and removed its fleet from the Black Sea on the eve of the invasion. It took months of Ukraine’s dazzling military performance, the nightmare of Bucha, the mass graves of Mariupol, and a tsunami of popular outrage across the world to shift the American pro-Russian stance. The desire to be free of the Russian yoke does not mean that Ukraine is uncritical of the West or that it is an American vassal state. Just like Indians, Ukrainians are oriented towards their families; and many are sceptical of what they see as the moral excesses of the West . Ukrainians – the people as much as the government – are equally sceptical of many aspects of American politics: its two-tongued ways, its duplicities, violence and the hubris with which they perceive the rest of the world.

3. Russia was not cornered by NATO. NATO is a defence alliance, which has never in its entire history attacked anyone. The alliance has shared a border with Russia since 2004, when the Baltic States joined in, and in those eighteen years has never threatened Russia’s sovereignty. Putin himself said repeatedly, until just last month he said: "As to enlargement [of NATO], Russia has no problem with these states - none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion [of NATO] to include these countries [Finland and Sweden]." Meanwhile, Russia attacked country after country – Moldova 1992; Georgia 2008; Ukraine 2014 and 2022 – forcing its neighbours to seek NATO protection. NATO membership is very expensive and some countries, like Finland and Sweden, have chosen to do without, until now. Others, like Georgia and Ukraine, have been repeatedly denied it by NATO, in a bit to avoid conflict with Russia. Were NATO seeking a war with Russia, it would have used the invasion of Ukraine to attack. Instead, NATO continues to refuse to confront Russia directly, a refusal for which Ukrainians are now paying with blood.

4. Ukraine is not a Nazi state. It’s a thriving democracy. The president of Ukraine, elected in 2019 by 74% of the vote, is a Russian-speaking Jew, three of whose uncles were murdered by Nazis during the Second World War. Like every European country, Ukraine has right¬–wing parties, but in the last elections all these gained a mere 2% of the vote, failing to gain a single seat in the national parliament. Stepan Bandera, a national hero in Western Ukraine, was a Ukrainian freedom fighter, who allied with Hitler in a bid to secure Ukraine’s independence, just as Subhash Chandra Bose did in his struggle for society. Like India, Ukraine today teems with political leaders, parties, debates. This is the society that Ukrainians have fought for – one after another colourful revolution – to retain its social and democratic freedoms. This war is the culmination of this long fight. Putin, who has demolished all political opposition, jailed and killed critics and established himself as an eternal ruler, installed in Ukraine a puppet regime (which Ukrainians ousted in 2014), tried to weaken its constitution (with the Minsk agreement), snatched its lands in 2014, and is now trying to raze the rest. The outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainians have fought so effectively – to the world’s astonished disbelief – because most prefer death to life in the Russian gulag: a society based on fear, where mothers don’t mourn their sons and friends are terrified of looking into each other’s eyes.

5. Ukraine’s Russians do not need saving. Unlike in Spain, Britain or France, there were no separatist movements in Ukraine before 2014, when Putin invaded the Crimea and the Donbass, where he has since stoked ethnic hatred. Ukraine does fizzle with debates about bilingualism and the relative status of Russian and Ukrainian literatures and language use. But no repressive measures have ever been used in Ukraine against ethnic Russians. I am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jew from a Russian-speaking Ukrainian city of Odessa and I have never felt discriminated against. Even after Russia started a war in Ukraine in 2014, animosity towards Russians never took off in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian citizens have been taught to despise Ukrainians, to see an enemy in a brethren people who have never attacked or otherwise threatened Russia. The heroic fight against Russian terror by Ukraine’s Russian speakers, from Kherson to Mariupol to Kharkiv, has left no traces of a doubt that Ukraine’s Russians do not await salvation. In fact, they are their saviours’ worst enemies.

6. Russia is Europe’s last empire. While the Europe’s empires collapsed at the end of the Second World War, for Russia this was only the beginning. Putin has spoken repeatedly about restoring the Soviet Union, which he sees as Russia’s empire. And the desire to suborn Ukraine as a colony is the real cause of this war, which is why it is so difficult to understand its aims. Kremlin’s justifications of it change all the time: the destruction of the Kyiv “Nazi regime,” the liberation of the Donbass, the prevention of a Ukrainian attack on Russia, the battle against NATO, the destruction of American bio-labs in Ukraine, a war against the America–centric world and so on. Putin’s real enemy in Ukraine – what infuriates him and threatens his regime – are neither the imagined Nazis nor NATO nor the supposed presence of the American biolabs, but an open, thriving, democratic society right on his doorstep.

7. Putin is weak, as is his army. While President Zelensky refused to leave Kyiv, risking his own and his family’s life and giving daily briefings from the streets of the embattled city, Putin has hid in a bunker for months. While Zelensky shakes the hands of all visitors on the streets, Putin keeps his Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff at the end of a 10-meter table. Zelensky has repeatedly asked Putin to man-to-man negotiations. Putin spent trillions on the Russian army. His army has been stationed at the Ukrainian border for nearly a year before the invasion began. And yet, their war has dramatically failed. They planned to occupy the whole of Ukraine in 3 to 5 days, but they have not managed to capture a single major city. Decimated and humiliated, the Russian army was chased out of northern Ukraine, reducing its operations to the country’s east. After several weeks of focusing their efforts there, the Russian army has hardly advanced. By now they lost more than 1000 tanks, hundreds of airplanes, more than 30,000 soldiers, and 12 generals, including the head of the Black Sea Fleet. They lost their flagship, Moscow. All this happened before any serious weapons arrived in Ukraine from the West. A country of 144 million humiliated by a country of 44 million, with a military budget that is a tenth of the Russian. While the Russian army has been the world’s laughingstock, NATO countries are lining up to learn from Ukrainians.

8. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. Soviet leaders, beginning with (the Ukrainian) Nikita Khrushchev – who declared hindi rusi bhai bhai – built up deep political and cultural exchange with India. The Soviet Union supported India in its claims to sovereign Goa and Kashmir, and during the 1971 war; and in the 1960s gave more military and economic aid to India than even to Communist China. Raj Kapoor and Rajiv Gandhi were household heroes, Sanskrit and Indology thrived in Soviet universities, and Indian students came in droves to the USSR. Putin sees India primarily as a market, which is why the sale of oil, nuclear reactors and arms, free trade, and a transport corridor are the crux of this "special and privileged strategic partnership." Russia’s growing arms sales and military cooperation with Pakistan showed clearly that its military interests are oriented by profit, not loyalties. In fact, Pakistan is Russia’s more natural ally: a state where people prefer strong leaders over democracy, just as they do in Russia, to add to Putin’s other strong-man friends in China, Lybia, Syria, Eritrea, and North Korea. It is not as if Islamic statehood or Islamism puts Putin off. He has kept happy company with Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, and Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord and Putin’s “adopted son.” And just this month the leaders of Taliban joined the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Besides, where was Russia in India’s recent clashes with China? And where will it be, should China attack again?

9. It is neither in India’s nor in Indians’ interests to support or ignore Russia’s war. This war is not just about Ukraine. Its outcome will set indelible precedents for the world’s future: economic, geopolitical, moral. Will the family of securely sovereign states, created after the second world war, survive? Or will the world descend into an era of new wars, conquests and empires? And in the nuclear age, this could well end up in a nuclear holocaust. Should Russia win this war, it is not only Taiwan, but also India, that will be open to Chinese aggression. This war has also become the global standoff between freedom and terror. The barbaric attack on a people defending their right to breathe freely by a horde of robbers, rapists, and murderers blindly following a mad czar, whose court philosophers openly advocate ethnic genocide, has united and galvanized democratic countries around the value of human freedom. The tsunami of popular support for Ukraine has shown that the economic policies of democratic states will have to follow their citizens’ moral values, that they cannot be guided solely by profit. This is the core of the future “civilised world.” Heads of many states, even those dependent on Russia, such as Kazakhstan, have understood this. Either they take a stance against terror or join Putin’s supporters in Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, and Belarus. Does India really belong in this club? And, if it does, can it aspire to the status of a Global Superpower? I am asking you, my Indian friends – academics and journalists, lawyers and philosophers, politicians and schoolteachers – to condemn Putin’s terror. You may not change how much oil your government buys from Russia, but it will save India from appearing hopelessly provincial, instrumental and inhumane. You will save yourselves from ending up on the wrong side of history. And history neither quickly forgets nor forgives.

* (Author: Anastasia Piliavsky is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology & Politics at King’s College London)

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