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Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. (AP)


I am an anthropologist and have spent the last two decades listening to my many friends in India in an attempt to understand their country.

One, Russia is not the USSR.”. Putin’s Russia is anything but the USSR. It is its cardinal opposite. While the Soviet Union was the leader of the socialist world, offering an ideological and social alternative to Western capitalism, Russia today is a deeply commercial society, as relentlessly capitalist and consumerist as the US, where housewives wrestle over IKEA pots and dead soldiers’ parents happily buy new cars with their pay-outs. The world looked up to the Soviet Union for its literature, science and chess, for its cinema, space programme, and military. And generations of Asian and African medics and scientists were trained in the USSR. Today the world looks over to Russia mostly for oil and gas.


Two, Ukraine is not an American puppet state and this is not an American proxy war. Ukraine’s relations with the US were strained from the start, when (in 1994) Bill Clinton bullied Ukraine’s president into giving up Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal. More recent American presidents have unabashedly taken Russia’s side. Obama let Putin get away with annexing Crimea and invading Donbas, 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”. And Biden relentlessly courted Putin right up to the war: 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 has always opposed Ukraine’s accession to NATO, largely denied military aid to Ukraine before the war, removed its fleet from the Black Sea on the eve of the invasion, and in a gesture of diplomatic disdain, did not even appoint an ambassador to Ukraine until April 2022.


Three, Russia was not cornered by NATO. NATO is a defence alliance, which has never threatened Russia. In fact, it has actively avoided it. The alliance has shared a border with Russia since 2004, when the Baltic States joined in, and has never since then threatened Russia’s sovereignty. Putin himself said repeatedly, and as recently as May, that he does not see NATO as a threat. Meanwhile, Russia attacked country after country – Moldova in 1992; Georgia in 2008; Ukraine in 2014 and again this year – forcing its neighbours to seek NATO protection. NATO membership is expensive and some countries, like Finland and Sweden, have chosen to do without, until prompted to join by Russia’s aggression. Others, like Georgia and Ukraine, have been obstinately denied membership, to avoid conflict with Russia. Were NATO seeking out a war with Russia, it would have used Ukraine’s invasion as a pretext. Instead, NATO has gone to great lengths to avoid direct military confrontation.


Four, Ukraine is not a Nazi state; it is a thriving, polyvocal democracy. Ukraine’s president, elected in 2019 by 74 per cent of the popular vote, is a Russian-speaking Jew, three of whose uncles died fighting the Nazis during WWII. Like every European country, Ukraine has right -wing movements and parties, but during the most recent elections they gained a mere 2 per cent of the vote, failing to secure any seats in the national parliament. Stepan Bandera, a hero for some in Ukraine, was a Ukrainian freedom fighter, who allied with Hitler in a bid to secure Ukraine’s independence, just as Subhas Chandra Bose did in his struggle for India’s independence. Like India, Ukraine teems with political leaders, parties and freewheeling political debate. Putin, who has demolished all political opposition, jailed and killed his critics, established himself as an unimpeachable ruler, installed in Ukraine a puppet regime (ousted during the 2014 Maidan), tried to weaken its constitution (with the Minsk agreement), snatched its lands in 2014, and is trying to capture or raze the rest now. The outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainians have fought so effectively – to the world’s astonished disbelief

Five, Russian-speaking Ukrainians do not need saving. Unlike France, Britain or Spain, Ukraine has had no separatist movements before 2014, when Putin invaded Crimea and the Donbas, stoking ethnic separatism. Ukraine does bristle with debates about bilingualism and the relative status of Russian culture and language use, but it has never used repressive measures 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’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, there was no widespread hostility towards ethnic Russians.

Six, Russia is the last European empire. While Europe’s empires collapsed at the end of the Second World War, for Russia this was only the beginning. Putin and his henchmen have spoken repeatedly about restoring the Soviet/Russian Empire. The desire to suborn Ukraine as a colony is the real cause of his war, which is why it is so difficult to understand its aims amidst the Kremlin’s shifting justifications: The destruction of the Kyiv “Nazi regime,” the liberation of the Donbas, the prevention of a Ukrainian attack on Russia, the battle against NATO, the destruction of American biolabs, a war against the America–centric world and so on. Putin’s real enemy in Ukraine – what infuriates him and threatens his regime – is neither the imagined Nazis nor NATO nor the supposed American biolabs, but a thriving democracy next door, which offers dangerous inspiration to Putin’s critics and any potential political opponents. This is why, according to Kremlin ideologists, Ukraine must not be merely defeated, it must cease to exist.


Seven, Putin is weak, as is his army. While President Zelensky refused to leave Kyiv, risking his own and his family’s lives, and giving daily briefings from the streets of a bombarded city, Putin has hidden for months in a bunker. While Zelensky receives visitors on the streets of an embattled Kyiv, Putin greets his guests, and indeed his Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff at the end of a 10-meter table. Zelensky has repeatedly invited Putin to direct talks, but to no avail. Putin spent trillions on the Russian army, which he expected to take Ukraine in 3 to 5 days, with Russian regiments booking tables in Kyiv restaurants for early March. But Russians not only failed to take Kyiv, they were chased out of northern Ukraine and in five days this month were driven off a territory it took them five months to invade.


Eight, unlike the Soviet Union,. 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, in contrast, 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 the Russo-Indian “special and privileged strategic partnership”. Russia’s growing arms sales and recent military cooperation with Pakistan showed clearly that its military interests are oriented by profit, not sentiments.

Nine, it is neither in India’s nor in its citizens’ interests to ignore or condone Russia’s war. This war is not only 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, the stakes are much higher. Should Russia win this war, it is not only Taiwan, but also India, that will become vulnerable to Chinese aggression. This war has also become the global standoff between freedom and terror. This is the core of the future “civilised world.” Heads of many states, even those dependent on Russia, like Kazakhstan, have grasped this. Either they take a stance against terror or join Putin’s supporters in Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, and Belarus.

I am asking you, my Indian friends – academics and journalists, lawyers and philosophers, schoolteachers and politicians – to condemn Putin’s terror. And history neither quickly forgets nor forgives.

The writer is Reader in Anthropology and Politics at King’s College, London

First published on: 04-10-2022 at 05:32:15 pm


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