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. Today, I am asking my Indian friends to lend me their ears and listen to what I have to say 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 for India, and for you. Still, I reel at the silences and statements of outright support for Putin’s war, which now prevail in India, at the ubiquitous #IStandWithPutin and #IStandWithRussia hashtags. Nonetheless, I am convinced that these reactions are less to do with malice and more with miscomprehension, some of which I will try to dispel.
One, Russia is not the USSR. Every Indian has a soft spot for the Rusi bhai, India’s brother, old friend and faithful ally in a world dominated by the predatory, imperialist, Americanoid West. I have often benefited from this Russophilia in India, not because I am Russian, but because I come from the former USSR, which most people in India think of as “Russia”. But 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. The Soviets championed anti-colonialism, opposing apartheid and allying with former colonies across Asia and Africa. Putin, conversely and for all his anti-Western rhetoric, actually threw most of his energies into building political and economic relations with Europe and the US.
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. It took months of Ukraine’s dazzling military performance, the horrors of Bucha, the mass graves of Mariupol, and a tsunami of popular outrage across the world to shift Biden’s administration out of its pro-Russian stance.
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. Ukrainians treasure these freedoms, which are missing from all other post-Soviet states and which were hard won with one after another revolution. They feel that this war is the culmination of their long fight for autonomy and the right to determine their political fate. 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 – because most prefer death to life in the Russian gulag: In a society based on fear, where mothers don’t mourn their sons and friends are terrified of looking each other in the eyes.
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. Meanwhile, Russian citizens have been taught to despise Ukrainians, to see an enemy in a people who have never attacked or otherwise threatened their country. The heroic struggle against Russian terror by Ukraine’s Russian speakers, from Kherson to Kharkiv – has left no trace of a doubt that they do not yearn for Putin’s salvation. In fact, they are their self-proclaimed saviour’s worst enemies.
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. Not just the government, but “the majority of its population” must be imprisoned or killed; any references to a Ukrainian language or culture must be destroyed, and the country erased from the map and renamed. More than colonialism, this is an openly declared genocide.
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. Decimated and humiliated by an army it vastly outnumbers and outguns, the Russian army lost an improbable number of generals and admirals, including the head of the Black Sea Fleet, as well as their flagship. Having lost over 50 000 troops, Putin has unleashed mass exodus and riots in Russia with repressive mobilisation. Having failed on the battlefield, lost much support inside Russia and isolated himself diplomatically, he is now threatening all of us with nuclear war.
Eight, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. Soviet leaders, beginning with the (Ukrainian) Nikita Khrushchev – who coined the “Hindi Rusi bhai bhai” slogan – built deep political and cultural ties 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, 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. 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, Kadyrov (the Chechen warlord and Putin’s “adopted son”) and the Taliban, whose members Putin invited to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. And where was Russia in India’s recent clashes with China? And where will it be, should China attack again?
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. 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 galvanised 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 now have to stand the test of their citizens’ convictions, 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, like Kazakhstan, have grasped this. Either they take a stance against terror or join Putin’s supporters in Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, and Belarus. Does India belong in this club? And, if it does, can it really aspire to being a Global Superpower?
I am asking you, my Indian friends – academics and journalists, lawyers and philosophers, schoolteachers and politicians – to condemn Putin’s terror. You may not change how much oil your government buys from Russia, but it will save India – and its people – from appearing hopelessly provincial, instrumental and inhumane: Unable to see and unwilling to look beyond their borders, or to care. You may not change how many tanks India acquires from Russia this year, but you will save yourselves from ending up on the wrong side of history. And history neither quickly forgets nor forgives.
The writer is Reader in Anthropology and Politics at King’s College, London
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