South Asia’s reaction to Russian invasion of Ukraine driven by self-interest: EFSAS

'Nepal has so far taken the strongest position against Russia among all the South Asian nations'


March 5, 2022


South Asia’s reaction to Russian invasion of Ukraine driven by self-interest: EFSAS

Ukrainian service members collect unexploded shells after fighting with a Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (AFP)

KATHMANDU: European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) has said the leadership of South Asian countries have had to consider challenging existential strategic imperatives while responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine though most countries called for an immediate end to the violence in the war-torn country.

South Asian governments gravely considered their strategic imperative to adopt somewhat nuanced positions on the Ukrainian crisis, EFSAS said in a statement published Friday at efsas.org.

EFSAS noted that it took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to galvanize and unite most of the democratic world in ways and to degrees that President Vladimir Putin would never have imagined to be possible at the time that he plotted the march beyond the Donbas. Almost all of Russia’s European friends have withered away in the process, and even Germany, which Putin must have banked on greatly due to its overwhelming dependence on Russian gas, has opted to choose coal and nuclear power over this blood-stained gas.

Considering South Asia’s response to the Ukraine crisis, EFSAS said that Pakistan was the first country that was required to respond to the invasion as its Prime Minister, Imran Khan, was on his maiden visit to Moscow when it began on February 24. Khan said he was excited to be in Moscow, and that his country had nothing to do with what was happening in Ukraine, a country from which Pakistan imports about 40% of its wheat and a wide range of military equipment, among other things.

A Pakistani statement said that the “Prime Minister regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict. The Prime Minister stressed that conflict was not in anyone’s interest, and that the developing countries were always hit the hardest economically in case of conflict”.

Khan’s visit to Russia had been projected by his government as a “prelude to a greater relationship”, despite Russia accounting for less than 1% of both Pakistan’s imports and exports.

Pakistan subsequently abstained from voting on the resolution in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) deploring the invasion and calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, and in so doing put all its eggs in the China-Russia basket. The Pakistani daily Dawn quoted a diplomatic source as saying that “Pakistan has decided not to take sides on this issue. Islamabad supports a peaceful and negotiated settlement”.

When the Ambassadors of 22 countries, including European Union (EU) member States, had jointly called on Pakistan to support the UN resolution, the country’s human rights minister Shireen Mazari responded by calling the joint initiative “ironic”, adding that Pakistan did not support military force, and that the EU should not adhere to the UN Charter “selectively” as has been done “for decades”.

Pakistan’s tacit support for Russia over Ukraine is in line with Islamabad’s strong desire to strengthen its relationship with Moscow. Pakistan-Russia relations have indeed grown in recent years. Pakistan believes that the close ties that the US has promoted and evolved with India in recent years has given it the opening it needs to get into Russia’s good books.

Pakistan has used its own geo-political reasoning to side with Russia in the Ukraine conflict. It would not have had much of a choice in any case given that China, whose advise Islamabad can ill afford to ignore on account of its deep dependence on Beijing in several strategically and economically critical sectors, would have told it unambiguously which side it should be on.

Like Pakistan, Bangladesh has also taken a neutral position on Ukraine and has not ascribed any blame. It has urged “cessation of hostilities” by all sides, in line with its “friendship to all, malice toward none” foreign policy. Bangladesh also owes a debt to Moscow because a Soviet veto in the UN Security Council had made its creation possible in 1971. Further, Bangladesh’s strong economic ties with Russia were a factor in its positioning on the Ukraine war.

In case of India, which since the Cold War has had a special relationship with the Soviet Union and then with Russia, had the toughest decision to make owing to its burgeoning relationship with the US. India, therefore, abstained from voting both in the UN Security Council and in the UNGA.

Since the conflict began, India has lamented that diplomacy was given up too quickly, emphasized the need to return to a path of dialogue and diplomacy, and reiterated the importance of adhering to the UN Charter, international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. It has refrained from directly attributing blame.

India’s dilemma stems from several reasons, including its major reliance on Russian weaponry and the fact that Moscow had used its UN veto to bail India out of some difficult situations in the past. Even as it deepens its relationship with the US, India places great importance on its historical and “strategic” ties with Moscow.

In reality, India today needs both the US and Russia primarily for one critical reason – to counter the threat posed by a confrontational and expansive China. While membership of US-led groupings such as the QUAD provide India with security against China in the maritime sphere, on land if there is any country that can plausibly intervene favorably with China on India’s behalf, it is Russia. Another factor that would have influenced India’s decision was the presence of Imran Khan in Moscow in particular, and the recent trend of the Russian leadership being open to humoring Pakistan in general. India would not like its “strategic partnership” with Russia to be tainted by deeper Pakistani ingress.

Nepal, a tiny Himalayan State, has so far taken the strongest position against Russia among all the South Asian nations, EFSAS noted. Nepal’s foreign office said in a statement that “Recognition of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent entities goes contrary to the provisions of the UN Charter. Nepal opposes any use of force against a sovereign country in any circumstance and believes in peaceful resolution of disputes through diplomacy and dialogue”.

Nepal’s positioning in geo-politics essentially boils down to its relationships with India, China, and the US. Russia does not figure much in its economic or security calculus, and this accorded Nepal the freedom to choose a stance dictated by principle rather than realpolitik.

In the end, South Asian countries have reacted to the crisis in Ukraine in accordance with their self interests and their geo-political positioning, but they have all called for peace, dialogue, respect for the UN Charter and for international law, and for protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity.