Russia’s war against Ukraine, which is now almost a year old and showing no signs of moving towards any compromise or resolution, has forced states world over to recalibrate their geopolitical positionings as warfare once again returned to Europe coupled with a looming big power competition between the United States (US) and China.
Russia in recent times was not a superpower, i.e. in the league of the US or China per se, specifically when it came to its economic heft. Moscow’s might, till date, is largely borrowed from the post-WWII era and the capacities built under the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR), led by its nuclear capabilities. However, Moscow still is a power, and geographically, the largest country in the world and the Russian war against Ukraine had a ripple effect globally, ranging from commodity prices such as food and energy to severe disruptions in global trade owing to anti-Russia sanctions at a time when the world is still reeling with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, European and in general, Western push for the world to condemn Russia’s aggressions against Kiev and isolate Moscow found resistance amidst the developing economies and the Global South. Worries relating to inflation and commodity shortages, translating into a challenge for often fragile governments and societies saw many hedging their interests. According to World Economic Forum’s global risks reportfor 2023, the cost of living crisis has topped as the most challenging issue over both long and short term
Perhaps the two most interesting examples of the above over the last year have been India and Türkiye[i]. Classified by many as ‘middle powers’, both New Delhi and Ankara have tried to use the West’s new conflict with Moscow to upscale their own geopolitical and geostrategic goals. For Türkiye, a member of NATO hosting US nuclear weapons, this is particularly interesting as it tries to use its geographic diversity between Europe and Asia through the Bosphorus Strait in its favour. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, India has pitched itself as a major proponent of peace, anti-war messaging that feeds into its aim of promoting a multipolar world order for the future. While India and Türkiye do not have the best bilateral relations, their individual manoeuvres around the Ukraine crisis are noteworthy.
Türkiye is working through a multi-layered diplomacy effort where it is playing the role of a regional anchor, guiding itself through the West–Russia tensions to gain an upper hand in its neighbourhood diplomacy and strategic aims, playing on the fact that despite often being at odds with other NATO partners, it is still a critical player for the West to try and remain in good books with.
However, Türkiye also has a functional relationship with Russia which has only grown since Moscow intervened in the Syrian crisis in 2015. The relationship, of course, has come with its fair share of strains. In November 2015, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter aircraft, claiming that the jet had crossed into Turkish territory. Russians claimed it was shot down within Syrian airspace. In December 2016, Russia’s Ambassador to Türkiye, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated by an off-duty Turkish police officer in full public view during his visit to an art exhibition in Ankara. Despite this tumultuous time, Ankara and Moscow have managed to keep the relationship from collapsing.
Fast forward to 2021, Türkiye played both sides of the conflict once again to further its own interests. It provided its infamous Bayraktar TB-II armed drones to Ukraine for use against the Russian military while also mediating between Moscow and Kiev along with the UN to reach a deal, agreeing on safe maritime passage for shipments of grains, food, and fertilisers from Russia using the Black Sea. The Black Sea Grain Initiative was signed between the UN, Türkiye, Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul in July 2022. They are also engaged in other diplomatic exercises such as prisoner swaps between Moscow and Kiev.
On the other end, however, Turkiye also threw a spanner in the workings of NATO as Sweden and Finland tried to join the military alliance last year, marking a dramatic shift in European post-Cold War politics. One of Ankara’s foremost strategic aims is to quell Kurdish extremism, including going after the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (known as the PKK). Ankara is demanding a liberal agreement with Stockholm where it seeks easy extradition of Kurds it claims are involved in terrorism, in exchange for moving in favour of Sweden’s ascension into NATO.
More recently, Turkiye aired its plans to possibly launch military operations into northern Syria to target Kurdish-led militias such as the People’s Defense Units (known as the YPG). This is at odds with the West-led operations against ISIS in Syria, where on the ground, the Kurds have been at the forefront in fighting against the terror organisation and its ‘caliphate’, specifically during its peak between 2013 and 2018. The region is still home to camps and pockets of pro-ISIS militants, still numbering in thousands, and the Kurds have said they would have to set them free if Ankara initiates any military operation. Some have termed Turkiye’s diplomacy as “hostage politics”, attempting to play between Moscow and Washington. For better or for worse, Ankara seems to be managing these pressures to its advantage for the time being.
India and multipolarity
Meanwhile, India’s diplomacy around the Ukraine crisis has been a mixture of promoting cessation of conflict via dialogue, rallying an increasingly assertive, vocal and visible Global South and the developing nations behind it to secure their own interests. At a recent summit for the Global South hosted by India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted issues such as respect for territorial sovereignty and reform of the UN as important tenants towards global stability. Modi’s call of it not being an era of war fed into New Delhi’s agenda as the president of the G20 format for 2023, with the summit slated to take place later this year.
Modi has talked to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, continuing to honour India’s historical ties with Moscow while also providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine and maintaining full diplomatic presence there. At a UN Security Council debate, Mexico’s foreign minister proposed that a committee including US Secretary General, Pope Francis and Modi be constituted to mediate a permanent peace.
India has also highlighted that it played a quiet role in the UN-led grain deal and also in defusing the situation around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, where Russian military forces had allegedly prevented technicians access in order to maintain stability of what is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. India’s pitch around the crisis can be seen as an informal formulation of being neither on the Western camp, or Russian (despite the history), but representing those who are ailing due to the associated economic costs and standing against conflict in general. Attempts initially were made, largely from the West to pull New Delhi into condemning Moscow outrightly, specifically by highlighting that India was buying cheap Russian crude oil, in effect helping in funding the war against Ukraine. However, these were soon found to be standing on very flimsy ground.
New Delhi correctly countered this by highlighting European dependency on Russian energy (now and in the past) and needs of developing, energy deficient economies to maintain robust economic growth for their economically vulnerable citizens, come what may. The upcoming G20 summit will also, in all likeliness, force the warring sides to face each other in New Delhi. This outcome, if it indeed takes place (Putin did not attend the 2022 G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, despite a visit to Moscow by the Indonesian president), will be seen as a significant achievement for India’s own way of diplomacy and its independent positioning if the conflict continues unabated till the end of the year. The jury is still out on how the development of these stepping stones of Indian thinking on multipolarity and the ‘Indian way’ translates into other theatres, such as in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, and other multilateral alignments being constructed to counter China.
It has not just been India and Türkiye that have tried to carve their own paths on back of the Ukraine crisis. From Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) in West Asia to South Africa and those in Latin America, countries in the ‘middle’ have tried to stay clear with not overtly taking sides. While it is tempting to equate such posturing to the erstwhile Non-Aligned Movement, the strategic and geoeconomic realities running global geopolitics today are drastically different to those a few decades ago where middle powers made more sense in theory but did not translate into practice. In the coming years, with shifting poles of power, solidifying of old alliances, formation of new minilaterals, a settling in of ‘chaos politics’, the near future will force states to be more innovative to push their interests through an upcoming era where much of the post-WWII order may face a fundamental challenge.