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India – Pakistan and Russia – Ukraine: What if We Compare the Two?

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India and Russia are two great powers on the Eurasian continent, and it is for a good reason that they both claim a proactive role in establishing a new order on the continent as well as globally. The two countries epitomize entire civilizations as each can rightly be proud of their amazing history and rich culture. At the same time, Russia and India face rather daunting challenges in effecting modernization, both socially and economically. Both Moscow and New Delhi attach great importance to national sovereignty, and they do not take well to external attempts to interfere in their domestic affairs. Besides, both have to cope with powerful geopolitical competition that outstrip them in many ways – India’s rival is China, and Russia’s is the United States.

Alongside everything else, Russia and India face fundamental problems in cultivating relations in their neighborhoods, which complicates the stances Moscow and New Delhi take on the international stage all the more, diverting attention and resources as well as preventing them from settling into the global international community firm and steady. Pakistan has been a thorn in India’s side for a long time, while Ukraine has recently played a similar role for Russia. How far can we draw parallels between the India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine stand-offs? Are there any reasonable grounds to talk about any typological similarities of the two extremely difficult situations in two regions that are so contrasting? Is it appropriate to explore common or parallel options for resolving the two issues?

Let us start with the obvious. Each pair (India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine) is made up of societies that share a number of common characteristics. At some point, each belonged to a single economic, sociocultural and administrative space. The partition of the British Raj into to the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan in August 1947 brought about fratricidal conflicts that claimed the lives of some million people, leading to the migration of millions, which affected South Asia on a larger scale. For centuries, Russia and Ukraine formed the core of the Russian Empire, and later that of the Soviet Union. While the collapse of the Soviet Union did not result in a direct military conflict between Moscow and Kiev, it was nevertheless extremely painful for Russia and Ukraine, also triggering significant migration flows.

It is precisely the closeness of the “cultural and historical codes” of the two pairs of nations that bread the desire of the new political elites in Pakistan and Ukraine to distance themselves from their larger neighbours as much as possible. The problem is that they did not have a history of independent statehood from which to draw. Pakistan’s identity was built on a consistent opposition to its Indian neighbour. Ukraine took a similar path already in its early years, which can be evidenced by a book published in 2003 by the country’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, under the title of Ukraine is not Russia. For Pakistan, the first marker of “otherness” was religion. For Ukraine, it is the language that has gradually moved to the fore: a consistent, if not entirely successful, “Ukrainianization” was complemented by claims to the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine following 25 years into the country’s independence.

Notably, India and Russia tend to treat Pakistan and Ukraine as artificial constructions that arose as an accidental coincidence of political circumstances, with no obvious prospects in the long run. “Few” has never been the number of doom-laden forecasts presented in New Delhi and Moscow, assuming the inevitable disintegration of their neighbors into separate regions or their eventual transformation into “failed states.” However, despite the numerous domestic crises and external pressures, both Pakistan and Ukraine have demonstrated a high degree of resilience. For example, Pakistan, even with its fragility and a relatively inefficient public administration, has already existed longer than the Soviet Union. Although it did lose its eastern provinces back in 1971, which would later become the independent state of Bangladesh.

Besides, potentials of the legs in both pairs are obviously asymmetric. India is far larger, richer and stronger than Pakistan, while the same is true for Russia vis-a-vis Ukraine. That said, neither Pakistan nor Ukraine is so weak that India or Russia could ignore or manipulate their neighbour with impunity. For India, Pakistan is much more important than, say, the neighboring Sri Lanka, where New Delhi also faces numerous challenges in sustaining bilateral ties. Similarly, Ukraine is far more important for Russia than all the three Baltic states combined. While neither Pakistan nor Ukraine is currently able to act as an alternative agent of integration processes in South Asia or across the post-Soviet space, they are more than capable of playing the spoiler in any multilateral projects of integration that may emerge in the regions.

The general pattern of relations in the two pairs is somewhat different: hostilities between India and Pakistan arose almost immediately in the wake of the two countries gaining independence, whereas the tensions between Russia and Ukraine manifested themselves gradually. Unlike India and Pakistan, Russia and Ukraine were able to avoid slipping into a large-scale military face-off, although Kiev believes today Russia to be an “aggressor country”. At the same time, though, both India and Pakistan are nuclear-weapon states, meaning that neither country is particularly interested in a direct military showdown. Ukraine abandoned Soviet nuclear weapons back in the 1990s, and the nuclear factor does not apply to the Russia–Ukraine relations. In any case, opinion polls are invariable in their demonstration of persistent anti-Indian sentiments amid the public in Pakistan and anti-Russian attitudes in the minds of Ukrainians.

There is a territorial element both to India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine relations. Certainly, to compare Kashmir and Crimea would be somewhat problematic, as the two regions have very different pasts, while the make-up and self-identification of their respective populations are in no way similar, and the features of their current international legal status do not coincide. All that notwithstanding, there are some parallels to be found. New Delhi still insists that the Kashmir conflict is no international matter and focuses on the narrative of “cross-border terrorism” emanating from Pakistan. Similarly, Moscow refuses to talk to Kiev about Crimea, declaring the issue closed once and for all. However, neither Islamabad nor Kiev is ready to drop their territorial claims any time soon, with any possible rapprochement with India and Russia hinging on the progress in this area. The biggest difference between Pakistan and Ukraine is that Pakistan insists on a referendum in Kashmir (hoping that the Muslim population in the region will favor reunification with Pakistan), while Ukraine is reluctant to see a referendum in Crimea (citing the fact that the country’s constitution does not provide for this but also because the official Kiev may not like the outcome of such a referendum).

Finally, it is worth noting that the India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine links are open rather than closed systems. The weaker members of these pairs are attempting to correct the unfavorable balance of power by internationalizing the conflict as much as possible. In its standoff with India, Pakistan has traditionally relied on the support of the United States and, more recently, China. Meanwhile, Ukraine has managed to transform its conflict with Russia into a conflict between Russia and the “collective West.” Internationalization drives up the costs of conflict for the stronger party, pushing hopes for a “final victory” into the distance. This explains why New Delhi and Moscow seek to limit their relations with Islamabad and Kiev to preserving the status quo and minimizing the threat of escalation.

What does this mean for the future of India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine relations? First of all, we need to acknowledge that conflicts of this type tend to drag on for a very long time, surviving several generations. The confrontation between India and Pakistan has been going on for 75 years now, with no signs that it will end in the foreseeable future. Even if the Kashmir issue is somehow resolved on terms acceptable to both sides, there are more than enough reasons for the two to remain at odds with one another. By the same token, it is difficult to imagine a situation where a reset in the Russia–Ukraine relations would be possible. Even the full and unconditional implementation of the Minsk Protocol by all parties (which appears highly unlikely today) would do little to change the overwhelmingly anti-Russian sentiments of the Ukrainian political class. Provided that Kiev manages to successfully reintegrate the Donbass, the political elite will then turn all its attention to the “Crimean agenda,” never giving up its suspicions that Moscow harbors aggressive intentions towards Kiev.

What is more, intuition would suggest that the only way the relations between New Delhi and Islamabad could return to normal is within a broader international context. The same is true of Moscow–Kiev relations. Put it differently, new security systems in Eurasia and Europe need to be built for this to happen. Even this may not be enough, though. For India, this means, above all, some kind of a stable and mutually acceptable compromise with China. For Russia, it entails significantly improved relations with the United States. This would breathe new life into multilateral structures in Europe and Eurasia, namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Moving the India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine disputes to multilateral formats will help straighten the existing asymmetries out in the balance of power in each of the pairs, if not to make them less noticeable—provided that New Delhi and Moscow do not see these formats as attempts to “encircle” or “contain” them.

Of course, stabilization requires the stronger side to respect the weaker side’s nationhood in both cases. India has to recognize that Pakistan is not a blind tool of Beijing, while Russia must acknowledge that Ukraine, for all its weakness and dependence on external actors, is not an obedient puppet of the United States or Europe. For their part, Pakistan and Ukraine need to find some other—positive—foundations for their identity and stop pitting themselves against their stronger neighbours. Building one’s identity on the basis of negation is always detrimental and counterproductive. Incidentally, this would also be true of Russia’s attempts to build its identity on the basis that it is not part of Europe.

Everything mentioned before suggests that the immediate goal in both conflict-chains is not to “solve” the problems dividing India and Pakistan as well as Russia and Ukraine once and for all—this would simply be impossible at the present juncture. Rather, the goal should be to reduce the risks and costs that come from such a drawn-out confrontation. This, of course, does not mean that the parties cannot interact in relatively non-toxic areas such as climate change, biodiversity conservation, migration management or cross-border humanitarian contacts. Tangible headway on these issues could facilitate discussions of issues that are more sensitive and divisive.