The 'Unintended' Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis for South Asia
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 brought open war onto European soil for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Since then, in addition to the rising death toll brought about by the escalation in the conflict and the increasing involvement of global powers in various capacities, the global economy and energy supply chains have been adversely affected. The world has yet to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the hostilities between Russia and Ukraine have exacerbated the rise in energy prices, food shortages, inflation and receding markets.
Considering the present situation, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) organized a two-day conference, titled “Unseen Consequences of the War in Ukraine for South Asia: Energy Security Challenges,” which sought to bring together experts to discuss how the Ukraine – Russia War impacted South Asia and the latter’s role in developing an energy-secure future. In his Welcome Address, Frank Hoffman, head of the Regional Office of South Asia, FNF, directed attention to South Asia’s potential in influencing the global discussion on energy production. South Asian countries are a strong presence in the United Nations and possess immense reserves of gas and oil that could alleviate the global energy crisis.
Bipin Ghimire of Nepal initiated the discussion through his presentation titled “War in Ukraine and its impact on South Asia”. The energy and food crisis triggered by the Ukraine – Russia War has adversely affected economies of South Asian countries. However, the recent involvement of South Asian nations in the UN resolution against Russia indicated that the region remains divided despite mutual interests in the matter. Such instances highlight the need as well as the potential for South Asian countries to collaborate with each other to secure their interests and contribute to global stability.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has undermined the values of sovereignty and freedom enshrined in the United Nations Charter, in addition to threatening the peace, stability and the viability of the international liberal economy. The discussion that followed Bipin’s presentation revolved around the role of South Asia in securing the energy market as well as its approach towards interrelated issues of energy, trade, security, and climate change. Responding to 'What is the most important unseen consequence of Russia’s war on your country?’, the experts weighed in with their observations. Admiral Jayanath Colombage, former Chief of Sri Lanka’s Navy, asked the important question, “Unseen to whom?”. The former Chief reiterated that war is not unseen by people in South Asia, but that the title of the discussion should instead be 'unintended' consequences of economic sanctions. Both the Ukraine crisis and the pandemic unleashed unintended bilateral and multilateral consequences that are unintended. These consequences, he observed, include military developments of the war such as sanctions on the sale of Russian weapons to countries that depend on them for their defense. Furthermore, countries such as Sri Lanka have been forced to contend with increasing debt owing to the rise in food and energy prices, which have all been unintended consequences of the war.
Needrup Zangpo, the executive director of Bhutan Media Foundation, elucidated the undeniable consequences the War in Ukraine has had on tourism in Bhutan. Dr. Lakmal Fernando, a renewable energy activist from Sri Lanka, explained the impact the Ukraine crisis has had on Sri Lanka's economy. Unlike Bhutan, Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on fossil fuels that it imports from Russia, leaving the country vulnerable to a drastic rise in energy and commodity prices. Major General Binoj Basnyat, former Major General of the Nepal Army, delved into the importance of amplifying voices of smaller nation-states during a global crisis such as the Ukraine – Russia War. With justified emphasis, he highlighted how the Ukraine crisis revealed the manner in which larger powers act on securing their interests, while the weaker countries are expected to kowtow with the former’s policies, stifled by international law and values that have historically been the playground of developed countries. A positive takeaway is that the ongoing energy crisis has occasioned a robust response from South Asian countries as they seek a mutual long-term solution. Bhutan and Nepal have powerful hydro-power reserves while Sri Lanka, India, and Maldives possess maritime resources. Their collaboration can be of vital significance in tackling the energy crisis, with BIMSTEC being a group that can bring about such a coalition.
Of note during the discussion were questions from Dr Shelly Johny and Dr Tenzin Lhadon with respect to China’s position, its increasing presence in South Asia and its close ties with Russia. Whether or not the Ukraine crisis strengthened Beijing’s hand in international relations, China’s growing belligerence towards international liberal institutions and its adversarial stance vis-a-vis India remain points of concern among democratic countries in South Asia. The Ukraine war impacted India’s standing, given its relations with Russia, whilst straining Russia’s relations with China, the upset in the balance of power in the region being apparent. Although South Asia is a fragmented region, it is perhaps an opportune moment for its countries to become cordial before it deals with the war in Ukraine.