New Delhi: As Russian President Vladimir Putin announced “special military operations” in Ukraine even as the UN Security Council was meeting in a late-night emergency session, India warned of a looming major crisis.
India’s Permanent Representative T.S. Tirumurti told the Council on Wednesday February 23 night that “the situation is in danger of spiraling into a major crisis. We express our deep concern over the developments, which if not handled carefully, may well undermine the peace and security of the region”.
Calling for “immediate de-escalation”, he expressed “regret that the calls of the international community to give time to the recent initiatives undertaken by parties to diffuse tensions were not heeded to”.
The carefully constructed 166-word statement did not once mention Russia by name.
Tirumurti said that about 20,000 Indians, many of them students, were in Ukraine and India was facilitating their return.
While on Wednesday night the Council was hearing condemnation by many members of Russia’s threat of war, news trickled in that Putin had ordered the special operation and demanded that Ukrainians lay down arms — a virtual call to surrender.
There were reports of explosions in Ukrainian capital Kiev where Thursday February 24 dawn was breaking and of Russian troops entering the country.
Speaking to reporters after the Council session, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “This is the saddest moment in my tenure as Secretary-General of the UN.”
In an emotional appeal to Putin, he said: “In the name of humanity bring your troops back to Russia. In the name of humanity do not allow to start in Europe what could be the worst war since the beginning of the century, with consequences not only devastating for Ukraine, not only tragic for the Russian Federation, but with an impact we cannot even foresee.”
If there is a “generalised war”, he said, “it is difficult to forecast how dramatic it will be in the number of people who will die, in the number of people who will be displaced, in the number of people who will lose hope in relation to the future”.
Briefing the Council, Under-Secretary-General Roemary DiCarlo said: “This evening, different media are reporting of an ongoing large-scale military buildup and military columns moving towards Ukraine. The Russian Federation has also reportedly shut airspace to civilian aircraft near the border with Ukraine.”
US Permanent Representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that the scenario outlined by the US — and which Russia had ridiculed — was unfolding in Ukraine.
“This is a grave emergency, the council will need to act and we will put a resolution on the table tomorrow. As President (Joe) Biden said tonight, Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction,” she said.
The resolution would pose a dilemma for India caught between its old friendship with Russia and the burgeoning ties with the US and West.
At a Council meeting in January on Ukraine, India abstained on a procedural vote on the agenda proposed by the West.
As a practical matter political reality, both the Russian recognition of the independence of the two Ukrainian breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, and sending troops into its neighbour set dangerous precedents for crises that India faces.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is also making overtures to Russia with a Moscow visit scheduled this week.
Stronger sanctions that Biden and the Western countries impose unilaterally without a Council OK could seriously affect India, which depends on Russia for a sizeable part of its weaponry.
There is no chance of a resolution condemning Russia and/or imposing sanctions passing in the Council because of the veto power Russia has as a permanent member, but it will be symbolic and be a roll call of the 15 members’ loyalties.
The vote of China, a veto-wieldng permanent member of the Council will be watched closely.
At the Council meeting, China’s Permanent Representative Zhang Jun did not come out in full support of Russia despite President Xi Jinping and Putin issuing a joint statement this month affirming a relationship that “has no limits”.
Zhang said: “China’s position is safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states has been consistent. The purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be jointly upheld.”
Yet for China, a Russian takeover of Ukraine could provide a precedent, if not a cover, for a move against Taiwan.
Most of the countries directly criticised Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and none came to its defence.
Russia’s Permanent Representative Vasily Nebenza asserted that the operation in Ukraine was not to occupy the country but was limited to “protect” the people of the two regions.
Nebenza said that Putin “says that the occupation of Ukraine is not in our plans. The aim of a special operation is to protect the people who for over eight years have been suffering genocide from the Kiev regime, and for this we will deem him to demilitarize and ‘de-genocide’ Ukraine”.
He asserted that refugees were flowing into Russia from Donetsk and Luhansk regions and that 2,000 cases of ceasefire violations had been recorded on Wednesday, including 1,500 explosions.
The General Assembly began taking up the Ukraine issue Wednesday morning.
Guterres issued a rare rebuke of Russia saying that it was violating UN principles by recognising Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent countries.