Issue 22

Russia, Ukraine, and Football: The Field in the Times of War

Cesar Azpilicueta fell to his knees, collapsing in a heap of relief. On the 29th of May, 2021, while the balmy evening in Porto succumbed to the cool, nightly winds, the Chelsea’s skipper’s exertions finally caught up with him. The referee had just blown for full time – Azpilicueta’s Londoners had just won the Champions League, the most coveted trophy in European men’s football, for the second time in their history.

In the stands, Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s Russian owner, punched the air in joy. This was his dream – seeing his team being crowned the kings of the continent. In his time at Chelsea, over the men’s and women’s teams, Abramovich had overseen six European finals, with four successes. Chelsea had, in fact, become the only team to have both their men’s and women’s teams in Champions League finals in the same season – and while the latter lost, the former emerged victorious thanks to a goal by the young German Kai Havertz, a 72 million pound acquisition made the previous summer, bankrolled by Abramovich.

Azpilicueta knew the importance the Russian held for the club. After the game was finished and the trophy was handed over and hoisted in the Porto night sky lit up with fireworks, he raced over to the stands with the trophy, and asked a beaming Abramovich to come forward – “It’s for you”, he declared in a voice hoarse by celebratory yelling.

 Less than ten months after these giddy highs, Abramovich made the hasty decision of parting ways with Chelsea – after nineteen years in charge, he would no longer continue as owner of the Blues.

As it turned out, Russia had invaded Ukraine, and Abramovich’s proximity to Putin was not being liked by many in the Western hemisphere. It is true that Abramovich, like many billionaires in the world, was close to his head of state, however dubious he may have been. It is also true that important organisations and individuals in the West, such as the British government, knew of this and allowed Abramovich to pump in his roubles into the British economy.

It is truest, however, that the Russia-Ukraine fiasco has underlined that football cannot exist in a silo – it is a political entity and has always been one. Therefore, the tragic fallout of the crisis impacted the most banal of important things in our lives – sport.

At the very beginning, it is important to understand how football in Ukraine itself was affected – the domestic league was suspended. Players from all over the world were based out of cities in Ukraine such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk, which were now being bombed incessantly by Russian forces and Moscow-funded ‘rebels’. Donetsk, particularly, is home to multiple Brazilian footballers – who were now trapped in an overnight war that they could do little about. Families were severed, with players and their partners in different cities across the country, and like everyone else, question marks emerged over lives and indeed, livelihoods. With matches likely to remain suspended for a considerable period of time, income for a lot of clubs would be severely impacted – not to mention the infrastructural costs they would have to incur to recover from the war. Salaries to players and staff would get severely compromised. While those in the upper echelons of the league, playing for major teams such as Metalist Kharkiv, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk might be able to cushion the blow, one really wonders about the fate of those who happen to ply their footballing trade towards the lower half of the league, and indeed, in the Ukrainian second and third divisions. As physically able youths, many of them would even have joined up with the armed forces, possibly divorcing themselves from a career and a dream, willing to lay down their lives for their country and identity.

In other parts of Europe, gestures of solidarity too made clear the point that football and politics were interrelated, and that the sport had simply been turning a blind eye all this while to crises that brewed in other parts of the world. It is notable how the Premier League in the United Kingdom implemented solidarity gestures for Ukraine – which the people of the besieged country absolutely deserve – while also not making any noise about Israel’s incessant attacks on the beleaguered peoples of the Gaza strip. The League was also quick to remove itself from the scene of controversy when Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil spoke up about the crimes of the Chinese state against Uyghur Muslims – his activism was met with his club deciding to never play him again, and eventually offload him midway through his contract.

The Spanish La Liga too blares a ‘Stop Invasion’ sign next to the scoreboard on its global television broadcast – something it has never done in the past when nations in the West happened to invade those in other parts of the world.

Once again, that is absolutely not to say that the people of Ukraine and the cause of an independent, stable Ukraine, do not deserve the solidarity of the average football watcher, and of the sport at large. But the event has made it extremely noticeable as to when the sport decides to use its huge platforms for activism and speaking up, and when, and at whose expense, it seems perfectly happy to not utter a peep.

On the Russian side, too, impacts were felt. The deep-seated suspicion of the country at large – a sentiment that has been manufactured from the time of the Cold War – has led to football governing bodies clamping down on the country’s footballers and its athletes. The European football governing body, UEFA, decided it would be appropriate to force all Russian teams in their competitions to withdraw from their competitions, as a statement of intent against Russia. In fact, there were a bunch of opinion-editorial columns that simply preached to Russian athletes to be banned from major tournaments, lumping in all Russians as the Bad People, who have personally overseen the invasion. That beyond the superstars, these athletes too were just working-class people being denied a livelihood seemed to be lost on those spouting such rhetoric.

Indeed, the pressure on Russians to behave like ‘good Russians’, especially in football, was remarkable. The same pressure was exerted on Chelsea, thanks to its Russian owner Abramovich. It must be acknowledged that Abramovich, like many billionaires, has a chequered past. Fundamentally at the centre of the energy behemoth Sibneft, companies he is invested in have also funded and provided material for the construction of Israeli settlements in Gaza. It is said that Abramovich, once a governor himself, nominated Putin for the role of Russian Premier.

His is a politics that could be described as sketchy at best, and his selling the club may not even be a decision many in the Chelsea faithful might mind.

The manner in which he was ousted, mainly by the British government, however, makes it interesting and once again draws attention to football’s selective politics. There are other billionaire owners who have links to heads of states and corporations that have not exactly been ethical – the Glazer family, who own Manchester United, for instance, have been known to be major contributors to Republican campaigns in the United States, bankrolling Donald Trump’s vision, among others. Newcastle United was taken over by a fund operated by the Saudi Arabian state, which has been bombing Yemen for years now, while Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners too have close links with the royal family of the Emirate. 

Football has been blind to the lives these establishments have taken – Asian lives, African lives and Latin American lives. Once chaos ensues in civilised Europe, however, solidarity emerges and in what is convenient for many in the Western world, it is Russia who once again can take on the role of the bad guys.

It is hard to nail down the kinds of impacts the crisis has had, or will subsequently have, on football, particularly European football. What it has, however, exposed, is that football and politics have always been intertwined – and from any point going forward from now, football’s silence would ring louder.

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University. 

Picture Credits: Reuters We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 21

On Russia-Ukraine, India is Boxed in by History and Geopolitics

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February – the first military attack on any European country since the Second World War – might have sharpened the growing rift between Moscow and the West. But, for India, it has thrown up a delicate diplomatic moment. New Delhi today finds itself awkwardly lodged between two major camps, both of which are crucial for its evolving geopolitical, regional and national interests. The net outcome has been India taking a firmly neutral stance on the invasion – neither supporting nor condemning it.

At the same time, the civil society and intelligentsia in India remains fractured on how to interpret the crisis. Factions supporting and condemning Moscow’s actions have emerged across the political spectrum, even creating some unlikely congruences between camps that are otherwise sworn ideological foes. This divide shows the complexity of the current situation and how Russian actions will continue to be seen differently by different groups of people around the world.

Even before the invasion, India offered a middle-point view at the UN Security Council in its meetings on 31 January, 17 February and 21 February (following Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s blustering pre-invasion speech). It called for de-escalation through diplomatic dialogue, respect for the UN Charter, the safety of Indian students in Ukraine, and “legitimate security interests of all parties”. The last point, particularly, has been interpreted by many, especially Western commentators, as India taking Russia’s side in the conflict. The reality, however, is more complex.

India’s arguably ‘neutral’ stance hasn’t dropped from the sky. It flows from a fairly long foreign policy tradition going back to the Cold War period, which has actively professed the idea of not siding with any major power bloc. Yet, as history shows, this nonalignment tradition has, in reality, encouraged a tilt towards the Soviet (and later Russian) bloc. We see the vestiges of that peculiar legacy playing out once again today.

Historical path dependency

India and the then Soviet Union developed a uniquely intimate relationship right from the first half of the Cold War. Despite his avowedly nonaligned foreign policy, it was clear from the beginning that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru preferred the Soviet bloc over the US-led Western bloc. Moscow’s generous financial aid to India was pivotal to his government’s industrialisation and institution-building plans. Notably, Moscow also used its sway over the Communist Party of India to help tame the anti-government insurgency that had become a headache for Nehru.

New Delhi’s tilt towards the USSR was further aided by the strong socialist thinking in influential sections of the Nehru government, including the Prime Minister himself and his Defence Minister, Krishna Menon. The fact that the US had begun to move closer to Pakistan further pushed India towards the Kremlin. These factors played a decisive role in setting the foundations for an enduring India-Soviet (later Russia) relationship.

Then in the early 1960s, India started buying the optimally-priced MiG-21 fighter jets from the Soviets, thus upgrading its air combat fleet by multiple factors. That heralded what was to become an era-defining defence and technical partnership covering both conventional military and nuclear technology transfers.

Over the next few decades, India and the USSR continued to back each other diplomatically at the international stage with great consistency – either actively supporting each other’s actions or staying silent. From refusing to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to staying neutral on its invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, New Delhi took great care to keep Moscow in its good books. The USSR returned the favour by backing New Delhi on a range of sticky issues – from the first nuclear tests in 1974 to the annexation of Sikkim next year.

Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, New Delhi and Moscow inked the landmark ‘India-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation’ in 1971. The pact, designed to counter the growing partnership between the US, Pakistan and China, played a key role in moulding the geopolitics around the Bangladesh Liberation War. As some scholars argue, it gave Prime Minister Gandhi the conviction to intervene with military force in East Pakistan without the fear of an adverse response by the US-China-West Pakistan axis.

This “reciprocity of silence” – as Professor Ramesh Thakur, who currently teaches at the Australian National University, once described the relationship – didn’t change after the fall of the USSR. The Kremlin refused to condemn India’s second nuclear tests in 1998 (Pokhran-II) and also stayed neutral on the Kargil conflict next year.

More recently, India took a neutral position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, emphasising on “legitimate Russian and other interests” – which, interestingly, is similar to India’s insistence on “legitimate security interests of all parties” in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. India also backed Russian military involvement in Syria through the last decade. This was followed by a raft of Russian support or neutrality on India – such as Moscow refusing to back Beijing on the 2017 Doklam standoff, backing India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, and taking on a mediatory role in the 2020 Galwan clashes.

This closely woven bilateral history and the mutual path dependency that it spawned make it nearly impossible for either party to jettison the relationship over a single crisis.

 Strategic compulsions and geopolitical dilemmas

A critical part of the mutual path dependency is India’s reliance on Russia for military hardware. A significant chunk of India’s core military platforms across all the three services – from fighter jets and main battle tanks to submarines and frigates – are built on Soviet- and Russian-developed technology. In 2010, the two countries upgraded their relationship to a “special and privileged strategic partnership” and since then, according to SIPRI data, nearly 62% of India’s arms imports have been Russian. In the same period, India has emerged as the biggest customer for Russian arms in the world, accounting for nearly 32% of all of Moscow’s exports.

If India wants to maintain its current offensive, defensive, deterrence and power projection capabilities, it cannot junk this key defence partnership. Just four years back, India bought five S-400 air defence systems from Russia, which will upgrade its deterrence capability against a rapidly modernising Chinese army next door. Last December, during Putin’s visit to New Delhi, both countries signed a ten-year defence cooperation pact, as part of which India will indigenously manufacture more than 500,000 AK-203 assault rifles.

Russian military technology is also crucial for India’s own arms export plans, which it wants to double down on over the next few years. The recent US$375 million deal for the sale of three batteries of the BrahMos missile, which is manufactured under an Indo-Russian joint venture, to the Philippines and the “gifting” of a Soviet-made Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar in 2020 are only two recent examples. Other countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have also expressed interest in buying the BrahMos to boost their strategic deterrence capabilities.

While the import of Russian arms might have dipped over the last decade, that doesn’t mean India can suddenly cut itself loose from Russia and switch to other buyers. Yes, it certainly needs to find other sellers in the long term so as to decrease its overreliance on Russian hardware, but it simply doesn’t have the capability to undertake a system-wide shift in the short term. Further, Indian arms imports have generally fallen between 2011-15 and 2016-20; so, the fall in Russian imports doesn’t suggest any long-term trend yet.

However, India needs to be cognisant of the adverse impact of Western sanctions on Russian defence exports. Although Moscow has assured India that its supplies will continue, there is little doubt that the sanctions will hinder its capacity to deliver on time. Preliminary indications of this happening have already surfaced, even as India’s Department of Military Affairs (DMA) initiates an audit to assess the damage. The need for India to diversify its import strategy has become doubly imperative now.

Despite immediate hiccups, New Delhi needs Moscow’s rapport with Beijing to keep tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) manageable. The manner in which India reached out to Putin during the Galwan clashes in 2020 shows this. Interestingly, on 4 March, senior Indian Army officers hinted at the possibility of a Ukraine-like situation afflicting the LAC. This is not just a recognition of the lingering Chinese threat, but could also be seen as India’s tacit message of disapproval for Moscow’s cross-border aggression.

India also cannot ignore the ramifications of its neutrality on its relationship with the West, which has emerged as a crucial partner for New Delhi on domains such as the Indo-Pacific. On 3 March, amidst the crisis, all members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – India, Japan, Australia and the US – met virtually and briefly discussed its core agendas while noting that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states” have to be respected. This showed that the Quad and other Indo-Pacific collectives will sustain in the near term, despite the crisis. The West has its own autonomous objectives in the Indo-Pacific, and it needs India to achieve those.

In all, there is little doubt that Russia’s Ukraine invasion will trigger some significant, if not tectonic, shifts in geopolitical and geostrategic thinking amongst big, middle and small powers. India today lies somewhere between the first two, which is a very awkward place to be at the moment. If India fails to reconcile with the complex new realities that this crisis is bound to create, it will continue to find itself on thin ice every time a global crisis of this nature rears its head.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Picture Credits: DW

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 20

The Economic Cost of Putin’s March Towards Kyiv

Tense security reports had been trickling in for months that Russia’s autocrat President, Vladimir Putin, was growing alarmingly restless about Ukraine’s affinity to the West. As early as November 2021, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia of “costs” if long-standing peace on the European continent was disturbed.

The talk surrounding this conflict, which took its full form on February 24, has often hinged around economic terms like ‘costs’. That’s no surprise since the coming of war in any part of the world induces sudden and potentially deep bruises on economies. After a draining pandemic, world leaders and economic institutions have been flurrying to balance tough economic war efforts and save national economies from being hurt. 

Joseph Borrell, the foreign affairs chief of the European Union, heralded on the eve of Russia’s march towards Kyiv that the bloc would impose the strictest economic sanctions it ever has against Russia. It was clear, that economic sanctions–actions by countries to hurt the economic interests of belligerent countries–would be the prime bargaining token against Putin. Though, critics have always pointed out that sanctions also hurt the economies of countries imposing them–sometimes considerably more. In our hyperconnected and intricately interdependent world, the ‘hurt’ brought on by sanctions is felt across regions and borders. How has this Catch-22 impacted lives? 

First, let’s put Russia’s place in the world economy into perspective. The largest country on Earth also harbours the largest natural gas reserves in the world, second largest coal reserves and eighth-largest oil reserves. According to OECD data, trade counts for more than 25% of Russia’s nominal GDP and energy accounts for half of that trade. In short, the world is heavily dependent on Russian energy to fuel its economy.

This is why European leaders like German Economy Minister Robert Habeck have resisted sanctions on Russian energy. Other sanctions have already caused a “big impact” on all sectors of the German economy, he said. Despite the German caution, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s February 6 announcement that embargoes on Russian oil were being considered drove up oil prices to historic highs. 

Crude oil is crucial. We not only use its products in our private cars and homes, but almost all other goods need it as production fuel. Each good also needs transportation. This means that as oil prices skyrocket, prices for almost everything also rise. Indian Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman has expressed her concerns that such flaring oil prices could impact the provisions in the Union Budget presented last month. 

In the short term, consumers have largely been sheltered from rising prices. Domestic prices for oil have remained unchanged. Though, worries about the long-term effect of the conflict on India’s growth are abounding with some economists projecting a growth rate of less than 8% in FY23. Jayanth R Varma, Economist and member of India’s Monetary Policy Committee, has also called attention to inflation rates in light of the unpredictable conflict. 

Key industries in India also depend upon trading goods with Russia and Ukraine. In the last financial year, Bilateral imports and exports between India and Russia amounted to $9.4 Billion and with Ukraine, to $2.3 Billion. A slowdown in trade with the affected States due to sanctions has increased the domestic prices of automobile components, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, agricultural products, and telecom equipment since the outbreak of the war. The exclusion of Russia from SWIFT, a system used by most major international banks to coordinate cross-border transactions, has also led to insecurity for Indian exporters about the $400 million currently stuck in the system. The uncertainty of Putin’s next moves and the subsequent retaliation by Western powers has also spooked the financial markets with value of the Rupee plunging to historic lows

The bridle that economists and leaders have been trying to put on a frenzying economy after a devastating pandemic has been greatly disrupted by the unpredictability of the war. While Ukrainians face the military might and imperialist dreams of Vladimir Putin, officials at home now have the task to control inflation, secure alternative routes to trading while walking a diplomatic tightrope and hope for a soothed financial market. 

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Reuters

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 20

Issue XX: Editor’s Note

The 20th issue of Open Axis explores popular culture. We question how popular culture is framed, why it is both dynamic and malleable. Almost everything that we do – friends we make, conversations that we have, places that we travel to, media that we consume – is predicated upon the prevailing cultural trends around us. This issue will attempt to understand how culture is framed and made to interact with society, politics, and technology. Further, this issue will also encompass our designated theme to respond to the biggest headline in the world right now. 

In the early hours of 24th February, the world woke up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of war against Ukraine. Heroic tales of Ukrainian defiance began to be shared through social media. Meanwhile, diplomatic and geopolitical experts took over television panels and editorial pages. The world moved on almost in suspended disbelief, with a new war to discuss. In doom and in calm, Open Axis persists in analyzing the world around us.

Following our theme of popular culture, Reya Deya is in conversation with her mother and grandmother as they react to the newly released Gehraiyaan, and talk about on-screen sex, sexuality, and sensationalism. 

Continuing the conversation around intimacy, Maahira Jain and Lakshya Sharma interview Aastha Khanna, the first Intimacy Coordinator of India and intimacy director behind Gehraiyaan. In an insightful podcast, she talks about her journey and the importance of her work in today’s world. 

In a day and age where attention is few and fleeting, art and popular culture remains that which unites and creates. Shree Bhattacharyya explores whether originality is present in popular culture today, and how the act of plagiarism has taken on a new and confusing role.

With Ashoka University starting offline classes on campus again after two years, OpenAxis asks the Ashoka student body what they will miss about online classes.

In this issue, we also explore how the pandemic transformed how we occupy space around us, as Jaidev Pant writes about how the pandemic altered our relationship with the outdoors.

Maahira Jain writes about hybrid work culture in the pandemic brought well being and employee development to the forefront of organisational policies

Studying another aspect of popular culture, Biplob Kumar Das writes about how Hindu Nationalism is influencing popular culture in India since 2014. 

In a photo essay, acclaimed filmmaker and photojournalist Kalyan Verma journeys through the ancient rocks and rainforests of Southern India’s Western Ghat range to document the spectacular Macaques.

Lakshya Sharma explores the case of Chitra Ramakrishna, CEO of the National Stock Exchange, who got tricked by a Himalayan sage and writes about how people have faith in such self-proclaimed sages, but how blind faith can lead to catastrophic consequences for people.

Neelim Mahanta’s street art is recognised widely in Assam. In an interview with him, conducted by Biplob Kumar Das, he opens up about his work, his beginnings, and his thoughts on art and life. 

On the Russia Ukraine crisis, Saaransh Mishra, Research Associate in Observer Research Foundation, writes about what are the options that Ukraine has in responding to an invasion by their militarily superior Russia.

– Lakshya Sharma, Shree Bhattacharyya, Jaidev Pant, Maahira Jain, Rutuparna Deshpande, Reya Daya & Biplob Kumar Das

Illustrator of cover image: Rutuparna Deshpande