Amidst continuing fighting between Russian and Ukrainian military forces and growing civil resistance, both belligerents have indicated they are prepared to enter into negotiations to resolve the conflict. The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson has expressed willingness to send a delegation to the Belarusian capital Minsk for bilateral talks, underlining that demilitarisation would be at the core of any agreement. Earlier, Ukraine had also indicated willingness towards talks and adopting a neutral position between Russia and NATO. While this could be the first step towards giving diplomacy a chance to bring this conflict to an end, the situation on the ground shows no sign of any let-up in military operations, which have intensified around Kyiv. The raising of nuclear weapons alert status by Russia is another complicating factor.
Ukrainian citizens are being exhorted by their President to take up arms and weapons are being given to civilians. Meanwhile, Russian forces are closing in on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and other major cities. Russian forces have also entered from the sea route into the Black Sea port of Odessa and special forces have been airdropped to capture airfields and military institutions. Ukrainian resistance may have surprised Russia and certainly impeded her military’s advance and the objective of capturing Kyiv. Russia may have miscalculated Ukraine’s resolve to fight back.
Meanwhile, the drama in the UN has unfolded. The US-sponsored UNSC Resolution against Moscow for the invasion was predictably vetoed by Russia, while China, India and the UAE abstained. The initial draft contained harsh language but was watered down somewhat, to find wider acceptance, a standard modus operandi in the UNSC. This may have also been done to encourage nations like China and India to abstain and not vote against the resolution. No one expects Russia to be deterred by the UN, and the usual General Assembly non-binding resolution that will follow will again fuel the perception that Moscow is isolated in the global community. The word ‘impotence’ is increasingly being attached to the UN in recent years. The handling of the Chinese-origin Covid pandemic is another current aspect of impotence.
India’s abstention was a foregone conclusion but the explanation of vote (EOV) made its unhappiness very clear. In the EOV, India said she was deeply disturbed by the conflict and urged all member states to honour principles of international law and the UN Charter. India also called for an immediate return to the path of diplomacy, respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and an immediate cessation of violence. The same position was conveyed to President Vladimir Putin by PM Narendra Modi, during their telephonic conversation, along with the concern for security of the Indian community and its evacuation from Ukraine. Following this conversation, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy also spoke with PM Modi, urging India to mediate.
For India, there is a sense of deja vu looking back at the situation when the Soviet Army marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The then PM Charan Singh had told Soviet Ambassador Vorontsov that his country’s action was “unacceptable” and asked for withdrawal of Soviet troops. This has been recorded by former PM Inder Kumar Gujral in the oral history documented by the ICWA. He was then India’s ambassador to Russia. But when PM Indira Gandhi came to power, she moderated India’s posture and moved away from condemning the Soviets. On December 30, the MEA spokesperson said: “We are not supporting or opposing anyone. We are still assessing whether the Soviet assessment that they extended their help and assistance on the request of the duly constituted authorities in Kabul is right or wrong; we have, however, taken note of the justification given by the Soviet Union.” PM Indira, however, made it clear to the USSR leadership in private conversations that India opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and pressed for withdrawal and a political solution. These demands continued to be made in private, though this created a global perception that India was supporting the USSR.
India has called for a ceasefire and dialogue, as the conflict in Ukraine and its fallout have adverse consequences for it. This has generated a migration problem and India has accorded top priority to getting its nationals out of the conflict zone. The airlift has begun successfully but those stuck in the Kyiv area and in the east cannot travel to the land borders for evacuation. A ceasefire can help in evacuation of Indian nationals via an air corridor that can operate for a few days.
Some Western commentators are calling India’s position “immoral”, a word used by the then US Secretary of State Dulles for our nation’s non-alignment. Those who want India to join the Western bandwagon and condemn Russia seem oblivious to their own stand when it comes to supporting India against China and Pakistan. New Delhi’s balancing act has been understood by the Biden administration, which has acknowledged differing perceptions but also urged India to use her influence to engage Russia and protect the “rules-based international order”.
The chorus of condemnation in the West emanates from entrenched orthodoxy and black-and-white portrayal, as if it is all Russia’s fault. Regardless of whether NATO expansion is justified and Ukraine’s decision to explore joining it, a sovereign decision of an independent nation, the fact remains that Moscow repeatedly expressed alarm and vehemently opposed Kyiv’s incorporation into the group. A resurgent Russia has chosen force to enforce her interest. President Biden could have done better with his vast experience as a politician and in foreign affairs. The US is not going to get into this conflict by sending troops but has sent arms to Ukraine and promised $350 million in weapons aid. Germany, the most reluctant actor in NATO, has finally agreed to send arms aid. The economic impact on Germany will be considerable, given her dependence on Russian oil and gas. The danger ahead is that the West will fuel an insurgency, hoping Russia gets bogged down in a quagmire that Vietnam was for the US and Afghanistan became for both the USSR and America.
The conflict’s fallout will affect the global geopolitical order in which India is a stakeholder. Financial sanctions are being ratcheted up by the West. Sanctions relating to the SWIFT banking operations will cut off Russian banks from the global system. This will lead to the problem of payments for Russian exports and imports. The impact on energy prices will impact India’s economy. Moscow is not deterred by sanctions and the economic pain she will undergo. She has made the choice based on her security interests regardless of the cost.
Russia will now be forced into a closer and unequal partnership with China. This will not be a welcome prospect for India. The India-US partnership will also be strained as the latter will be less willing to hold back CAATSA sanctions on future Russian military hardware acquisitions by our country. This dilemma afflicts both sides, as sanctions on India will undermine cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and Quad. No prizes for guessing which country will be most pleased. India’s choices are restricted but there is no room for choosing sides, given her national interests.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Former Ambassador and Secretary in MEA, and Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi