As Russia and Ukraine seem close to a war and the western powers led by the United States warn Russia against invasion of its neighbour, New Delhi is caught diplomatically in a delicate position. It could neither oppose Russia nor can it support the West. New Delhi fears losing Russia, an old friend, who may openly form an axis with China and is wary of offending the new friend America by not siding with it.
Before we discuss and asses India’s options, her stakes with each side, it is in order that we understand Russia’s intentions and America’s (West) concerns. Russia had attacked Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, the Russian speaking territory of Ukraine. Since then, Ukraine has been in cross hairs between Russia and the West. The United States wants to expand NATO into the East, after it has secured military hegemony of the West. The US is nudging Ukraine to join NATO, if that happens, NATO forces will be right at the Russian borders.
Therefore, Russia would do anything in its powers to prevent Ukraine from joining the NATO. In mid-December last year, Russia demanded a guarantee from USA ‘in writing’ that NATO would not expand eastward, and Ukraine could never be a member of the military alliance. It goes without saying that USA and its allies refused to budge and ruled out such eventuality.
What is Russia’s plan? Russian intentions and plans could be drawn from its history in regard to Ukraine. The founder President of USSR, Vladimir Lenin had said, “to lose Ukraine would be to lose our head”. This has been the historical approach of Soviet rulers to Ukraine, from Tsar to Putin. Also, the current President Vladimir Putin, like the Chinese President Xi Jinping, wants to reclaim the Soviet empire, at least, reunite the erstwhile members of the Soviet Union. Xi Jinping obsesses with regaining the old glory of the Chinese empire.
Putin had called the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, “the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the last century”. On Ukraine, Putin is even more sentimental as he considers Russians and Ukrainians are people with a common political and spiritual history. He does not accept Ukraine breaking away from Russia even though other 13 members of the Union too went away. Incidentally, Ukraine is also the second largest economy and second most-populous among the 14 erstwhile Republics attached with the Union.
However, the shared history between Russia and Ukraine is indeed history. Ukraine had a major role in construction of the Union and had equally an important part in its break-up. It was the Ukrainian referendum of 1 December 1991, which was successfully held to leave the Union, brought the curtains down on the Soviet Union, the superpower of the cold war era.
At present, Ukraine is an independent country, and has tremendous geo-political significance. It shares borders with four NATO countries. It has a strong economy, has major ports in Black Sea, and carries one of big Russian gas pipelines to Europe. Russia is a major supplier of gas to Europe, which Russian leadership leverages as a bargaining tool with Europe.
The bullying of Ukraine by Russia escalated recently. Russia would not want to lose its influence over Ukraine for the reasons cited above. Since the Pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was removed from office in 2014, Ukraine tilted towards the West. It carried out joint exercises with NATO, in order to boost its defence capabilities vis-à-vis Russia. The West also has made a promise that Ukraine may join NATO in future.
Russian President Putin for the last 22 years has been trying to arm-twist Ukraine into submission, and not to be seduced by the West. He used various means to do so, failing which, Putin is threatening military action to subdue Ukraine. The West is warning against any such action that would take Ukraine away from their sphere of influence.
Where does India stand on this? Really, as before, India, is in a precarious position right in the middle. New Delhi is trying not to offend either party. It is speaking with a forked tongue. It has neither voted for or against a motion to hold discussion in UN on Russia’s military build-up at Ukraine borders. India abstained along with countries like Gabon and Kenya. Admittedly, India has had a long military supply arrangement with Moscow. New Delhi somewhat sees Russia as an ally even in India-China face-off. There are a number of Indian students in Ukraine. At the same time, India is increasingly being dependent on America and its allies for trade and security including cornering China.
Speaking at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on Ukraine, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN called for the immediate de-escalation of the situation while taking into account the security interests of all. He said, “India’s interest is in finding a solution that can provide for immediate de-escalation of tensions taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long term peace and stability in the region and beyond,”
India, Kenya and Gabon abstained from a procedural vote on whether or not Ukraine would be discussed. China and Russia voted against. The US which initiated the meeting and nine other countries voted to hold the discussion.
India’s Permanent Representative also reiterated its support for a July 2020 ceasefire, the 2014 Minsk Agreement and the Normandy Process. The Normandy process refers to discussions held between Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France, who have met since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The four countries met in Paris on January 26 this year and are set to meet in Berlin in two weeks. The Minsk Agreement following the ceasefire was meant to end the war between Russia and Ukraine in the Donbas region of the latter. It was signed in 2014 by the Trilateral Contact Group comprising Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) represented by Germany and France.
All in all, India is calling for “quiet and constructive diplomacy” to de-escalate the tension between Russia and Ukraine, and the West. Will that work? I have written consistently in this column that India has to shed its balancing role and choose her corner. Or else, New Delhi may fall between two stools. It is not so prudent or strategic to be seen with just two other countries Gabon, and Kenya. India has to plan to join sooner than later the Democratic World, as such occasions causing friction between the West on one hand and autocracies like Russia, China and North Korea, will keep popping up calling upon each country to take a stand. New Delhi cannot dither for long, can it?