India’s stand at the United Nations on opting to stay neutral in the current Russian aggression of Ukraine has been criticized abroad as well as at home. The argument is that as the world’s largest democracy India should have firmly stood with Ukraine the smaller country that had been invaded by a much bigger neighbour. If we fail to condemn Russia’s action, what happens if China sitting on India’s border in Ladakh decides to take it over? Who will come to our aid? These are troubling questions that many are asking.
New Delhi has also made it clear that in the fast-evolving situation in war-torn Ukraine, India will take decisions as it sees best. So New Delhi may tweak its response as the ground situation changes. India believes by abstaining it has the option of reaching out to relevant sides in an effort to bridge the gap and middle ground aimed at fostering diplomacy.
The Indian government is taking a hard-nosed view of events in Ukraine. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first priority is the security of Indian students stuck in Kharkiv and other areas of the conflict zone. Kharkiv is under heavy shelling and one unfortunate young Indian has already lost his life. Modi spoke to President Vladimir Putin last evening basically to make sure that Indian nationals are brought back to safety. Moscow and Delhi are co-ordinating closely to ensure a safe passage for students. How it can be managed in a situation where bombings and heavy artillery fire are continuing remains to be seen. According to officials Russians have been given the locations where Indian students are holed up and will avoid those targets.
On Wednesday at the UN General Assembly vote, India once again abstained. Though the resolution condemning Russian action in Ukraine was supported by an overwhelming majority of 141 votes in favour, 35 abstentions, and five votes against. This is the fourth Indian abstention.
India’s position is clear. This is not India’s war, nor is it in India’s neighbourhood. It has more to do with the big power rivalry in Europe. Global interests of major players are at stake. It is a continuation of the Cold War era where Russia and America were busy fighting proxy wars across the globe. But the ideological battle between Communism and Capitalism ended with the defeat of Communism and the break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was a military alliance against the spread of Communist Russia. Now that communism is dead, why expand NATO? In 1991, NATO had just 16 members today it has 30 and counting. Moscow believes its national security will be compromised if NATO expands to its doorstep in Ukraine.
It is no longer relevant who is to blame. Yes, Russian aggression is wrong. But India has to look after its own interests and continue to balance its ties with the West with its traditional friendship with Moscow. Though India’s ties with the US and the western countries are expanding, over 70 percent of Indian military hardware is of Russian make. It is not easy to switch to US arms when the majority of its armaments continue to be Russian. During India’s military confrontation with China in 2020, Russia provided India with much-needed spare parts despite its growing tactical friendship with China.
In the hydro-carbon sector too, India and Russia co-operate. Most of India’s nuclear power plants are Russian-built. At the time of tough nuclear sanctions against India, it was Russia that came to New Delhi’s aid. Aerospace is again an important sector of co-operation. Defence collaboration has resulted in producing the Brahmos missile, which New Delhi was to sell to the Philippines. However that would now be stalled thanks to sanctions.
Surprising that Congress leader P.Chidambaram forgets all of that while calling for the Modi government to stand with Ukraine. He may also have had a memory lapse about the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation, where only Russia stood with India. Despite talks of democracy and principles that the US is invoking now, where was the love for democracy and human rights when Pakistan cracked down on its Bengali- speaking citizens. It did not suit the US then to take a stand against Pakistan.
International diplomacy is all about national interests. By doing the balancing act, New Delhi is doing just that. Also, this does not mean that India is isolated or has broken all ties with the US and its allies. Far from it, India is engaging with all major powers including the US, France, Germany, and the EU. India is sending out humanitarian aid to Ukraine, despite not condemning Russian action publicly.
At the UNSC India had consistently called for a cessation of hostilities and restrain on both sides. Chapter 6 of the UN charter calls for diplomacy and negotiations to settle all disputes. This is after all why the UNSC is in place : to prevent future wars. India has been pleading to both sides to get back to the negotiating table.
Many are wondering if China could in the foreseeable future take a leaf out of Russia’s book and march into say Arunachal or Ladakh? Considering that China and Russia are today much closer, what could happen?
For one, despite the obvious strategic reasons why China and Russia are together today, the fact remains that both countries are also suspicious of each other. Like India, Russia does not wish to see China as a sole power in Asia. Also, according to the former Indian ambassador to China Nirupama Rao who said in a recent interview with the Print’s Jyoti Malhotra, she believes China is much more pragmatic and while confrontation with India will continue, it is unlikely to start a war.
It is not in the kind of desperate position that Russia is today. The US is also reaching out to China in its bid to isolate Russia. President Xi Jinping will not hesitate to take the offer, considering the enormous economic stakes involved. With the US and the west’s focus shifting to Russia for the next few years, attention to China will be somewhat less. What that will mean remains to be seen. But as of now, India will continue with its middle path, remain neutral in the conflict.