The Russian decision to take full-fledged military action against Ukraine surprised many by it’s sheer audacity. The threat appeared very real to everyone but no one actually believed it would be anything beyond posturing by Russia. The special operations as President Putin has described it, was indeed building up since December 2021. US felt, releasing satellite imageries and intelligence will deter Russia from invasion. However, as the world witnessed President Putin has clear plans for offensive. It’s still a matter of debate as to what drove President Putin so hard. But surely for Russia question was not the war; but how to manage it. US independently and NATO collectively were clear that any direct confrontation with Russia would be a sure recipe for disaster. The war though brought major balancing challenges for India, which it was not prepared for. Post Cold War and India’s economic liberalisation; India was treading a fine diplomatic balance with major powers. Aim has been to get closer to it’s defined national goal of self-reliance. India was smart and successful to an extent; while at one hand it was acquiring major Russian weapon system, on the other hand it was given steady access to sensitive US technologies. For India it would be fair to thank some geopolitical developments beyond it’s influence which compelled US to seek strong, strategic and closer relations with New Delhi despite it’s known and continuing association with Russia. US and Russia both saw India as a major factor in the regional dynamics. Both continued with mega deals, while choosing not to confront India openly. Instances are numerous wherein Russia has expressed it’s discomfort with terms like Indo-Pacific and US senators have reminded India of CAATSA. But as it turned out some positive diplomatic moves by India ensured all such irritants are kept at manageable levels. India knew keeping the temperatures low is best way forward, as it will give access to cutting edge technology and investment from across the globe. But the unexpected invasion altered the setup on it’s head, the question was to choose between Russia or the West? India opted to take both of them together.
With the conflict extending well into the fifth month and Russia not appearing yet to lay down it’s war objectives, the end doesn’t seem close yet. This extended conflict has brought about certain fundamental changes which were probably unthinkable in the geo-strategic calculus a few months back. Inspite of all negative publicity by Western press, Russia has appeared much firm and stronger. On contrary, US wasn’t ready for challenge of this magnitude. Recent unpleasant experience of Afghanistan and continued coercive tactics by China appears to have considerably reduced the US appetite for undertaking unilateral military action in any part of the world. EU has been vertically split on taking a collective call on Russian energy. What came out of extended consultation and multiple reservations among the member states was a divided house. They looked to buy time with a hope, that war ends before they need to take a self-destructive decision. NATO for the first time in it’s history, identified China as the long term threat during it’s recent Madrid summit. Finland and Sweden shed their more than seven decades of neutrality for NATO membership, which by all account just remains a formality now. These new realities couldn’t have been anticipated a few months back and it’s turning out to be perhaps the most consequential time in history. The US unwillingness to undertake direct actions on matters which poses immediate and clear danger has global security implications. It has weakened it’s position to set terms by itself and may have emboldened President Putin to press ahead. Russia has successfully deterred any military intervention by NATO, it’s a No mean feat by any measure. On the contrary the fright of Russia has been so profound that not a single European country, NATO or US could discuss the armed response, not even for public posturing that we know.
A Watershed Period
During all this turmoil India maintained a studied silence initially with No comments offered by foreign office, which itself was in contrast to condemnation pouring from world over. The choice of silence couldn’t have been an absolute one, India has to state it’s position as it is one of ten non-permanent members of the UN security council, which was soon expected to vote. On 25th February a draft resolution was floated in the security council that sought to condemn Russian aggression and called for the immediate cessation of violence and withdrawal of Russian military from Ukraine. India spoke for the first time, it asked for continuing diplomatic engagement and then abstained from the vote. Since then, India continued to abstain from all voting on Ukraine issue while articulating it’s concerns. At the face of it, it may appear India is not taking any position and definitely not going along with majority world opinion. But Indian response has infact, been a judicious mix of three key elements. Firstly, India’s conviction that large scale military actions are not the 21st century means, war is too violent and destructive. Diplomacy alone is the best choice to fetch desired results. Secondly, it’s not India’s war, if anything US and Europe also have to introspect for pushing things this far. As India said it’s a ‘complex situation’ adopting a right or wrong is too simplistic a view. And thirdly, India is very concerned about unfolding humanitarian disaster and safety of it’s nationals. It is commendable to note how far India has gone for executing it’s articulated position. Indian PM has been among extremely few world leaders who have continuously remained in communication with both Presidents and encouraged them to return to diplomacy. Benefits are easy to gain but goodwill is difficult to earn. Although India has abstained from voting, it has sustained huge supplies of medical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Finally, India undertook operation Ganga which has been a massive and unmatched effort to evacuate almost 22,000 Indian nationals. India stationed four central ministers around Ukraine, it operated 76 flights over 12 days to evacuate all Indians and large number of nationals from friendly countries from the war zone. India did what it had set out for. In between the war and high profile state elections at home, government’s efforts received backing of all political parties on Ukraine’s fast developing situation and planned Indian response. It highlighted Indian response has a wide political unanimity. Surely, this would have been a keenly observed moment by both West and Russia.
Mature & Dynamic Response
Indian position has been received with a mixed feel. Although not entirely unexpected, it did draw variety of comments, ranging from disappointment to appreciation. US initially expressed disappointment and suggested India can ‘do more’, Europeans take has largely been that of understanding of Indian position, while Russia expressed it’s appreciation. Spectrum of comments were wide and shows the strong credibility that New Delhi holds in major capitals. Aspects to note have been absence of coercion, threats or talks of punitive measures. On the other hand, a strong reaction was seen from senator Ted Cruz who said any sanctions against India would be ‘extraordinarily foolhardy’. It looked Indians have done their homework well as also a reflection on maturing Foreign Policy, the credit must be given where it’s due. Russia has been a trusted partner who stood with India against half of the world. India did not assess the present situation to be as grave as to warrant an all-out support to Russia. It therefore opted for a calibrated and dynamic response based on evolving situation and that’s being very sensible. While India’s continued humanitarian assistance to Ukraine is an expression of value it attaches to human lives in distress, it also fairly well understands the geopolitical games being played by West, of which Ukraine leaders have sadly got their prosperous nation embroiled in. If both parties to dispute start appearing right, it’s time to look for a third solution. India has done exactly that, it’s been India’s poised understanding of the situation which has given it the stature where it is – heard, understood and being favourably responded to.
Diplomacy At Work
India has demonstrated a new genre of diplomacy; where talking sense with responsibility does earn huge diplomatic capital. India firmly refused to get dragged into picking favourites and conveyed it’s position in unambiguous terms. The recent high level interactions and visits of PM to Europe, QUAD, BRICS, G7 and Middle East countries reflects towards acceptability of India’s position in the global power corridors. What’s noticeable – that India has successfully navigated a difficult geo-strategic situation while safeguarding it’s national interest. India has been ‘questioned’ but not ‘cornered’, on massive import of Russian energy. US has expressed ‘concerns’ but not ‘threatened’, for so called undermining Western sanctions. Ukraine has expressed ‘regret’ but have also conveyed thankfulness for the continued humanitarian support. China inspite of being at odds with India still praised it’s strong independent attitude. India also mustered support from QUAD summit which expressed an understanding of Indian position and steered clear of mentioning issues which were uncomfortable to New Delhi. Barely touching upon current Ukraine conflict as ‘profound global challenge’. Measure this with an explicit support to India’s concern by inclusion of unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, 26/11 and prevention of Afghan territory for use of terror activities in the joint statement. All these are indicative of a strong nation, guided by clear conscious and managed with great acumen. Today India has successfully demonstrated, that there is space for an independent approach. But all of this would have required an iron spine which India has built up astutely over the last decade. The times ahead will witness India pursuing this new defined approach; offering material solution to increasingly complex geopolitical environment – an offer which will be difficult to refuse.
(This article has featured in a National Magazine)