Since the conflict between Russia and Ukraine begun in the last week of February, there has been a spate of global reactions worldwide. As expected, there has been no support coming in for Russia from anywhere while condemnation against the invasion is pouring in. Mostly from the western world, the criticism has been severe, involving limited economic and commercial sanctions while threat of political and military action, unlikely but remains on the table.
An interesting fallout of this avoidable conflict has been the western disappointment and anger at the supposedly indifferent and unwise diplomatic reaction of India. While at the political and diplomatic level, the western governments have been reasonably understanding of India’s cautious approach, the academia, intelligentsia and media has been furious.
India’s refusal to condemn Russia for its aggression of Ukraine and its repeated abstentions in the UN meets on the issue, has been projected as country’s indecisiveness and sticking to short-term objectives. Further, it has been castigated by some as irresponsible that could act as an impediment to country’s aspirations to emerge as a global player. However, disapproval of India’s action has not only remained limited to disapproval and disbelief, it has been linked to India’s current administration rightly or wrongly, perceived and censured as being aggressive nationalist government’s ideological slant.
There have been some irresponsible and prejudiced, racial suggestions advising western governments to stop giving financial aid to India. Such so-called intellectuals however, do not even are aware that India does not receive financial aid on a bilateral basis and even multilateral funding often are meant for specific projects or provided to non-governmental organizations in India. The fact is that India has emerged as one of the important donors to developing countries in recent years, on a bilateral as well as multilateral basis.
Then there have been some comments questioning India’s morals and principles in not openly criticizing an aggressor, in this case, Russia. These suggestions conveniently overlook the fact that at the supposed peak of India’s moral and principled stand under PM Nehru, India did not even question, leave aside criticism of China when it invaded Tibet in 1950s and allowed it to swallow a vast tract of defenseless land of people of a rich, spiritual and cultural background. It did not even condemn the massacre of Tibetans by China then and not spoken against the genocide of Uighur Muslims in China for the last two decades.
The west did not question India when it remained quiet against the invasion of Iraq and Libya by the US on the political pretext of searching of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The west too did not support India when genocide was being carried out in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by brutal Pakistani military rulers. India too remained indifferent when from time to time major powers attacked smaller nations, politically, economically or militarily, be it in Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, Syria or others. Hence, the very basis of a moral-based principled stand for India alone does not hold water.
The suggestion that India’s perceived neutrality could emerge as a stumbling block in its desperate endeavour to emerge as a global player, again is devoid of rationality. There have been issues where either of the superpowers, US and Russia, have shown their indifference and kept aloof (Syria, Yemen, Libya) without hurting their political or diplomatic stature. As for India’s position, the fact that Ukraine’s repeated insistence on India playing a pivotal role in bringing an end to the conflict, Russia’s continued confabulations with India and US, France, Germany and UK’s public requests for India to get more involved while appreciating India’s special relationship with Russia, indicates that the country is very much in the big league.
The most significant aspect of the debate on Indian stand revolves around how much it could be justified. Within the country, there have been a good number of intellectuals, academicians, politicians and media who are projecting the horrors of war and questioning the government. Some anti-establishment influencers are projecting only the one side of story, suggesting Putin, the Russian President as the hawk.
However the basic dictum of geopolitics remains applicable for all that there are no permanent friends or enemies in international politics, only national interests is. In the current conflict, India’s national interests is best served by maintaining a good, working relationship with Russia that has been a major support for India’s military, strategic and political needs (especially with the Veto power in the UNSC). Also, an astute analysis of the scenario would have revealed to one and all that the US-led NATO will not get involved militarily into the conflict, except supporting Ukraine politically, diplomatically and to an extent, economically. Hence, taking an open stance against Russia here would have hurt India’s national interests significantly without helping Ukraine or ending the conflict.
On the other hand, Indian PM Modi talking to the two leaders, Putin and Zelenskky, individually and using his personal rapport with both, for ensuring the evacuation of Indians and other south Asian citizens from the war zone, has been a good move. It is also possible that he could be using his influence with both to help them reach a negotiated settlement soon.
India’s current stance of perceived indifference to Russian aggression is also a subtle way of sending message to the west that India while powerful enough to match the Chinese aggression on its borders is certainly not very happy with their perceived silence against the middle kingdom. It also reminds the west that there must not be two separate yardsticks for security of different nations in different parts of the world. When Russia gets aggressive the NATO-led Europe is scurrying for their security while it did not find words to even question the repeated Chinese aggression against India, Taiwan, Philippines, Japan and others.
Finally, the way Russia easily vetoed the UNSC resolution against its aggression in Ukraine, also raises questions on the urgent need for the restructuring of the UNO and especially, the UN Security Council. This is something that India has been demanding for some time and most of the Europe, including Russia and France agreeing to. US and UK however, remains muddled while China, as expected remains vocal against the proposal, fearing India, emerging another big challenger to it.
While morality and principles as fine words will continue to be used in diplomatic parlance and conference proceedings, the fact that national interests, as determined by respective administration of major powers, remain paramount and will dictate the course of international relations in foreseeable future.