C Raja Mohan: ‘India is pragmatic…there is understanding in the US about our concerns’

In this explained.Live session, C Raja Mohan, Visiting Research Professor, National University of Singapore, talks about the diplomatic challenges India faces after the Russia-Ukraine war and how it will have to redraw existing equations.

On the prolonged outcome of war

Two months ago, we were hopeful that a framework could be negotiated and that there was reasonable space for negotiation, accommodation and avoiding conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin had the maximum leverage on February 23, because he had amassed troops all around and was putting pressure on Europe and the US. Had he not invaded and instead engaged in negotiations, probably he would have got some of the things he wanted — more autonomy for the eastern Ukrainian provinces, an agreement on NATO enlargement to not include Ukraine and the nature of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and with the West. But by walking in, he miscalculated walking. The tragedy is that Ukrainian cities are being razed; already more than 500 million people are refugees and all this for what?

Unfortunately for Putin, he has not got a quick victory in Ukraine as he had hoped for. He’s not winning but he can’t accept that fact and walk back. Desperate, he’s now putting the world in great danger, is determined to destroy Ukraine and is putting his own people through great suffering with serious economic sanctions. Russia’s phenomenal isolation is apparent. I think Russian leaders have calculated that their people can take enormous suffering, that they will stoically bear it and not challenge Putin. All countries have aspirations but to be unrealistic and to throw your military power in search of an unrealisable objective is going to inflict enormous suffering. Europe is at an inflection point and the consequence is going to be long-lasting and devastating.

On what’s playing on Putin’s mind

With the invasion being a costly misadventure and having lost men and equipment, he’s trying to focus on the east and get a small victory, so that he can claim that he’s got what he wanted. Helped by the Russia-backed independent republics, troops are pushing out as many Ukrainians as possible from the eastern regions. Whether he can succeed in this limited escalation is not clear because the Americans and Europeans are also raising the level of military support for Ukraine. Unbelievably, Ukrainians have shown extraordinary capacity to fight against the famed Russian army. They are operating in small groups, very mobile, have greater leeway for their commanders, while the Russians are running a war from the top and the chances of them succeeding, at least experts say, are still limited. But the overall course is now concentrated. Putin hopes to get some sort of victory by May 9, the Victory Day for Russia in the Second World War. But the cost of this victory, assuming he gets it, will be huge.

On Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emerging as a wartime leader

They say the moment produces the man. Nobody had taken Zelenskyy seriously. But he has rallied his people marvelously. That’s why so manys in the world are applauding his leadership and dedication. It’s a hard battle for the Ukrainians. It’s one thing to be heroic, quite another to face so much ruin in your own country for no reason. That too by a country which historically has called Ukraine its brother. The cost for Ukraine is so high that you wonder how long it can sustain this. The next few days will be very delicate and determining for Zelenskyy as to how he can sustain this resistance against the Russians.

But Zelenskyy is not happy with the West. He wants more aircraft to counter Russian air superiority. Poland, apart from taking in refugees, has offered old Russian equipment but the rest of NATO is not ready or united. Germany, the richest European nation, has had a very close relationship with Russia and its energy trade with the latter means it won’t arm Ukraine.

On the message that the West is sending to Russia through sanctions

The difference are to but will they make a difference to Putin’s control? Either you produce a change within or hand him a decisive defeat on the ground in Ukraine. Next week is decisive with Russia marching full steam forward and a West-aided pushback by Ukraine.

On the Indian stance on Ukraine

India underestimated the depth of the crisis in the beginning, going by Western assessment that Russia would wrap up the offensive in days. Then India’s focus shifted to evacuating students. As the situation worsened, it needed both Russian and Ukrainian help. In that sense it gave us an opportunity to engage with both sides and use our strategic counterweight. At the UN, India has abstained on resolutions critiquing Russia because we depend on it for weapons, are caught in a conflict with China and cannot afford to lose an old ally. At the same time, India has been harping on executing rule-based order, talking about sovereignty, territorial integrity of Ukraine and the need for a ceasefire.

The Europeans are unhappy, the Americans initially seemed to be equally unhappy. But following the Modi-Biden virtual summit and the 2+2 dialogue, the US understands India’s compulsions and its China problem or that crises in Europe don’t mean that those in Asia have ceased to exist. It has also promised to help India reduce its dependence on Russia. In that sense, it is not just a question of equidistance because today India’s trade with the US and the West is much larger. Just with the US alone, it is about $160 billion. The trade with Russia hovers at around $10 billion. But the Russians control our defense supplies. If Western countries invest and begin to produce weapons in India, then our dependence on Russia can come down over time. Right now, Russia needs to give weapons to itself before it gives them to us. Second, how do we pay the Russians, assuming they can give us supplies, and bypass US sanctions? We have deep dependence on Ukraine as well when it comes to helicopters, engine parts and turbine engines for ships.

We are going to see an increased partnership between India and the US on a wide range of issues while the Russian partnership will continue to come under a shadow. Overall, India has come out relatively unscathed though many believe that given China’s salami-slicing tactics, India should have spoken out against unprovoked aggression. We have been pragmatic.

On the war being a simulation for China

Everybody had thought that a quick Russian victory would spur Chinese Premier Xi Jinping to do the same in Taiwan. That he would march in and the occupation would become his great legacy. China will have to think twice before embarking on such a dangerous move. But that has not stopped China from extending support to Russia.

Audience Questions

On India-US relations now

We were not supporting Russia, we were keeping quiet. We didn’t criticize Russia but we didn’t endorse it unlike China, which said Russia was right. We have a historical relationship with Russia and we have to keep that going. Note that while abstaining, we kept explaining and became more critical of the Russian action in the explanation vote, if not in the actual vote. There is more understanding of India’s concerns in the US at this point in time. That’s the reason why it’s saying it will help India diversify. The US is already a major energy supplier for India. India wants to buy more oil and the US can help. The West is saying it can help India reduce its military dependence on Russia. We’ve not lost much.

On the need for UNSC reforms

We shouldn’t have any expectation of UNSC reforms. UNSC will work only when five countries agree. And when they fight each other, there’s no way a system can function. In fact, the UN never really functioned because soon after World War II, the Cold War began between two superpowers. There was just a decade of accord till China and Russia began to assert themselves from 2001. When the big powers are divided, UNSC is not the place to look for solutions. It then becomes the place for propaganda, argument and putting each other on the defensive. The real fight is on the ground and this is where NATO still remains the most powerful military alliance. Now nations mobilise troops. Because at the end, they are on their own and it is very difficult to construct a global system when the “all for one and one for all” motto has not worked. The UNSC is a nice diplomatic instrument but we should not see it as some kind of a jury or a judge.


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