As the war in Ukraine enters the third month, the time has come to re-evaluate as to whether the Indian position on the aggression is myopic, even in the short term.
During the debate in the recently concluded session of Lok Sabha, there was near unanimity in the House that India must maintain its strategic autonomy and, therefore, to that extent, the position of the BJP-led NDA government at that particular point in time was “commended” by MPs, including me when I opened the debate on April 5. However, in the world of realpolitik, interests are permanent, not friends or relationships. National interest must be underpinned by the innate flexibility to respond within its purview to the swift march of events and circumstances.
The question, therefore, that needs to be asked is: Where does India’s national interest lie on the Ukrainian question? The answer should be a no-brainer. It must lie on the side of peace, with the victim, in this case Ukraine, and to ensure that the war is ended as expeditiously as possible, notwithstanding our reliance on Russia — spares for conventional weaponry, joint production of delivery systems for strategic and tactical assets, past diplomatic and military favors extended, synergy with regard to energy exploration, to name but a few.
The reason is not difficult to discern. The Ukrainian war is not going to end well for Russia, including its ruling elite, even if they were to achieve all their war aims in Ukraine that appeared to be as singularly unclear if not as muddled today as they were on the day the war commenced .
By shattering the long peace of Europe, the Russian regime has turned itself into something of a pariah state. Even in nations that have so far maintained strict neutrality or have erred on the Russian side, populations have a profoundly different view of the Ukrainian situation. Any opinion poll would demonstrate this fact rather unequivocally. Even within Russia, people are not fully on board with the brutalisation of fellow Slavic people.
In the intricately networked and interconnected parallel universe called the virtual civilisation, the number of people online now stands at five billion, 62 per cent of humanity. Out of this, 4.62 billion are active social media users. This translates into a huge community of soft power that transcends Westphalian boundaries. In this virtual space, the advantage is with Ukraine and the democratic nations that back it. An argument can be advanced that since Western (read American) companies control the internet, therefore the Russian narrative gets edged out, if not belittled and mocked.
This may be true but it should not be forgotten that perceptions across millennia have always been shaped by those who control the medium and not essentially those who had the best message. It is here that nations who are ambivalent about what is happening in Ukraine — especially after atrocities in Bucha and other suburbs of Kiev allegedly committed by Russian forces that got saturation coverage across the media space — or countries that are seen to be supporting Russia, risk becoming collateral damage in this perception battle. The question India must ask itself is: Does it want to be on the wrong side of global opinion by being perceived as standing in the Russian corner?
As I had stated in Parliament, the Ukrainian conflict, other conflicts after the Second World War, will shape the unlike contours of a new world order: “This conflict in Ukraine the previous ones in Europe will redefine the global world order just as World War-I did, World War-II did, the Cold War did, the end of the Cold War did, the war on terror did in all its negative manifestations. A new iron curtain seems to be descending across the world… unlike the iron curtain which had divided Europe between 1945 and 1989, this new iron curtain has the potential of actually dividing the world. Behind this iron curtain, may lie the great civilisations of Russia, China, Iran and their myriad allies — Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria and North Korea, to name a few. The recent joint statement on the 4th February 2022, between China and Russia expounding international relations entering a new era and global sustainable development may actually become the foundation of this unfortunate division which the world is witnessing today.”
India does not have the luxury of sitting atop this new iron curtain as it did between 1946 and 1989 — the period between the First Asian Relations Conference and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has to choose if it wants to be seen in the company of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar or on the side of Western democracies howsoever imperfect and hypocritical they may be. Moreover, we have aligned our interests with Western powers since 1991.
Finally, what does India stand to gain by isolating Europe, a continent of almost 750 million people with whom it civilisational values and which is also an important trading partner? India-EU trade alone stands at 62.8 billion Euros. Europe is totally opposed to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The in-your-face comments by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar at the recently concluded Raisina dialogue in Delhi while responding to a question by the Norwegian Foreign Minister in the context of Ukraine were eminently avoidable. He said “I remember less than a year ago what happened in Afghanistan where an entire civil society was thrown under the bus by the world. We in Asia face our own threats or challenges, which often impact on the rules-based order.”
This is a rather naïve position for a veteran foreign policy professional to take on Afghanistan. Anyone who has even a modicum of acquaintance with Afghan history knows that America or the West could not stay in Afghanistan forever. The Afghan leadership that held the field from 2001 to 2021 is singularly responsible for betraying its own people, especially when they had the military and material resources of the world backing them for two decades.
Tomorrow, if push comes to shove with China and the Europeans along with the US throw our Ukrainian ambivalence back at us, how would we feel about it? The time therefore has come to rightsize our position on the Ukrainian question, for the stance that we are taking will inevitably and ultimately militate against India’s strategic interests.
The writer is a lawyer, MP, former I&B Minister and senior national spokesperson INC. Views are personal.