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Ukraine-Russia stand-off: India faces a Catch-22, plays it safe

Source : Moneycontrol

Ukraine-Russia stand-off: India faces a Catch-22, plays it safe
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The New Yorker’s cerebral editor David Remnick, who spent time as Washington Post correspondent in Russia between the crucial years of 1987 and 1991, wrote a book, Lenin’s Tomb: Last Days of the Soviet Empire. He quotes the founder of the USSR and the Communist patriarch as saying, “For us, to lose Ukraine would be to lose our head.” What was true over a century ago for Vladimir Lenin, holds good today for another Vladimir-Putin, the longest-serving ruler of Russia since Joseph Stalin.

Such is the tenuousness of the situation in Europe thanks to the Russia- Ukraine standoff, that it threatens to divide the world into blocs, much like the Cold War, forcing countries like India to take a position, which is best avoidable under the circumstances, given that New Delhi is handling two military fronts in the high Himalayas in any case.

Ukraine as bone of contention

Ukraine has become a bone of contention in Moscow’s relations with the West, with Russian troops massed near its border and NATO’s forces on standby in case Russia goes for its neighbour’s jugular. Ukrainian forces have been patrolling the border in the east and the north, including in Chernobyl in Ukraine, which falls on the shortest route between Russia and Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Former deputy NSA and an ex-Indian ambassador to Russia, Pankaj Saran, told Moneycontrol: “If there is military action in the region, it is going to be detrimental to Indian interests. In my view, though, we are not headed in that direction. Issues can be settled diplomatically.”

According to him, the French and German are the two main European parties involved in the negotiations and Russia is more inclined towards Europe, while Ukraine because of its human rights record etc, is no one’s favourite in the continent.

What is of concern to India is that in a USA-Russia standoff, which is bound to happen in case of military action, India will have to take a stand – much like the Cold War – which New Delhi is very keen to avoid.

Former RAW chief AS Dulat told Moneycontrol: “I believe that we need to stay neutral. That is the beauty of Non-Alignment. I remember there was a time when we were asked to send troops to Iraq during the Middle East crisis and India refused. It is a stand that is respected.”

China-Russia detente

Two, a USA-Russia impasse puts Moscow firmly in the Chinese camp, which too is highly avoidable as far as New Delhi is concerned. There are more than just signals that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are coming closer; the Chinese strongman is hosting the Russian President at the Beijing Winter Games on February 4, where Xi has lavished billions of dollars to showcase his nation’s superpower status to the world.

Though Saran also points out that despite this much-flaunted alliance, “Russia does not have many things in common with China.”

No surprise then that India this week has chosen to step gingerly onto the European landmine. The Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, told a weekly briefing that India “has been closely following the developments relating to Ukraine, including the ongoing high-level discussions between Russia and the US. Our Embassy in Kyiv is also monitoring local developments. We call for a peaceful resolution of the situation through sustained diplomatic efforts for long term peace and stability in the region and beyond.” It cannot get safer than that, truly reflecting India’s position.

Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, and a former Indian ambassador, puts it well: “The intricate challenge India and Russia face is similar, if not the same: Russia’s closest partner, China, is India’s adversary; and India’s good and increasingly close friend, the U.S., is Russia’s adversary. Both India and Russia are keen on safeguarding their relations with their friends, but neither is willing to turn the existing cooperation into dependency. That is why India and Russia will remain strategically tied to each other, despite occasional differences.”

Delhi and Moscow

On July 8, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar observed, in his address to the Russian think tank IMEMO, that the India-Russia relationship rested on “the foundation of a more democratic and diverse international order” and on ensuring the “interests of a critical partner.” Clearly, both Delhi and Moscow can manage this challenge well, Bhatia told Moneycontrol.

Beijing and Moscow, too, do not always see eye to eye on all issues. China does not recognise Crimea as part of Russia, and Moscow, formally speaking, takes a neutral stance on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

So, just what are the origins of this latest flare up? It began in mid-December when Russia told Western powers, including the US, that it had a list of demands.

Russia wants a written guarantee from the West to stop any further eastward expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the removal of NATO troops from Poland and the Baltic states, and the possible withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe.

However, the most important of its demands is nearly impossible to meet – Ukraine should never be allowed to join NATO. The US and the West have ruled this out. The two sides are negotiating in Paris, in the presence of interlocutors from France, Germany, US and Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken to Putin in a bid to resolve the crisis. US President Joe Biden, too, has had a video call with the Russian president.

Putin and Soviet Union

An arch political conservative, Putin had called the break-up of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century”. Throughout his 22-year rule so far, he has sought to restore Russia’s influence in the countries that were part of erstwhile Soviet Union.

In an article on the Kremlin’s website (’On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, July 2021), Putin writes that Russians and Ukrainians were one people who shared a single `historic and spiritual space’ and that the emergence of a `wall’ between them in recent years was tragic.

Ukraine disagrees vehemently. Of the 14 then republics that constituted the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine was the most crucial one, since it was the second largest economy and second-most populous among them.

On January 19, 2022, US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, called up foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and discussed Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

Indo-USSR relations are seven-decades old. Although India – among the world’s largest importers of arms – has consciously diversified its purchases from other countries, the bulk of its defence equipment – close to 60 to 70 percent – still come from Russia.

India in Catch-22 position

Points out Commodore Ranjit Rai, who has commanded three ships and the Indian Naval Academy: “India is a Catch-22 position. Its ships are all maintained by the Russians. And if the situation becomes bad in Europe, you can be rest assured that China is going to put the squeeze on Taiwan. There is no stopping them in the South China Sea after that.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held informal summits with both Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Now Russia has emerged as a key diplomatic player amid the tension between India and China.

India’s foreign and defence ministers have negotiated with their Chinese counterparts in Russia in the last year-and-a-half. Russia is also key to India’s engagements in Afghanistan, after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

It is a tightrope walk for New Delhi, which is also banking on Western support. The US and Europe are both important partners from India’s strategic calculus. Many American platforms have been used for reconnaissance and surveillance along the India-China border.

An example of what could happen is 2014, when the West’s approach towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 brought Moscow much closer to China.

When Russia had annexed Crimea, India had expressed `concern’ but also qualified it by talking of `legitimate Russian interest. Putin had thanked India for taking a `restrained and objective’ stand and called up the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to express his gratitude.

However, Indo-Russian ties are not focussed only on defence. “India’s energy relations with Moscow also possess considerable and, arguably, growing significance,” says Rajiv Bhatia.

During Vladimir Putin’s December 2021 visit to India, both sides pledged to cooperate in oil and gas projects in Russia, including Russia’s Arctic shelf, and the shores of Pechora and Okhotsk Seas. Russia is already supplying India with Arctic liquefied natural gas, while in 2017 Rosneft bought a 49 percent share of India’s Essar Oil Ltd.

Quid pro quo

These deals may in part be a quid pro quo in return for India’s defiance of US sanctions and a signature on contracts to acquire Russia’s S-400 air defence system in agreements, estimating at $5.5. billion.

According to official figures, the extent of bilateral energy deals has already reached a figure of $23 billion, including $13 billion for the shares of Essar Oil, and $10 billion Indian investment in Russian energy firms.

Moscow has long sought Indian equity investment in Russian energy firms, especially in the expensive Arctic region, while India, whose energy needs are immense and growing, has substantially upgraded its quest for influence in the Arctic. Therefore, these deals admirably meet both sides’ needs for energy sources and customers in difficult circumstances (e.g., given US sanctions on Russia, and India’s constant problems in ensuring energy security).

Yet not all the focus is on energy alone. Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which has reserved capital of $10 billion under management, seeks investments in India’s technology and other sectors. Given these numbers, this aspect of the relationship carries substantial weight.

Indian commentators emphasise that arms deals with Russia are necessary due to India’s dependence on Russian systems for most of its military’s needs. While the relative weight of that reliance has declined and will continue to diminish over time, India still needs Russian help especially as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Made in India” programme has yet to achieve substantial success in the defence industry.

Second, these sales confirm to all observers that India continues to act as an independent, unattached major power even if its ties to the US continue to grow in scale and scope. New Delhi’s gamble that it can escape legislatively mandated US sanctions due to these deals is probably warranted precisely because of its independent status and ability to attract sellers from all over the globe.

Thirdly, Moscow, now confronting strong Western, not merely American sanctions, must find customers who will share the high costs of Arctic exploration and development of those fields to export its energy. Russia’s long-standing partnership with India has always made Moscow inclined to solicit Indian investment in the Arctic and other energy holdings.

India can offset China

Finally, Moscow needs not only customers and friends but also support from other major Asian powers lest it become too dependent on Chinese energy investments and imports. That dependence may already be the case but having huge holdings in India and large contracts to supply and jointly explore for oil and gas with Indian firms clearly offsets too exclusive a reliance upon Chinese capital and businesses.

For Moscow this relationship epitomises its vaunted concept of multipolarity, while for India it expresses her sense of itself as a growing and independent great power.

Neither can India look away from Ukraine.

According to the ministry of external affairs, bilateral trade between India and Ukraine has grown significantly in the last 25 years, and in 2018-19, was almost US$ 2.8 billion. India is Ukraine’s largest export destination in the Asia-Pacific and the fifth largest overall export destination.

In addition, there is an Indian community in Ukraine, mostly students in medical colleges. The Indian Embassy in capital Kyiv has started collating information on them, as part of preparations for possible hostilities. As per government estimates, 18,000 Indian students were in Ukraine in 2020, but the numbers may have dipped due to Covid lockdowns and classes moving online.

Former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, Ashok Sajjanhar, told Moneycontrol: “India needs to stay neutral, without being construed as being aloof. India’s standing in the global comity of nations has improved and countries are looking towards India for guidance. In addition, India is now a (non-permanent) member of the UN Security Council, so it is in a much-improved position.”

Clearly, New Delhi has its hands – including responsibilities – full. It is reassuring just in case the litmus test comes along.

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