India’s Diplomatic Tightrope Walk
From Sundar Viswam, New York, NY
Russia and Ukraine are currently engaged in a totally unnecessary but devastating war in which there will be no eventual winner but much tragedy and many losers, whichever way it goes. Thousands of civilians and military personnel have already lost their lives, millions of human beings have or will become refugees, major property has been destroyed on the Ukraine side and the war is still only in its infancy.
Depending on how far Putin is prepared to go, the impact could be ruinous for all the parties involved. Both sides have been lobbying accusations at each other on various global platforms which get duly amplified by social media. Ukraine, which by the way, has never threatened Moscow, wants to join NATO because it feels threatened by Russia’s hegemonic intentions. Putin in turn says he feels threatened by the missiles that the ever-expanding NATO and the US have placed in countries all around him. He wants to preempt any move by Ukraine to join NATO and become another of his missile-bearing neighbors.
But another equally acrimonious war is being played out in the Indian media between the ruling BJP party and the opposition parties, mainly the Congress, on the stand – or lack of it – taken by India on the war specifically in the United Nations. India has so far abstained from voting on all the resolutions taken up by the UN, thus underlining its reluctance to condemn Russia or openly support Ukraine. This is not the first time India has baulked at supporting any resolution against Russia’s many misadventures, including its bloody conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia, its ruthlessness in putting down revolutions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and its invasion of Afghanistan. Keep in mind that it was the Congress that was in power during these crises. It is pretty rich of them to now feign moral and sanctimonious outrage at India’s abstentions in the UN. They would have taken the same stand had they been in power.
Till recently, the world order was split between the two nuclear powers of America and Russia, and developing countries like India that needed both of them initiated, adopted and encouraged the Non-aligned Movement to avoid being sandwiched between the two. Today’s stand is in keeping with that policy of non-alignment. We now have a tripolar world with China in the mix, a far more treacherous nuclear power with a policy of active belligerence and aggression towards India. We have seen ample proof of that on India’s borders over the last couple of years and along with Pakistan, it constitutes a constant source of concern for India.
America also knows that China is watching how NATO and the US react to Putin’s aggression and will therefore want to look strong and unrelenting so as to put a question mark on China’s own territorial ambitions, which will ultimately work to India’s advantage. President Biden has done a remarkable job in uniting the world against Putin and that display of strength will not be lost on China. When the time comes, India will need both the US and Russia to counter China’s moves, which is why it is prudent for India to remain in the good books of both, keeping one foot in the water and the other one on shore, so to speak.
Historically however, it has been Russia that has steadfastly stood by India and been a friend in need for a very long time now, whether it was sending in their submarines during our 1971 war with Pakistan or while vetoing resolutions against India in the UN. The US and Europe have been fair weather friends at best, usually shrugging off India’s problems and looking the other way, while oftentimes voting against India’s interests in the UN. More than two-thirds of India’s defense imports are from Russia, the latest being the highly advanced S-400 missile defense system, while US provides only 14% if its defense requirements.
India’s friendship and military partnership with Russia has forever been a fishbone in America’s gullet. Whenever India abstains from these UN resolutions, there is always talk of the catastrophic effect it is going to have on India’s relationship with the US. While it is quite possible that India will have to forfeit a few privileges of its growing alignment with America in the coming days, I doubt whether the impact will be so dramatic or long term. India is a huge and growing market and America needs us as much as we need them. The US learnt uncomfortable lessons from the last time it imposed sanctions on India after the nuclear tests in 1998.
Despite the hype, India is just not strong enough economically and militarily to burn our bridges with old friends and take an independent stand. Only rich superpowers have the luxury of taking so called ‘principled’ positions on such issues. Notwithstanding our chest thumping, we are nowhere near being a superpower and still further away from being a rich country. In any case, international relations are based on need and national self-interest, not on ‘principles’. The Congress may prattle on about principles, but I think they lost the moral authority to talk about principles quite a while back. And just not in international relations.
This is not to say that India has been the proverbial ostrich hiding its head in the sand during these conflicts. Just as the Congress did in its days, I am sure Modi must have had backchannel talks with Putin offline and cautioned him on the potential far-reaching impact of this war. If reports are to be believed, India has also been quietly shipping humanitarian aid to Ukraine. That is the way India has balanced most of the pickles that Russia often lands us in.
As for Putin, he boggles the mind, going from being the tough guy seeking to restore the former might of the erstwhile USSR on one day to playing NATO’s innocent victim the next! It’s amazing – he is sitting on one of the biggest nuclear stockpiles in the world and yet he feels insecure about missiles in small countries around him! He forgets that he invaded Afghanistan for no reason at all. Afghanistan did not threaten him, they had no missiles there. He ate up Georgia, he ate up Chechnya, he ate up Crimea, he’s eaten up eastern Ukraine, and he’s got a puppet regime in Belarus! And despite his never-ending gluttony for territory, influence and power, he expects everybody to believe that he is the victim! Even with NATO and US supporting Ukraine, he has still gone to war with Ukraine! What will he do if NATO is not around?
Putin has had no qualms about jailing, harassing and even murdering his rivals in Russia and abroad. Even his best friend Trump has said that he is a ‘stone cold murderer’! Of course, Trump may have meant it as a compliment, you never know! Despite this, Putin personally seems to enjoy support from a vocal and vociferous segment of India’s population who blame the US and Europe for the current imbroglio, by deliberately pushing Putin into a corner. But the US also enjoys the support of a powerful lobby of the highly educated class in India, which is always looking for a way to get to America! The Indian government cannot afford to overtly support or annoy either lobby.
But I firmly believe that if a line is not drawn now, Putin will not hesitate to gobble up as many of the former Soviet republics as he can. I am glad Biden and NATO have taken a tough stand without putting boots on the ground. I don’t think Ukraine will be able to withstand what Russia is going to throw at it in the coming days, but I think Russia is making the same mistake it made when it invaded Afghanistan. Russia is going to face long years of insurgency and guerilla warfare if Putin occupies Ukraine. I just don’t see the point of invading Ukraine. It is not rich or valuable in any way. But Putin really doesn’t care. Like any other dictator, he has ruined his own country and has squeezed it dry. He can now survive only as a ‘conquerer’. He may survive, but whether he and Russia will thrive and for how long after this disastrous expedition is now becoming more and more a matter of conjecture.
In the meantime, India will have to continue merrily walking on its tightrope of diplomacy, unable to push Russia away or pull America in. Given the way the world order is now being moved around, India cannot afford to drift any longer and hang on to the coat tails of superpowers for survival. The sooner India stitches itself a coat and gets into that elusive superpower club the better it will be for India.