Why India’s fence-sitting on Ukraine is not in ‘national interest’

The economic opportunism of India’s position is not winning it any other friends and will cost diplomatically and otherwise

Why India’s fence-sitting on Ukraine is not in ‘national interest’

Avay Shukla

We did it again: for the seventh time India abstained on a UN vote that asked Russia to cease hostilities and vacate its invasion of Ukraine. It was, of course, not unexpected, because under Mr Jaishankar fence-sitting, masquerading as ‘national interest’, has become an essential ingredient of our foreign policy. We are doing the same thing on China, Myanmar and Afghanistan, but it is our position on Ukraine that makes me sick to my stomach.

Cutting through all that NATO and ‘sphere of influence’ and ‘India's strategic interest’ jargon, even Mr Jaishankar will admit that Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine: it was Russia that sent in troops and tanks into Ukraine on 24 February 2022, not the other way round. Ukraine responded militarily. As long as the confrontation was about two armies fighting each other, against a complex historical backdrop, there was no reason for India to take sides—let NATO-Russia-Ukraine sort out a problem of their own making, we could legitimately argue.

But then Russia changed the nature of the war: on the military backfoot, it started targeting towns and civilian infrastructure like hospitals, apartments, power stations, even schools; it continues to do so even today. This is in complete violation of Geneva conventions and international laws and conventions. It is no longer just fighting the Ukrainian army, it is systematically destroying a country, decimating its population and obliterating it from the map. It can do so with impunity because Ukraine does not have the military capability and hardware to strike within Russia, and its civilians are sitting ducks in a firing range.

The price Ukraine is paying is humungous; according to the UNHCR, at least 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have died so far, but it concedes that this is a gross underestimation; (the Ukrainian Prosecutor for War Crimes puts the toll at 100,000); 18 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance , without homes, power, water and food; 14 million have been displaced internally; 5 million have had to flee the country. Russia is not fighting a war, it is waging genocide.

We don't need to even go into the merits of the dispute to acknowledge that what Russia is doing is a war crime: fight the Ukrainian army by all means but why target civilians? But Mr Modi and Mr Jaishankar are unable to see this dimension, or (more likely) are aware of it but cynically see it as an opportunity to further their political and economic objectives, compassion, morality, humanitarianism be damned. And the deepest cut is that they are dressing up their mercenary position as ‘neutrality’!

This is patent hogwash and dissembling. It’s the kind of neutrality that has put us in the company of countries such as China, Iran and North Korea in the UN on this issue, a far cry from being the leader of a non-aligned movement. For, as Theodore Roosevelt once said: “To be neutral between right and wrong is to serve wrong.” And we will also do well to remember the wise words of Bishop Desmond Tutu:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” I am sure that Mr Jaishankar will not have forgotten these words, notwithstanding his recently acquired pulpit skills.

The MEA’s pathetic attempts to justify this self-seeking position is not only ridiculous, it is also contradictory. Here are samples of some of our statements at the UN to defend our abstentions:

*We believe in the importance of “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” [Really?]

*The international community should focus on “cessation of hostilities and on urgent humanitarian assistance.” [This is exactly what we are not supporting]

*UN should “promote dialogue and diplomacy”. [It’s trying to do that, without our support]

*“No solution can ever arrive at the cost of human lives.” [Then why not condemn Russian attacks on civilians?]

Each one of the averments above is unexceptionable and encapsulates many universal principles. But we are not abiding by a single one of them in consistently refusing to condemn Russia's attack on civilians and civilian infrastructure, even if we do not ask it to roll back its invasion. (Which, also, we should do). Our position is not only hypocritical, it is also indefensible in a civilised world order. It may also be unscrupulously avaricious.

For the fact is that we are profiting (if not profiteering) immensely from this war—the longer it goes on, the more we reduce our current account deficit. Our support (there is no other word for it, no matter how we gild it) for Russia has enabled us to buy cheap Russian oil at less than half the pre-war prices and considerably below the $60 cap set by the West. Consequently our oil imports from Russia have shot up to about 1.5 million barrels a day against the earlier 68,000 barrels. The Indian government is estimated to have reduced its oil import bill by about $3.5 billion so far. This, in simple terms, is the ‘national interest’ Mr Jaishankar goes about preaching to an increasingly disapproving global community. As if national interest is merely the sum of the money saved.

We, the people of India, are not even being given a fair share of this opportune largesse. At these rates of purchase, the domestic prices of petrol, diesel and gas should have come down by at least 40 per cent but we continue to pay for petrol and diesel at roughly Rs 100 a litre, and the gas cylinder still costs us Rs 1,150 or thereabouts. All the windfall profits are being pocketed by the government and private refiners, who are even exporting the finished product to other countries! (About 60 per cent of the country’s refining capacity is with the private players like the Ambanis). It’s hard to see any ‘national interest’ in this institutionalised hypocrisy when the common citizen does not benefit from the policy in any way. The profits are simply blood money, as a Ukrainian minister said. By shoring up Russian revenues, India is also helping to prolong the war and the sufferings of the Ukrainian people.

The diplomatic dimension of this chicanery on India’s image is equally damaging, as Shashi Tharoor pointed out in an interview with Karan Thapar. First, we are telling the world that we lack the courage of our convictions in refusing to call out Russia, (if not for the military engagement, at least for the attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure). Second, we fail to see the inherent contradiction in siding with a Russia that has now become “a junior partner of China, our main adversary”. And finally, according to Tharoor, we “have locked ourselves into a corner, which is less and less favourable for our strategic posture”.

This is bound to adversely impact our international stature in the long run, even if the picture looks rosy-saffron (?) in the short term. We will lose credibility, reliability and influence. The Lowly Institute Power Index 2023, which measures the capacity of a country to shape its external environment, gives us a lowly score of 36.3 out of 100 (China, by comparison, is more than double this at 75.3). In days to come, our fence-sitting and equivocation on the Russia-Ukraine issue will, in all likelihood, further lower this rating. The first signs of this may already be evident, as Shashi Tharoor pointed out in the interview, in the recently concluded meetings of G20 finance ministers and foreign ministers. Our stewardship of the G20 has been dented right at the start of our presidency by the failure to adopt a joint communique in either of these meetings. The reason? The majority of members wanted to condemn Russia’s aggression, to go by the wording of the Bali resolution of last year, but we failed to persuade Russia and China.. We did not even want to use the word ‘war’ to describe what is happening in Ukraine, and instead insisted on the term ‘crisis’! At one point, the French minister even threatened to walk out. This is unprecedented and has to be seen as India’s failure, especially in the context of our Vishwaguru pretensions and the aspiration to play mediator in the conflict. It may also be the first sign that other countries are running out of patience with our dissembling and double-dealing. They are giving us a long rope because of other geopolitical/ economic considerations, but those can change. The strength of that rope can be tested any time, say by a belligerent China on our northern borders, and we may then find ourselves isolated.

It does not pay to be too clever by half. And you can’t sit on the fence for ever.

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