It'll be a strategic nightmare for India if Russia joins China-Pak group: Prof Ashok Swain

Russia has come closer to China and Pakistan in response to India’s drift towards the US. India’s dependence on Russia for arms & ammunition gives the latter an upper hand

PM Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo Courtesy: social media)
PM Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo Courtesy: social media)

Daanish Bin Nabi

Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, Ashok Swain has been a fierce critic of the present political dispensation in India. India’s foreign policy, he says, has been reduced to ‘unwanted hugging’ of world leaders and India seems to need Russia for only maintaining her arms and ammunitions and to veto any resolution in the United Nations on Kashmir. Here are excerpts from the interview:

India has had close ties with both Russia and Ukraine and has been importing industrial goods and defence equipment from both. Could India have played a more pro-active role in defusing the crisis?

Yes, but the relations were in the past based on principles, ideals, geostrategic vision and meeting of minds between leaders. India’s ties with these two countries have been reduced to being purely transactional in the last eight years. For all practical purposes, India’s decision to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US in 2016 took away the option for India to remain a non-aligned or even a neutral country when the world is fast becoming bipolar again.

India has officially become an ally of the US by boycotting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and becoming a member of the Quad, which China-Russia perceive as a military alliance against them in Asia-Pacific. To put it bluntly, Russia has come closer to China and Pakistan in response to India’s drift towards the US. India’s dependence on Russia continues on two fronts: India needs arms and ammunition from Russia and India has no one but Russia to trust to use its veto whenever Kashmir comes up in the UN Security Council.

India has very little leverage now on Russia while Russia holds all the cards. When the relationship is so lopsided, expecting it to play an important role in defusing the Ukraine crisis is just wishful thinking.

Leaders of Turkey and Israel have played a critical role in bringing the war to an end. India has also failed on that front as India has a leader who is entirely out of his depth in foreign policy and global politics.

Did India have any leverage with Moscow or Kyiv to persuade them to stop fighting and start talking?

Russian President Putin clearly values the partnership with Chinese President Xi. Russia is also looking to sell its arms to Pakistan and Iran as it sees the Indian market shrinking. Moreover, China is becoming increasingly unhappy over Russian arms sales to India and Vietnam.

In recent years, Ukraine has never probably found any place for India’s diplomatic engagements. The relationship is limited to importing sunflower oil from Ukraine and sending some students to study medicine there. When everyone in the world knew that a crisis in Ukraine was escalating, India issued a transfer order of its ambassador in Kyiv in November 2021, and he was asked to join his new assignment in January 2022. The same ambassador was asked to continue as the war started. It seems neither Indian external affairs ministry has any understanding of the conflict nor any interest in playing a mediator or interlocutor.

Should India have at least appealed for an immediate cessation of hostilities?

It was the least that was expected from India. India’s foreign policy focus should be to get a ceasefire as soon as possible. The longer the armed conflict continues, it will not only create a huge humanitarian crisis but also has the potential of leading to a much larger war. Economic and energy crises will be severe and global. There is even fear of the use of nuclear weapons.

More than anything else, India will be directly affected by the continuation of the war as it will make Russia more dependent on China. India is facing the crisis of this century because of China and Pakistan’s alliance on its North-Western front. If Russia joins them, that will become a geopolitical nightmare for India. The birth of AUKUS has reduced the Quad to a talking club, which is not going to come to India’s rescue.

Do you think Moscow will help India settle its border disputes with China?

Neither US nor Russia will settle India’s border dispute with China. For the last two years, China has been in occupation of large Indian territory and it shows that India’s alliance with the US has not been of any help. With Russia becoming more dependent on China, it is futile to expect Russia to help India get back its land from China. Only a strong, developed and united India can stand up to China and get the respect it deserves. Unfortunately, India’s economic growth has been sluggish, the job crisis in the country is extremely serious and the country is being divided on the basis of religion and caste.

A strategic expert recently said that the only option for India is to either become a junior partner of the US or of China. Would you agree?

India is too big and proud a country to be a junior partner of anyone in the 21st century. In the last century, India had even refused to do so in its post-independence decades.

The problem is that India has not just failed on the economic front in the last eight years but also failed on the diplomatic front. No one knows what India’s foreign policy is now. There is no vision and no aspiration. India needs to get back to its mantle as a moral superpower. India needs to have a foreign policy that stands for values and principles in global politics. That has to be matched at the domestic front by having a vibrant democratic and secular society.

How do you see the conflict in Ukraine ending? Will it end with a regime change in Kyiv?

Diplomacy is the only option to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine. There is a limit for the US and NATO on how much they can engage in this war, and any direct involvement on the battlefield can lead to a Third World War with the possible use of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, though Russian military victory has not been as swift as it was feared, there is little doubt that war in Ukraine will end up soon as an urban insurgency It is difficult to imagine Putin will accept defeat without getting a facesaving deal because of economic sanctions.

Whether that face-saver is the regime change or a firm assurance on the autonomy of Ukraine’s eastern region, acceptance of annexation of Crimea, or the firm assurance of Ukraine not joining the NATO and EU will depend upon the state of the conflict when the deal will be inked.

When will this war end, you think? Or is this the beginning of a wider world war?

Russian military planners seem to have underestimated the willingness and determination of Ukrainian forces to fight back, which has surprised them. Also, unlike Crimea’s annexation, this adventure of Putin lacked the element of surprise attack, which also gave the Ukrainians and the West time to be better prepared. It is also true that Russia has not used its firepower fully as it is still expecting to force a deal without causing massive civilian casualties. However, that approach is fast changing.

If the war and the insurgency continue longer, a massive humanitarian crisis is waiting to happen. The conflict in the East of Ukraine has already taken 14,000 lives since 2014. But this time the number will be much higher. More than 2 million people have already become refugees, and the fear is that number might go up to five million or even more. This is very likely going to be a huge crisis for the EU when the refugees start moving towards the West.

There is also strong resentment against Russia in Europe, and it is becoming more robust and profound with the prolongation of Russia’s military action. The hope is that the various diplomatic channels that are being used will bring the war to an end soon.

If the war escalates and spills into Europe, will India be drawn into it?

If the war escalates and other European countries join, then the war will be a wider world war. Not just India, I don’t think any country in the world will escape from it.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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