India has no standing to play any meaningful role in Russia-Ukraine conflict

India's relations with Russia and US are based on its status as a major buyer of weapons. Moreover, Modi govt's acts of omission and commission have led to a decline in India's international standing

Representative Photo
Representative Photo

Sarosh Bana

President Vladimir Putin-led Russia’s mindless assault on neighbouring Ukraine, the largest (after Russia) but by far the poorest country in Europe, threatens to cudgel the pandemic-bedevilled world even further.

Though located at a distance of 5,241 km from Ukraine, India is likely to be impacted by this sudden war, as it treads a fine line between Russia and the US-led opposition.

India has strategic partnerships with both Russia and the US and the two warring powers are also respectively the first and second largest vendors of arms to it, which, in turn, is the world’s second largest importer of weaponry, after Saudi Arabia. And it is primarily their recognition of India as a coveted customer that is the basis of their strategic partnerships.

It cannot be forgotten that during his campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sought votes on claims that only he could provide a strong government and make the country a “superpower”. He has also since 2015 spoken of India as a vishwaguru, or Teacher to the World.

While his government returned to power, the nation’s international standing has been in decline, as the global community stands witness to his government’s inability to counter Chinese aggression surging over the past 22 months, its creation of humanitarian crises of epic proportions by a grievous mishandling of the lockdown and the second COVID-19 wave, as also its draconian vendetta politics.

No less an entity than the US Department of State had in its ‘2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ stopped just short of accusing the Modi regime of crimes against humanity, when it catalogued a spate of grievous excesses against a vulnerable Indian public.

The US and its European allies thus needed to be sensitive in recognising India’s strategically vulnerable position as a binary client when they seek India’s diplomatic mediation with Moscow on Ukraine. India has limitations on counselling Russia for a diplomatic resolution of its military adventurism, particularly when on its own border issue it has been unable to wrest any disengagement or de-escalation in eastern Ladakh from Beijing even after 14 rounds of Corps Commander-level talks.

Notably, Modi telephoned Putin to urge him to negotiate a settlement with the Western powers, when he himself has chosen to avoid identifying China as the aggressor, and also refrained from raising the issue by calling Chinese President Xi Jinping, which many Indians believe may have helped defuse the tensions at the borders.

Despite receiving little assistance from the US-led NATO militaries, Ukraine has stepped up a remarkable resistance against the might of the Russian forces as they continued their advances into this destitute country of 41 million. Tensions sharply escalated as Putin ordered his nuclear deterrent forces to be placed on high alert, transforming the totally avoidable hostilities into a colossal nuclear threat.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been left desperately pleading for help from any quarters, as he feels abandoned by the US whose President, Joe Biden, had only recently pledged Washington’s steadfast commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “If Russia proceeds, we will rally the world,” he had warned.

The US-led NATO alliance has done little beyond amassing men and material in the region and assailing Moscow with sanctions. Germany announced that it would be delivering 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 FIM-92 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, while the Netherlands spoke of transferring 200 FIM-92s and 50 recoilless rifles with 400 warheads, with the arsenal to be financed by the European Union (EU).

While the Western powers may not intervene militarily, for that could inflame a wider war of unbeknowned ramifications, they could pay back Russia in the same way as it has for long been blitzing them with cyberattacks on their military and civilian infrastructure systems.

Moscow has, of late, been suspected to be targeting Ukraine’s government and banking system with numerous cyberattacks, raising fears of an outbreak of cyberwar between Russia and the Western governments. The intent should be to paralyse Russia’s war machine.

The clash over Ukraine also heralds the supplanting of Germany by France as the acknowledged arbiter of the EU. It is anyone’s conjecture whether Russia’s highhandedness would have played out differently if Angela Merkel, who stepped down as the German Chancellor last December after 16 years in office, had still been in charge.

However, it was not her successor, Olaf Scholz, who travelled to Moscow to broker peace with Putin, but French President Emanuel Macron. Though Macron’s diplomatic outreach failed as Putin went ahead with his offensive, his initiative burnished his stature as Europe’s leader as he heads into France’s presidential elections in April.

Ukraine’s debacle also revealed it to be one of the many countries Indian youth are compelled to turn to for studying medicine, because of the grossly inadequate number of medical colleges in India. Some 18,000 Indian medical students were stranded by the hostilities and are being belatedly assisted in returning home.

In 2020, while addressing a convocation ceremony of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Rishikesh, Home Minister Ami Shah had said, “The only person who thought of improving the health of the country and its people was Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

He added that after coming to power in 2014, the Modi government had facilitated the construction of 157 new medical colleges across the country. On 27 February, Modi, however, appealed to the private sector to open medical colleges in India, noting that Indian students have been going to many small countries for medical education despite language barriers, benefiting those countries with the flight of “hundreds of billions of rupees” to them.

Putin’s rashness also gives a cue to similar autocrats Xi Jinping of China and Kim Jong-un of North Korea who will evidently feel emboldened by the fact that the Russian military could so brazenly and without much international challenge violate borders of a sovereign country. While the Chinese threat might loom larger over India as a consequence, as well as over Taiwan that Beijing has pledged to conquer in line with its “one China policy”, Pyongyang could well intimidate Seoul further by some element of direct action.

Russia’s charge on Ukraine has itself been motivated by its undeterred annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

The US and its allies, on the other hand, have similarly had their way through their questionable interventions in, and arms supplies to, many parts of the world, such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, several of which have precipitated regime change and irrevocable ruin.

Ukraine holds out immense allure for Russia as it presents itself as a vast consumer market embellished by a highly educated and cost-competitive workforce, and abundant natural resources, says the 2021 Investment Climate Statement from the US Department of State.

The country ranks first in Europe in terms of arable land area and in proven recoverable reserves of uranium ores, second in Europe and 10th in the world in titanium ore reserves, second in the world in explored reserves of manganese as well as iron ores, third in Europe and 13th in the world in shale gas reserves, eighth in the world in coal reserves, and first in the world in exports of sunflowers and sunflower oil.

It is also the third-largest producer of potatoes in the world, fourth-largest of rye, and fifth-largest of corn as well as honey, apart from ranking fifth in wheat exports.

However, corruption, particularly in the judiciary, is cited as a key challenge to doing business in Ukraine, which nevertheless has continued to pass necessary legislation on intellectual property rights (IPR), including a new patent law bringing its patent regime closer in line with EU patent conventions, and has 75 effective bilateral taxation treaties, including with the US.

India, the largest importer of sunflower oil at 60 per cent of its needs, gets much of its supplies from Russia and Ukraine, which export a combined 80 per cent of the world’s sunflower oil. Indians might now be in for a further spike in cooking oil prices, as the Russia-Ukraine war has stalled at various ports over 3.5 lakh tonnes of cooking oil that was bound for India.

As crude oil prices too soar, the Indian public might also brace for further crippling hikes in the retail prices of petrol, diesel and gas, which have been held in check for the past over two months on account of the on-going state elections.

It was former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who said, “I hope the Prime Minister has understood that foreign policy cannot be conducted by forcibly hugging leaders, playing on swings or going for biryani uninvited.”

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