Ukraine a wake-up call: Complete evacuation first, congratulate later

Delusions about India’s compelling presence in the world made us sit over the rising tension in Ukraine. But now India must complete the evacuation of Indians before congratulating itself

Indian students evacuated from Ukraine (Representative Photo)
Indian students evacuated from Ukraine (Representative Photo)

Salman Khurshid

On the Russia-Ukraine conflict it is important that India’s position be seen and understood as a rational and principled one rather than a per force involuntary neutrality. It takes a little common sense and appreciation of self-interest, universally accepted as a principle of international relations, to endorse the position India has taken.

But public display of ostensible neutrality in abstaining from successive votes in the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council is one thing and conveying our concern in private to friends directly or indirectly involved in the conflict is quite another. Furthermore, insisting that all friends provide maximum security and assurance of safe passage to Indian citizens, most of them students in Ukraine cannot be faulted as taking sides or letting down a friend.

It is now quite apparent that we sat on the emergent situation for too long as though the hostilities would not break out or if they did there would be time enough to evacuate our citizens. Is this another case of delusion about our compelling presence in the world and publicly projected special relationships that were never there to the level projected?

Interestingly any serious observer of international relations could have noticed the reluctance of the incumbent government of India to prepare itself for and address the emerging contradictions in the world as the US reassessed its resolve to commit military force to its global objectives in view of the Iraq and Afghanistan adverse outcomes and yet determined to retain an edge over the Russians, vastly diminished in standing and strength by their own experience in Afghanistan and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Clearly the Gorbachev view of Russia (after the disintegration of USSR) and the Putin view are vastly different. The latter cannot put the clock back but will certainly continue to recoup to the extent possible. Admittedly Russia will argue that the US has repeatedly intervened on the ground of its strategic security concerns and is therefore on that account justified in intervening in Ukraine’s attempts to join the EU and NATO.

Is this not a case of revisiting the logic of the NAM movement and Nehru-Tito-Nasser initiatives to secure peace in the post-WW II world? Are we not up to putting together a similar triumvirate and global attitude to prevent WW III and/or such military expeditions that are undertaken or suffered in the name of preventing it?

People speak increasingly about an emerging new global order although it is difficult to imagine what that might be with the whole world barring four countries voting for Ukraine-NATO and India abstaining in the unlikely company of China and three others. Russia seems to be having its way for the present and is that how the new world order will be?

Alternatively, the end game with crippling sanctions may turn out differently and dictate the contours of the new order. Be that as it may, where will India stand in the new World order? We still have voices in the world seeking a permanent seat for us in the reformed Security Council but will our proclivity for neutrality in the face an overwhelming world opinion dent our case?

Whatever might be the impact, it is more than clear now that pleasing everyone is not necessarily the best strategy in the long run if it is not based on a stated principle. We have principles that are time tested but admittedly there is pragmatism to be dealt with as well. Finding the right balance is the art of diplomacy that is more sustainable than personal relations although they too can play a role. Presently we see very little impact of such personal relations as are repeatedly claimed and proclaimed by our Prime Minister.

The present hostilities will ultimately cease, perhaps as a result of the talks between the two sides at the border of Belarus. The ground situation at the time of ceasefire will guide the steps forward and the ultimate settlement endorsed by the world.

One sincerely hopes that India’s ambitions to be a world leader will find reflection in the picture that emerges. Hard effort, not wishful thinking, will ensure us the place we deserve. With such recognition our responsibilities will grow and we will have to be ready to take the highs and lows.

We may have been unprepared to show our conspicuous leadership in the present crisis but surely we have enough standing to have been in a position to ensure safe passage to our citizens. But we should have taken steps well in advance so that the parties to the conflict would have also been in a position to cooperate.

Now whatever had to happen already has happened and we must do our best to complete the evacuation process rather than claim congratulations. This is not the first evacuation we have conducted yet let us take lessons from this experience.

(The writer is a former External Affairs Minister. Views are personal)

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