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Ukraine has shown Indian diplomacy is like Indian driving—any lane, any time, US or Russia

Academics have warned that India, by following its position, risks China doing invasions along the lines of Ukraine. So, India must outline the ‘red lines’.

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As they say, it’s all over bar the shouting. Not that the shouting is over, not by a long chalk. That continues as US Senators recently even called for sanctions on India over its stance on Russia.

Over the last few months, and particularly last week, Delhi has seen a barrage of veiled threats and entreaties as leaders from all major European countries and the United States descended on India to enlist its support on the Ukraine war. While these have abated somewhat as Delhi stood firm in its public stance, it is a good time to put matters straight over India’s position on Ukraine, not in terms of justification but clarity on just where we stand, and where we are likely to head over the next few months. This also means assessing some of the treasured theories and suppositions rife among ‘experts’, including demands such as Indian mediation, or warnings that India’s ‘weak’ stance would lead to China jumping in.

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The inside out of India’s ‘position’

First, India’s position has been far from static. It evolved as the conflict continued, with India’s Permanent Representative continuing to abstain from Resolutions that condemned Russia, but also refusing to support an opportunistic Russian resolution.

In the early part of the conflict,  Delhi indisputably needed Russian and Ukrainian assistance to get its 22,000 citizens out, including those from 18 other countries, and so adopted a position that stressed ‘dialogue and diplomacy’ in February, together with the Prime Minister’s talks with both sides. That position continued till mid-March when the last aircraft returned. By 24 March, India abstained on a Resolution by Russia, which ironically called for  ‘civilian protection’ in Ukraine, and ‘unhindered access for humanitarian assistance’, which also stressed that the issue should not be ‘politicised’.

On 7 April, India again abstained on a vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council, this time, however, choosing to ‘condemn’ the Bucha killings and calling for an independent investigation. India’s vote, therefore, followed an even-handedapproach even as it centralised “respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of states” and for ‘peaceful resolution of international disputes’. This last has led many to assume that India and China’s position was the same. While Beijing’s explanation of vote did tick both these boxes, the rest of the statement noted the ‘history’ and “abandoning the Cold War mentality, abandoning the logic of ensuring one’s own security at the expense of others’ security, and abandoning the approach of seeking regional security by expanding military blocs’.

In simple words, there is no commonality between the two positions at all. In future, India’s position is unlikely to change in terms of abstention. Few remember that India also abstained on a US-sponsored Resolution 688, which was the prelude to the invasion of Iraq, at a time when India was convinced that Iraq had no ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ at all. Also were  similar Resolutions on Bosnia and Libya, both of which also presaged interventions, which led to long drawn out civil warsin those countries.

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This mediation thing

Having abstained, there are those who call for mediation by India, apparently due to its close proximity to Russia. There are some basic requirements that have to be met before mediation is even thought of.  As a UN Guidance paper notes “Mediation is a process whereby a third party assists two or more parties, with their consent, to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict by helping them to develop mutually acceptable agreements.” In short, consent of all concerned is vital – not just one.

Assuming that Russia is ready for mediation – presumably because its most immediate needs of ‘liberating’ Donbass have been met (which was what its senior military officials hinted at earlier); assuming that Ukraine is also ready to offer ‘neutrality’ with strong guarantees (which means a virtual security umbrella from some NATO countries); both of these offer scope for mediation.

But there is a third party, which includes both Europe and the US. As of now, there is no indication at all that either is ready to encourage such an outcome. Recently, European Union President Von der Leyen stated that sanctions were designed for the long term to use as ‘leverage’ for a lasting peace. Most recently, US President Joe Biden has asked Congress for $33 billion in funds for Ukraine, out of which $20 billion is for weaponry. Such a move doesn’t seem to show any inclination to stop the war. What it does show is that it’s the US defence industry that is reaping the big money. Yes, mediation is urgent, especially to all those like India dealing with the economic shock. But no mediator worth their salt will step in if there is a sense that one side wants to ride Russia into the sunset.

Also read: Imran was an experiment that went wrong. Now, Bajwa has to face challenge from within army

China doing a Ukraine?

And finally, the China question.

Various academics have warned that India, by following its present position, risks China doing a similar invasion along the lines of Ukraine, especially in disputed areas.

First, it must be made clear that any such large-scale invasion on the lines of the Russian ingress would be met by India with not just matching force, but also opens up the threat of use of nuclear weapons. India has a ‘No First Use’ posture, which is not simply declaratory, but flows thereafter into the numbers and types of weapons it chooses to keep in its arsenal. But it can be assumed that any serious threat to its territorial integrity, which is after all the core requirement of national security, would be met with possible nuclear use, if conventional strength fails.

What is admittedly far more dangerous, and more likely, is the steady chipping away of slices of territory which may not be seen as serious enough to warrant the use of nuclear weapons. For that reason, and many others, it might be as well for India to bring out an official and public policy that outlines ‘red lines’, which if crossed, could result in drastic action, nuclear or otherwise. While it is assumed that China would not be so foolish as to risk such escalation, it is as well to ensure that any possible adventurism by even regional commanders is effectively nipped in the bud even before it is thought of.

So, what are the auguries for the future? India is likely to stay its course for all the reasons that have been discussed publicly, including weapons dependency, the need to prop up Moscow as a ‘third pole’ of reasonable strength, and the fact that Russia is involved in our most sensitive areas, including nuclear power. What is not relevant any more is any kind of a historical hangover of Russian friendship. Diplomacy at present needs an agility that cannot rest on past laurels or sentiment. Think of Indian diplomacy as something like Indian driving. Any lane, any time, as long as it gets you there, and fast.

Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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