Events in Ukraine are unfolding rapidly, making predictions riskier. The conflict has raised several issues with broader implications, including for India.
At the beginning of 2022, the five Permanent Members (P-5) of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) put out a joint statement inter alia affirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. They underscored their intention to prevent unauthorised or unintended use of nuclear weapons. Even more importantly, they reaffirmed that “none of our nuclear weapons are targeted at each other or at any other State”. This may have been sheer rhetoric in order to set the tone for the 10th NPT Review Conference (RevCon). President Vladimir Putin’s call for nuclear alert shreds that statement to bits.
Wrecked by a lack of consensus, the UNSC, through a procedural resolution, invoked a rarely convened special session of the UN General Assembly. As the UNGA deliberates on the Ukraine crisis at the ongoing 11th Emergency Special Session, the focus is yet again on how India should react. India did right to abstain from voting in the UNSC, taking into account the need for stable relations with the Russian Federation and the utmost priority it attaches to Operation Ganga, aimed at securing the safe evacuation of the thousands of Indian students who remain stranded in war-torn Ukraine.
India believes in humanity — Manavta — and the Modi government has done the right thing by offering humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine in accordance with its ancient ethos. The Indian Air Force planes used to deliver aid to Ukraine should be used to bring back the stranded students directly from within Ukraine, in addition to our civilian aircraft picking up those who have managed to cross over to neighbouring countries. This will ensure speedier and en masse evacuation. In India, one expects the nation to unite in such a herculean task.
There is little doubt that India should, and will, continue to maintain its voting pattern, and abstain again when the matter is put to a vote in the UNGA in the next few days. India’s consistent voting pattern is expected to be backed by an equally consistent explanation of vote (EOV) emphasising the need to cease hostilities, resume the path of dialogue and diplomacy, express concern at the humanitarian crisis and underscore the safety and security of its nationals.
One cannot see how India, which is loath to countenance any UN intervention, whether through the UNSC or the UNGA, in matters pertaining to its own sovereignty and territorial integrity, would take a different position. Besides, a UNGA resolution is recommendatory and not binding in nature.
The ten emergency special sessions of the UNGA held so far under the provisions of the UNSC’s “Uniting For Peace” resolution of 1950 have addressed intractable issues since the 1950s. The USSR’s invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan figure prominently, as does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, East Jerusalem, Golan Heights, Lebanon, Congo and of course the Suez Crisis and the invasion of Egypt by Israel, followed by the UK and France. Many issues lingered on, regardless of the sentiments expressed in the UNGA.
Even as fighting rages and EU members step up military and other assistance to Ukraine, the latter has appealed for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops. Mindful of biting sanctions and the downward spiral of the rouble, Russia also appears keen to keep the door open for a negotiated settlement. Ukraine, meanwhile, has hurriedly applied for EU membership banking on a fast-track process.
Developments in Ukraine are a throwback, of sorts, to Pakistan’s invasion of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 and the latter’s de facto division in which major powers played a key role, the fact of its accession to India notwithstanding. Neither India nor the vast majority of the international community, should give legitimacy to the military occupation of a sovereign state or recognise the independence of Ukraine’s breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. India has never recognised Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or, for that matter, Kashmir territory illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. Such logic perhaps already informs India’s statements in the UNSC, which underscore respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The imposition of wide-ranging and unprecedented sanctions against Russia by the US, UK and the EU, including withdrawal of SWIFT facilities for Russian banking institutions, will force Russia to turn to friendly nations. This could open up some opportunities for India and Russia to engage in rupee barter trade, although the instability of the Russian rouble will prove problematic in settlements.
It will be utterly short-sighted on the US’ part if it were to impose sanctions against India under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) on account of the S-400 missile defence system deal with Russia. It is in US interest to support robust Indian capabilities against Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific. It is also unreasonable to expect that India would effect a turnaround and source all defence hardware from the US.
India’s reliance on Russian defence hardware, though much less than in the past, is still overwhelming. Apart from the jointly produced BrahMos cruise missiles recently contracted for export to the Philippines, India would have to review the indigenous production of the AK-203 assault rifle, the fresh leasing of an “Akula” nuclear-powered attack submarine as well as future production of Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter aircraft and T-90MS main battle tanks. There is little doubt that both India and Russia will seek to do their utmost to respect all agreements though there could be inevitable delays.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has implications for India’s defence cooperation with that country, especially the upgrading of its ageing Antonov (AN-32) military transport fleet. Perhaps the trickiest one could be the project with Russia involving four Admiral Grigorovich frigates, to be powered by Ukraine’s Zorya-Mashproekt M7N1E gas turbines. Apart from two frigates to be built at the Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL), another two are to be built at Russia’s Yantar Shipyard. There are bound to be delayed, given the rift between Russia and Ukraine and the sanctions regime. Likewise, a question-mark hovers on whether the Vympel R-27 air-to-air missile for India’s Su-30 MKI fighters can be sourced from Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has thrown energy markets in turmoil, with crude oil having shot past the US$ 100 mark, marking the highest such spike since 2014. Though consumers in India have not yet felt the pinch, the turbulence in energy prices could have an upward spiralling effect on inflation in the Indian economy. The Indian government will have to be mindful of the potential impact on popular sentiment in the run-up to the national elections in 2024.
The volatility in global energy prices further highlights the pressing need for India to make the transition towards renewables, particularly green hydrogen. Since crude imports from Saudi Arabia and the US will inevitably prove more expensive, India should look at resuming imports from Iran, taking a cue from China which has never stopped such imports despite US sanctions. Trade through third countries or some form of rupee barter trade could be explored.
The Ukraine crisis is expected to simmer for a long time even if the belligerents agree on a ceasefire. India will have to grapple with contradictions in the coming months in the context of the upcoming BRICS Summit in China and the G20 Summit which India will chair next year. In both, Indian diplomacy will be put to the test in steering clear of ideology and rhetoric.
The author is Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal.