The Ukraine crisis: Why PM Modi’s telephonic talks with Putin and Zelenskyy deserve eclectic applause

The entire world seems to be concerned over the ongoing warfare in Ukraine. Some regions would bear the brunt of the war from closer proximi...

The entire world seems to be concerned over the ongoing warfare in Ukraine. Some regions would bear the brunt of the war from closer proximity than others. Some countries appear to be more anxious than others over the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

India is relatively far from Ukraine in terms of its geography, but is evidently more anxious over the impact of this war on India per se than many other countries. The reason is not difficult to fathom. And this is flawlessly revealed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conversations with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, Poland; fellow heads of government of Quad and the President of the European Council.

In all these conversations, Prime Minister Modi has given precedence to the safety and security of above 20,000 Indian citizens, most of them young students, who have been badly trapped in the current violence in Ukraine. As Russia’s war machine is unleashed in several cities in Ukraine causing destruction of property and loss of human lives, innocent Indian nationals have been fleeing for their lives.

India has absolutely no role in the events and factors that have led to this war. India has rather sought to maintain cooperative relations with Russia, Ukraine, NATO member countries and the United States. Yet India has been one of the worst victims of this war.

While the Western world, especially the United States and its European allies seem to be raising eyebrows over India’s voting pattern in the United Nations and the UN Human Rights Commission, they seem quite oblivious of the potential consequences of this war over thousands of stranded Indian citizens in the war zones. Bullets and bombs in Ukraine do not distinguish between foreigners and individuals who are parties to the war. India can still bear the economic cost of this war to a certain extent, but the concern over the threat to lives of thousands of Indian citizens has rightfully occupied the uppermost part of the Indian prime minister’s brain.

While quite a few foreign policy analysts appear to be surprised over India’s hesitation to condemn the Russian aggression in the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly resolutions, none of them has appreciated that despite the possible adverse consequences Prime Minister Narendra Modi has boldly and repeatedly expressed concern over the violation of international law, disrespect to principle of state sovereignty and breach of territorial integrity that have resulted from the current war in Ukraine.

Significantly, Prime Minister Modi has straightforwardly referred to the need for observing international law, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity in his conversations with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

It is true that he did not call the Ukrainian and Russian leaders just to impress upon them principles of international law and norms. The telephone call was meant to seek support of the warring parties for safer evacuation of stranded Indians in violence-prone cities of Ukraine. However, Modi did emphasise the need to urgently cease violence and resort to diplomatic negotiations to resolve differences.

The United States and some NATO members expect India to be fully on-board in the current crisis and maintain strategic distance from Russia. The Cold War-time mentality that “either with us or against us” appears to have re-emerged now.

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What Indian diplomacy necessitates now is to impress upon the US and its allies the importance of accepting the sensitive grey zone for countries in a conflict-ridden world. It is also time to recall how the current Director of the CIA, William Burns, has time and again warned since the 1990s the grave consequences of expanding NATO to the borders of Russia. Several other American foreign policy analysts and strategic experts have also done the same. The Ukrainian political class certainly understands the Russian mindset better than others. Surely, they knew since when Moscow has been warning against NATO expansion and that Russian military deployments along Ukrainian borders began in April 2021.

When the war stops and war historians analyse the causes of the current war in Ukraine, it is predictable that they will not put the entire blame on Russia for starting this war. For countries like India that have always sought to stay away from Cold War-type conflicts, it is necessary to avoid taking sides and stay in the diplomatic grey zone.

(File) Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan with Chinese President Xi Jinping

There seems to have been attempts to allure India to take sides in this war by arguing that China may take a leaf out of the Russian playbook and do it in Asia, including along the Indian border. But when China actually committed aggression along the Line of Actual Control, how many countries called China an aggressor and sought to pass resolutions in the United Nations against Chinese defilement of territorial integrity? The Modi government made no complaints at that time since it understood the concept of diplomatic grey zones for those countries. Was not Pakistan made a major non-NATO ally when India was facing cross-border terrorism abetted, assisted and encouraged by Pakistan for decades?

It is extremely imperative even now to understand the compulsions of NATO to stay away from direct conflict with Russia. Everyone knows the power asymmetry between Russia and Ukraine, and yet the Western powers appear satisfied with supplying weapons to Ukraine and seeking to “cripple” the Russian economy!

It is all because various nations have their limitations and strategic calculations and they take positions as per the national interests best understood by their policymakers.

Prime Minister Modi has appropriately attached primacy to safe homecoming of stranded Indians in Ukraine and his telephonic conversations at summit level with Ukraine and Russia deserve eclectic applause.

The writer is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.

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