The Ukraine war: How India’s stand aims at safeguarding the legitimate security interests of all involved nations

The last few months have witnessed a sharp escalation of tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border, as also, more recently on the Belarus-Ukrain...

The last few months have witnessed a sharp escalation of tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border, as also, more recently on the Belarus-Ukraine border and in the Black Sea. In his end-of-the-year interaction with the press, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that he did not wish a conflict with Ukraine. But, he urgently demanded security guarantees from the West inter alia including assurance that Ukraine would never be admitted to NATO and that there would be no further eastward expansion of NATO.

In spite of amassing about 100,000 troops and military hardware including tanks, artillery, and armoured troop carriers on the border with Ukraine and another 30,000 for exercises in Belarus, stoking fears of an imminent invasion, Putin maintained that he had no intention of doing so. The US, however, insisted that it had compelling intelligence that a Russian attack on Ukraine was imminent.

A silver lining in the increasingly darkening war clouds was the frenetic travel by a number of European leaders to capitals in Europe, US and Russia. Recent weeks witnessed travel by French President Emmanuel Macron, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to various capitals urging talks to resolve outstanding issues. Discussions in the Normandy format comprising representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were revived after two years.

Current status

This shuttle diplomacy did not succeed in resolving the dispute or lessening tensions. Putin signed a decree granting independence to the two breakaway regions of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk in the eastern Donbass region, on 21 February. In a move that stunned not only Ukraine but the whole world, Putin launched a fierce, no-holds barred air, sea and ground invasion in the early hours of 24 February to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine.

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Unimaginable death, destruction and bloodshed has been inflicted on Ukraine over the last two weeks since Putin launched the offensive. This has resulted in several big vibrant cities like Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and Kharkiv, the second largest and intellectual capital of Ukraine, being badly battered and several buildings including schools, hospitals, orphanages, crèches, etc, having been razed to the ground. Putin had promised that he would not attack civilian areas or harm ordinary people. That might have been true for the first few days but the last several days witnessed relentless pounding of residential areas and increasing casualties amongst the ordinary citizens.

In the midst of all this, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as an inspirational leader of his country and people. No one could have imagined before the conflict erupted that he would so effortlessly assume this mantle. He has been able to inspire his army to give stiff resistance to the advancing Russian forces. This staunch and fearless defiance would have taken President Putin and his team by surprise. Putin would have expected that he would be able to effortlessly subdue and establish control over Ukraine. That has not happened. Even after 14 days of total air dominance, Putin’s army has not been able to break the resolve and resilience of the Ukrainian people.

Zelenskyy has managed to unite his people like never before. Putin’s attack has also stoked Ukrainian nationalism and pitted the ordinary Ukrainian citizens strongly against the Russian offensive. President Zelenskyy’s stirring leadership has also shamed NATO, EU and G-7 to rally together in support of Ukraine. It had been made quite clear by Secretary General, NATO and US President Joe Biden much before the war that their soldiers would not enter the battlefield to support Ukraine. But short of that, the West has rallied to supply Ukraine with huge quantities of military hardware, missiles, bombs and other wherewithal to confront the advancing Russian troops. It is a moot point whether this is too little, too late.

India’s stand

India has adopted a balanced and middle-of-the-road approach in all discussions that have been held at the United Nations (UN) on the Russia-Ukraine confrontation. This has been predicated by the necessity to uphold and promote its core security and developmental interests as well as to preserve the fundamental principles of the UN Charter to maintain the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all member States.

A fundamental objective that has dictated India’s position in the evolving conflict is safeguarding the legitimate security interests of all countries. This element finds mention in all Statements delivered by India during discussions on this subject in the UN Security Council (UNSC) till 21 February when Russia took the decision to unilaterally recognise the two breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine as independent countries. In addition, India has steadfastly focused on the imperative need to resolve all issues peacefully through diplomacy and dialogue.

Since 24 February when Russia launched the attack against Ukraine, India has been calling for an immediate ceasefire and cessation of all hostilities. This aspect informed the conversation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the evening of 24 February when he urged Russia for immediate stop to violence and hostilities and to come to the negotiating table for Talks. This also comprised a critical element of the conversation between PM Modi and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on 26 February.

It needs to be recognised that India’s position has steadily and perceptibly evolved since it first abstained on 30 January in a procedural vote on the Russia-Ukraine standoff at the UNSC to its abstention at the UNGA debate on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 2 March 2022.

While espousing the above principles, India has ensured that its strong relations with both USA and Russia are fully safeguarded. India and the United States enjoy a comprehensive, global, strategic partnership, covering almost all areas of human endeavour, driven by shared democratic values and convergence of interests on a wide range of issues. Over the last 22 years, the United States has emerged as the most consequential partner of India in strategic, political, economic, defence, technological and people to people cooperation. The US is India’s biggest trade partner and a significant supplier of technology, sophisticated defence equipment and investment. In the strategic arena, the US is a valued ally in the Quad and Indo-Pacific to counter the aggressive and expansionist posture of China.

With Russia, India shares a special and privileged strategic partnership. Russia has been a longstanding and time-tested partner for India. Relations with Russia constitute a key pillar of India’s foreign policy. The Soviet Union, the earlier incarnation of Russia, stood steadfast with India and extended valuable support in strategic, political, economic and defence arenas till its disintegration in 1991. It extended its veto six times in favour of India during the cold war years. Even after diversification of India’s defence imports in recent years, Russia continues to supply about 60 per cent of India’s armaments. The S-400 missile defence system valued at $5.4 billion is the latest defence platform being imported from Russia.

In addition, Russia is a valued partner in the areas of nuclear energy, hydrocarbons, space etc. At the last Summit on 6 December 2021, the two countries decided to expand collaboration in Central Asia, Russia’s Far East and the Arctic. It is vital for India to maintain strong and vibrant ties with Russia particularly in view of the latter’s deepening “no limits” strategic partnership with China, with which India faced a military confrontation in June, 2020.

In keeping with the above objectives and principles, India has abstained in votes that have taken place in the UN over this issue over the last few weeks.

The overriding priority for India has been the safe and early repatriation of its 21,000 nationals, including students, stranded in different cities of Ukraine. If India were to take a position favouring either Russia or Ukraine/US, the safe repatriation of Indian nationals from Ukraine could be jeopardised. After the airspace over Ukraine was closed after the war began on 24 February, India’s External Affairs Minister spoke to his counterparts in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova to facilitate the evacuation of Indian nationals through their countries. Prime Minister Modi spoke to his Romanian, Slovak and Polish counterparts to thank them for their assistance in repatriation of the Indian nationals and reiterated India’s consistent call for cessation of hostilities and a return to dialogue. He also stressed the importance of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations.

In advocating its position, India is also mindful of the fact that it cannot support the coercive, military takeover of a country’s territory by another. India is under continuous pressure from China which is making illegal demands on its territory, not only in Ladakh but also in the eastern sector where China claims the 93,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh as its own. On the western front, India faces similar pressure on its territory from Pakistan. Territorial integrity and sovereignty is hence sacrosanct for India.

India’s growing global profile and status lend greater weight and authority to its voice and views. In addition, much greater responsibility devolves upon India during the current crisis as it is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) for 2021-22.

By abstaining in the UNSC and UNGA and staying neutral, India is not abdicating its responsibility. On the contrary, by advocating the path of dialogue and diplomacy, adherence to the UN Charter and principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, India is advancing its interests and ensuring peace, security and stability of all countries concerned.

The writer is executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.

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India World News: The Ukraine war: How India’s stand aims at safeguarding the legitimate security interests of all involved nations
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