Head-on | It’s time to do some plain speaking with the West on Russia-Ukraine war

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Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, India has been a target of Western ire. India abstained on 12 October 2022 from a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions.

But the West’s anger goes back to the early days of the war. First, it tried to coerce India into blacklisting Russian oil and gas. A stream of European and American politicians poured into New Delhi in March 2022 to apply pressure on India.

It took a clinically worded statement by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to silence them. He noted that Europe was buying more Russian oil and gas in one day than India was buying in a month. The Western delegations left Delhi empty-handed and red-faced.

Next came a raft of United Nations resolutions condemning Russia for the Ukraine invasion, imposing harsh sanctions on Moscow, and calling for Russia’s exclusion from the G20 foreign minister’s summit chaired by Indonesia. Jakarta demurred. Russia duly attended the summit in Bali.

Despite Jaishankar criticising Russia’s missile attack on multiple Ukrainian cities on 10 October 2022, the West remained unimpressed. This is what Jaishankar said in Sydney the following day during an address to the Lowy Institute: “We think that targeting infrastructure and causing civilian deaths is not acceptable in any part of the world.”

The latest attempt to coerce India into toeing the Western line on Ukraine is to urge New Delhi to sharply reduce arms purchases from Russia. It took Jaishankar again to set the record straight while addressing a press conference alongside Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Canberra on 10 October 2022.

Defending India’s legacy relationship with Russia, Jaishankar told the assembled journalists representing international media: “We have a substantial inventory of Soviet and Russian-origin weapons. And that inventory actually grew for a variety of reasons: the merits of the weapons system themselves, but also because for multiple decades Western countries did not supply weapons to India, and in fact, saw a military dictatorship next to us as the preferred partner.”

The military dictatorship Jaishankar referred to was Pakistan. Not only did the US and its Western allies refuse for decades to sell weapons to India, they provided Pakistan with nearly $20 billion in military aid along with advanced fighter jets, guns and drones. These were used against India during the Kargil war and to arm terrorists in Kashmir.

The US weaponry was ostensibly to be deployed to fight the war on terror in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army used it to arm the Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) for terror attacks against India.

The West was not alone in arming Pakistan — arms that have killed Indian soldiers and civilians in terrorist acts over the years. Ukraine too has sold weapons to Pakistan and backed Islamabad’s position on Kashmir.

On a matter of principle, India strongly opposes the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But given India’s decades-long ties with Moscow and dependence on Russian military spares, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s criticism of Russia has been couched in diplomatic terms.

With China on Russia’s side, the West however needs India to condemn Russia unequivocally. New Delhi’s voice carries weight. Not only is India the world’s largest democracy and fifth largest economy, it is the only “Western ally” not to join the Western embargo on Russia.

But is India really a Western ally? It is, if its membership of the Quad and other alliances is considered. But unlike Pakistan, India is not a non-NATO US ally. Pakistan’s duplicity has paid it rich dividends. It plays Washington off against Beijing and gets money and weapons from both despite being a state sponsor of terrorism.

India gets lip service from the US, including the 2+2 strategic dialogue between the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers. New Delhi’s alliance with the US, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (I2U2) is still finding its feet.

The war in Ukraine has meanwhile entered an attritional phase. Western weapons gifted to Ukraine are causing severe damage to Russia on the battlefield. After the missile attacks on multiple Ukrainian cities, Kyiv has asked the West to supply it with sophisticated air defence systems. Several from Germany have already arrived. More from the US are on the way.

Russia has not used its air force so far over Ukraine except in the first week of the invasion. The concern in Moscow is that Ukraine’s existing air defence systems could cause significant damage to Russia’s depleted and ageing air assets.

The US is using an intra-European war to terminally weaken Russia militarily and economically. A weakened Russia allows the US to focus on its real enemy: China. The Biden administration’s first national security strategy, released on 12 October 2022, echoed precisely this objective of America’s doctrine.

The war will weaken not only Russia but also much of Europe. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, will bear the brunt of de-industrialisation due to its continuing, if lowered, energy dependence on Russia.

Britain has a different set of problems. Inflation and tax cuts will lead to lower spending on public services. Higher mortgages are already hurting Britons. Many will spend the winter with heating switched off to save money for food and fuel. Credit rating agency Fitch projects British GDP to shrink by 1 per cent in 2023.

The war in Ukraine has thus damaged Europe’s two largest economies – Germany and Britain – perhaps terminally. The two beneficiaries from Europe’s Russia-Ukraine maelstrom? China and the US.

The West — which today seeks India’s “neutral” voice to condemn Russia for targeting civilians in Ukraine — is ironically the greatest offender of bombing civilians. The US dropped incendiary napalm bombs on Vietnam, killing tens of thousands of civilians. France and Britain used missiles to pound Houthi rebels in Yemen at the behest of the US-Saudi-UAE alliance. Hospitals and schools were bombed by US, British and French aircraft through the 2010s, resulting in large-scale civilian fatalities, including children.

In an earlier decade, the West’s ten-year-long no-fly-zone over Iraq resulted in denying food and medicine to Iraqis. Over half-a-million civilians, again including children, perished from both aerial bombings and starvation. Cities in Syria were bombed to near rubble. Yugoslavia was dismembered through the 1990s by US, British and French air attacks that killed thousands and created seven new countries out of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Some of these nations are now members of NATO.

What Russia is doing in Ukraine is inexcusable. But India does not need lectures from countries that have done, and continue to do, much worse.

The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.

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Head-on | It’s time to do some plain speaking with the West on Russia-Ukraine war
Head-on | It’s time to do some plain speaking with the West on Russia-Ukraine war
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