[Russian tank on a Mariuopol street — Day 26 of invasion]
Diverted by the prospect of easy pickings west of the Dneiper River, which did not materialize with the Ukrainian resistance showing more mettle and staying power than Moscow expected, Russia is getting back to achieving its original goal. As predicted in a February 23 post [“There will be no war over Ukraine, here’s why”] when hostilities were initiated, that limited goal was the absorption of the Russian-majority areas of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region and an eastern border belt comprising Mariuopol, Khersan and possibly Odessa as a logical extension of Kremlin’s 2014 move that annexed Crimea. That’s now the aim now. It will enable Russia to control the Sea of Azov and, more importantly, the Black Sea. The command of the Black Sea coast, in particular, eliminates Russia’s biggest vulnerability — NATO naval forces potentially exploiting the maritime approaches from the south.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s declaration in Parliament yesterday that India’s stand on Ukraine is guided solely by the national interest and, hence, that it can no more ignore the availability of Russian oil at discounted prices needed for growth than the looming China threat, which requires the military supply line to Russia be kept well oiled and the historically warm relations with Russia maintained, was a formal reassertion of India’s policy of strategic autonomy. It is several steps away from the conspicuous tilt to the US and the West manifested in the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with America that Jaishankar, ironically, had engineered as Joint Secretary (Americas) in the MEA. The three Indo-US foundational accords (LEMOA, COMCASA, BECA) that followed during Narendra Modi’s time as Prime Minister were merely the icing on the cake.
The relentless campaign waged by Washington and West European governments to pressure New Delhi into siding with them against Russia, was not a surprise. Washington pulled out all the stops, including a ham-handed effort by the Biden Administration’s advertised economic “hitman” and deputy National Security Adviser, Daleep Singh. He visited Delhi only to end up firing blanks and sounding silly with his public threats of “consequences” to India if it failed to fall in line with respect to imports of Russian energy and weaponry. “The more leverage that China gains over Russia, the less favourable that is for India. I don’t think anyone would believe that if China once again breaches the Line of Actual Control, Russia would come running to India’s defence,” he said. Appropriately, Daleep Singh said this on April Fool’s Day, because the obvious riposte to that is: Is there anyone anywhere who believes the US, India’s “strategic partner”, no less, will “come running to India’s defence” in the same situation?!
This makes one wonder why the US and the West expected India to make common cause with them on Ukraine, in the first place. Is it because of Jaishankar’s success in smoothtalking the US, in particular, into believing that New Delhi had turned a corner, was now more firmly with the West than ever before, and even gradually aligning its armament-sourcing accordingly?
That the sale of military hardware is, in effect, the lifebouy that’s keeping Indo-Russian ties afloat was accepted as a given by Messrs Lavrov and Jaishankar — a condition both agreed would not be upset. Referring to the same condition, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin informed the US House Armed Services Committee on April 6 that the American government agencies “continue to work with [India] to ensure they understand that it’s not in their …best interest to continue to invest in Russian equipment.” Coincidentally or otherwise, these exchanges happened just when Boeing is preparing to conduct a fly-off of the twin-engined F/A-18 from the static ski-deck at INS Hansa in Goa. This aircraft is competing with the Rafale-M[arine] and the Russian MiG-29K fleet air defence aircraft to outfit the first Indian (Kochi) shipyard-built aircraft carrier now undergoing final seatrials. The deal is for some 27 carrier aircraft worth several billions of dollars.
The sale of armaments is the lynchpin-reason persuading US and Russia to desist from pushing the Modi regime too hard on Ukraine lest it react by going the other way, the former because it hopes to replace the latter as prime arms supplier, and the latter because it expects to hold on to its pole position as the main high-value arms vendor.
In any case, had the Ukraine crisis not occurred, the Modi government would have had a more difficult time of shrugging off American and Russian pressure. Still, with the Ukraine issue front and centre, the Indian government rediscovered the joys and strategic benefits of remaining conspicuously neutral in disputes that do not directly involve India, and of exercising policy latitude and freedom of manoeuvre that such positioning affords it. Neutrality has allowed India to reassert its strategic autonomy and to play off the US and Russia against each other for strategic gain.
Abstaining from voting on resolutions in the Security Council has so far served India’s purposes. The resolution in the UN General Assembly later today (Thursday, April 7) moved by Lithuania to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council on account of alleged Russian human rights violations, however, is a more testing proposition. Because an abstention will help the West, Moscow has warned it will be construed as an unfriendly act. Did MEA anticipate such a situation and alert the visiting Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov last week that Delhi could not not be consistent and not abstain? If it did, then India is in the clear. If it did not, then the question arises why not? And were the Indian Permanent Representative and his office and MEA at this end all sleeping on the job? After all, Vilnius aided by the US and Western delegations at the UNHQ in New York would have been busy this past fortnight getting the resolution up and marshaling the support for it.
If an abstention is unavoidable but Moscow was informed beforehand, it will be Kremlin’s call on how punitive it wants to get with India because that will possibly incur for Russia huge cost. Considering India has been firm about not taking sides and, given what’s at stake — global correlation of forces-wise, Moscow will likely lump it, as the US and its camp followers did on previous Indian absentions. This aside, the anodyne statements that Delhi has issued urging end to the conflict and offer of India’s good offices as peacemaker are par for the course. Not that either Kyiv or Moscow will accept Indian mediation when the direct line of communications between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky is buzzing, and it is only a matter of time before Kyiv accepts a compromise solution around Moscow’s original intervention aim.
The funny thing in all this is to see how the lot of Indian-origin academics and such in US universities and thinktanks have uniformly echoed the Washington line about India needing to come in on the side of the great and the good, of democracy and freedom. Their unsolicited advice, it is evident, is less owing to any conviction than personal professional gain: On such drivel are tenure tracks to the professoriate firmed up and “research funding” finagled. In which case why does the media in India take these guys seriously or feature their writing in op-ed space? May be because most Indian newspapers and television media intentionally or otherwise too are serving foreign interests?
Strategic autonomy is a function of India’s size, location, resources and potential. It is a necessity if India is to make anything of itself on the international stage. The leverage it gives India is something Modi, perhaps, is only now beginning to appreciate. Except, the correct lesson needs to be drawn, which is that when China next attacks India, New Delhi should at most expect sympathy but no material or other support from the US and Western European states, or America’s Asian allies (Japan and South Korea). Not because India “faulted” on the Ukraine issue, but because that’s the natural position for the uninvolved with their own national interests to look after, to alight on. It will be prudent, in the event, for Delhi to prepare to fight China on its own — no quarters asked or given, and whatever it takes, which last is what I have all along been advocating that India do.