India in a Ukraine peace-negotiating pickle

[Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova & Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra]

China’s unexpected diplomatic success in finessing a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran — the poles, respectively, of sunni and shi’ia Islam between which the Muslim world is ostensibly strung, has sparked a little peace-making race.

Because all international negotiations are for geopolitical gain, it may be reasonably assumed that Beijing’s planting itself so conspicuously in Riyadh and in Tehran, has ensured for China virtually limitless sources of oil and gas to meet its burgeoning energy needs. With Gwadar on the Baloch coast too in its grasp, the prospect of its energy traffic through Malacca and Sunda Straits being disrupted at will by India, US and any hard-headed littoral and offshore state in Southeast Asia, singly or in groups, is now less of a strategic concern. With this combination of energy source and Gwadar, the Malacca-Sunda bottleneck stands outflanked, making possible an apparently uninterrupted and uninterruptible energy lifeline to serve both its “all-weather friend”, Pakistan, and its Far-western provinces (Chinese-occupied Tibet and Xinjiang, in the main) that are otherwise cutoff from the sea and, therefore, the world.

Encouraged by its negotiating success in West Asia, China may be preparing to reprise its role in Ukraine. It has had the immediate effect of blunting the effects of bad press its military coercion against Taiwan is attracting. With Emannuel Macron, the peripatetic President of France who, perhaps to escape the labour unrest he uncorked in his country has taken to foreign travel to calm the political jitters, is in the forefront of European leaders asking Chinese President Xi Jinping to capitalise on his close relations with the Russian bossman,Vladimir Putin, and end the conflict in Ukraine. Realizing he may have gone out on a limb in courting Xi Macron, post-Beijing visit, urged all countries to eschew following either US or China!

These developments find the Narendra Modi government in something of a pickle. China’s Saudi-Iranian success has transcended in diplomatic and strategic value India’s policy in the Gulf of courting Saudi Arabia and UAE while tippy-toeing hand-in-hand with Iran — to-date its stellar diplomatic achievement. Now there’s an opportunity offered by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appeal to New Delhi to use its good offices to get Kremlin to accept a peace deal, an appeal the visiting Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister, Emine Dzhaparova, formally reiterated yesterday in MEA while also trying to cadge an invitation from Modi for Zelenskyy to attend the G-20 September summit in India. G-20 working group meetings in Arunachal Pradesh on March 25-26 went off without a hitch with China boycotting it, and the one scheduled in Srinagar (Jammu & Kashmir) on May 22-23 may not be attended by China (to win brownie points with Islamabad). The proof of success of Modi’s Gulf policy will be Saudi Arabia’s participation in it, and will clue us to the attitude of the Organization of Islamic Countries on the Kashmir issue.

A lot of successful diplomacy being one upmanship, Modi can hardly resist the chance of outshining Xi by bringing peace to Ukraine. So, let’s set the context before considering the pros and cons of India’s foraying into high value peacemaking and the likely results.

The bulk upload to the net of secret US intelligence files, presumably by a Pentagon insider, relating to Kyiv’s current military strategy and plans reveals Ukraine’s military limitations in waging an unending war. Russia is far better placed particularly with regard to military manpower. Putin has been reluctant to mobilize his country’s resources to the fullest because, well, he doesn’t need to. He has other means available to him to bring Ukraine to its knees. For one thing, the Wagner Group of fighters comprising prisoners and criminals trawled from Russian jails and penal colonies who are incentivised not to fail, has fetched Moscow unheralded success in the crucial battles on the Bakhmuth-Soledar Front. It has made nonsense of Kyiv’s plans for an offensive southwards and eastwards to cut off Russia’s early established Donbas landbridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which last was bloodlessly annexed by Putin in 2014.

In fact, the leaked American documents paint a frightfully grim picture of Ukrainian forces suffering hugely from attrition, from sheer physical exhaustion and, worse, fast-depleting ammunition and artillery shell stocks requiring ammo, for instance, to be rationed to its frontline troops. Nothing is better guaranteed to break the Ukrainian fighting spirit. Rapid NATO re-supply cannot correct the emerging disparities. While Abrams and Leopard tanks, armoured combat vehicles, lethal drones, and long range guns firing precision-guided munitions pulled from NATO reserves can be hauled to forward Ukrainian battlefields, and operational support from US cyber wherewithal and satellite-borne realtime intel feeds can be upped at any time, soon there may be no Ukrainians to man these weapons systems, crowning the cynical US strategy of fighting to the last Ukrainian. Given Ukraine’s smaller population base, the conditions are going to tilt more and more against its military, . This is why Zelenskyy is calling for peaceful foreign interventions to secure an end to the fighting. A desperate Kyiv is happy to accept such help from any quarter, and especially China and India.

We know what China’s “skin in the game” is; what is India’s?

In his recent meetings with Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken encouraged India to get in on Kyiv’s side, if not by openly supporting the Ukranian cause than by utilizing New Delhi’s long standing ties with Moscow and Prime Minister Modi’s personal rapport with Putin to get Kremlin to negotiate. The Indian government has not so far reacted positively to Washington’s prompting or Kyiv’s repeated appeals because, being terminally risk-averse, its instinct and impulse in most such situations is to plonk for discretion as the better part of venturesomeness. The fear of an adverse turn of events such that an Indian peace initiative turns into a political and diplomatic liability is the looming spectre influencing official thinking. Because, absent the sort of economic and strategic cushion that China can fall back on, New Delhi could end up alienating Russia for pushing too hard, and earning Washington’s ire for not pushing hard enough. And this is where matters stand.

The problem is this: New Delhi’s obvious priority as mediator will be to obtain a ceasefire. But why would Putin agree to one when he sees the Donbas corridor connecting the mainland to the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea secured, Russian forces entrenched roughly on the line Kharkov-Kherson, Ukrainian forces wilting across the entire front, and US and NATO unwilling to follow up their arms supply measures by putting their own boots on the ground? And, if Ukraine is left to fend for itself, how long can it last? Any which way one sees it, Ukraine will be compelled to accept peace on Russian terms, except the longer the war lasts the greater the possiblility of that country quite literally being ground to dust. But, why would Putin agree to India pulling Ukraine’s chestnuts out of the fire?

For two reasons. The best way for Putin to keep India engaged but distanced from the US-NATO led security coalition towards which it is gravitating, is to enhance Modi’s global stature by crowning his efforts at mediating the Ukraine conflict with success. Kremlin has nothing to lose by allowing such a peace because the solution will not stray far from the prevailing staus quo on the ground. It will involve terminating the carnage, formalising the territorial bifurcation with much of the Donbas absorbed into Russia and with provision for rationalizing the new border along straighter lines to enable consolidation of Moscow’s control of Crimea and command of most of the Black Sea coast — the original objective of its “special operation”. Ukraine can return to normalcy and to rebuilding and economically reviving the country with the help of a mini-“Marshall Fund” programme for Ukrainian reconstruction, to which Russia could be persuaded to contribute notionally, and thereby indirectly to accept some responsibility. This combined with a formal undertaking from the US and the West to not pursue Putin in the International Court at the Hague for human rights abuses, will put a closure to a trying experience for the world at-large. Modi will forever be beholden to Putin and Russia for burnishing his reputation, and will be Moscow’s friend for life.

The other reason for Putin to drop such a massive diplomatic success into Modi’s lap is metastrategic. It will raise India’s stock and, by the by, cut Xi Jinping, who is wallowing in his recent diplomatic triumphs, and China down to size. Historical Russian wariness of China coupled to the reality of an overweaning Beijing regime is actually a hurdle in Russia’s realising its strategic designs in Eurasia. Moreover, the longer the resource-draining war in Ukraine continues, the more Russia is weakened and China grows more powerful in relative terms. The all-round disparity between the two countries will widen until soon enough Putin will be reduced to a supplicant in Xi’s court. It is a denouement Putin will devoutly wish to avoid at all cost.

The incentive for Modi and India to midwife peace in Ukraine is, at a minimum, to deny Xi and China diplomatic and political edge in the internationaal arena. Building up India is in the strategic interest of both the US and Russia and curiously for the same reason — India as a credible economic, political, and military counterweight to China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific will ease the strategic burden and uncertainties for the two great powers who are rivals but are finding it equally difficult to get a handle on China.

These are the fortuitous circumstances India finds itself in. Modiji, don’t miss this opportunity — take a dive into big tme peacemaking. Who knows, there might be a Nobel Prize for Peace awaiting you as reward for your endeavours! After all Barrack Obama won one for doing nothing unless you call making that one high-sounding speech in Prague in April 2009 promising a nuclear disarmed world, something.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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24 Responses to India in a Ukraine peace-negotiating pickle

  1. Shiv Rana says:

    It is an India’s moment and MEA should gear up to grap this God-sent opportunity.
    Dr Jaishankar – hope you are working towards this.

  2. Email from Lisa Curtis, Center for New American Security, Washington, DC
    Lisa Curtis
    bharat karnad

    Tue, 11 Apr at 7:24 pm

    Interesting take. Not sure I agree either Putin or Modi see a role for Indian mediation as particularly helpful. There are too many pitfalls for India and Putin doesn’t need to do anything to keep India on Russia’s side. India has been clear it intends to stay in the Russian camp no matter what.

    • Amit says:

      @Lisa, it is nice to note active participation of recent US national security officials like you in Professor Karnad’s columns. I have watched several of your discussions on YouTube (I think it was CSIS clips), and have appreciated the sane assessments you have made in the past related to US-India relations.

      Also, agree with the assessment that India intends to keep Russia on its side no matter what (slightly different take than your phraseology – I don’t believe that India is in Russia’s camp). However, wouldn’t you agree that to contain China, the U.S. should have done the same? That would be the rational thing to do! I am so disappointed with the current U.S. grand strategy.

  3. Karan says:

    Im sorry Bharat Ji, you seem to have given a blind eye towards neoNazis in Ukr, 2014 Maidan Coup by Victoria Nuland and the Warparty (yes US is a Uniparty system), 2018 Odessa burning by various regime change ops entities, etc. If we support Ukr in this or even mediate peace, it’s a Win for the comedian. RU has to go all the way, coz this is existential for RU. read more here, please.

    • In earlier posts, I have written about Stephen Bandera and his band of right extremist cuthtroats forming the UKR wing of the Gestapo during the German occupation in WWII, whence Putin’s “de-nazification” rationale, etc. But this post and the Blog generally is concerned solely with what best serves Indian national interest.

      • Karan says:

        I understand your argument sirji. However, any peace proposal should be approached through a RU – US angle and not from the Ukr’s perspective. Everyone knows Ukr is just a playground and not a player and that too with a Comedian puppet as its PR officer. Peace proposal between the West and RU should be the angle here and has to be approached with this in mind and most importantly resumption of START treaty has to be included. India should be at least willing to table this proposal to look serious instead of brownie points PR proposal that our NE neighbors have done. Modi ji insisting on Blinken & Lavrov to at least meet and have a small talk during recent G20 is a great 1st step which apparently many have missed.

  4. Amit says:


    Agree with your assessment that Russia has the upper hand and Ukraine is taking a big beating. However, since the U.S. is backing Ukraine, it is unlikely that a negotiated settlement will occur anytime soon. In fact, it is more likely that this conflict will drag on, until both parties tire and there is some kind of a stalemate. The U.S. has too much prestige to lose and Russia will fight to its death.

    So while India can play peacemaker, the time is not right. Frankly, China can do no peacemaking either in this situation.

    In the Middle East though, I disagree with your assessment that China has less of a strategic concern in the Malacca straights. Even though China may have earned limitless rights to ME oil, it will still prefer to transport it through sea lanes of Malacca rather than the higher cost land option of the CPEC (which btw, is still an incomplete project). Even the Chabahar option poses the same high cost issue.

    On the other hand, as long as India ensures its economic growth, the Middle East will be its natural playground. India will also earn limitless rights to Middle East oil as it is in each party’s mutual interests. And China will always feel threatened by India’s might in the Indian Ocean. I see India having the upper hand in the Middle East in spite of China’s recent diplomatic success even in the medium term (as long as it grows well).

    India needs to make sure it maintains good relations with both the U.S. and Russia. I’m sure Indian diplomats are sounding out both sides and will enable peace negotiations when the time is right.

    • Sam says:

      It is not money which gives power, it is power which snatches others’ money to get rich. Indian economic growth with camel air force(30 squadrons short) is not going to give power or influence to India.
      USA and england are technically bankrupt but still their dollar has gone high because it is supported by gun boats. Japan economy in doldrums since late 1080s despite Japan being 3rd riches in world but no power.

    • Sam says:

      ref” “plots”

      All plots r done by the evil english nation (an English Caliphate wrongly called british empire) –a soggy island of pirates called england-read dumas interview-and then they pass the blame to jews if plots turned unpopular. England is head of the family. USA is just the loud mouthed son with a fancy car. Why can those under attack from anglos not kill soros, tony blair, bush war criminals and also all of the British spy journalists who are the main pusher for destabilization the world over. let Russia and others start killing these enemies of humanity.

  5. Email from Lt General Devraj Singh (Retd), former, Director-General, Infantry
    bharat karnad
    Wed, 12 Apr at 12:23 pm

    Excellent analysis as always ,
    Present situation in Ukraine May not be conducive either for Russia to relent till its objectives in Ukraine are achieved . It may not be so from Ukraine’s point of view. Still their hope for complete victory are driving them in view of full Western supplies of war material and, not to forget, financial flows to Ukraine .
    India must be fully geared to get in for peace making

  6. Gab Singh says:

    If peace-making means Russia gets to keep all the territory it has captured untill now then it is a complete military defeat for Ukraine. There is a simple formula for Peace that I would accept if I am Ukraine’s presidents and that is complete withdrawal of Russian army to pre-2014. Although Russia may get to keep whole of crimea.
    The only peace-formula Ukraine or USA will accept is complete withdrawal of Russian Army to pre-2014, apart from Crimea. THis is the only solution which can be obtained on the negotiating table.

    • Karan says:

      “THis is the only solution which can be obtained on the negotiating table for the WEST.”–There, I correctly finished your thought process. You’re welcome!

  7. Email from Vice Admiral Satish Soni (Retd), former FOCINC, Eastern Naval Command

    Thu, 13 Apr at 4:13 pm

    Thank you sir.

    Very well written. Lets hope this happens.

    Satish Soni

  8. Ramesh says:

    You have to leave some brownie points to each side

    1. in favour of Ukraine : Reparations of USD 300 Billion of Russia to be utilised .

    2. Russia : To keep the annexed territories Plus or Minus

    3. NATO : Not to expand further

    4. US : Monitor the proceeding and partake in USD 300 Billion

    5. Germany : Get the gas as usual Plus Nord 2

    6. Turkey : Nord Extension Plus

    7. China : thumb

  9. Ramesh says:

    Third world : Regular supply of Grains

    Zelensky : Keep the wealth and black marketing of weapons along with his ilk


    Dear Dr Karnad

    Wonderful initiative from your side to encourage Modiji to come up with the Ukraine peace proposal. However I personally that there are two significant hindrances here that prevents any possible success in the way you suggest. Lisa Curtis would possibly also agree with me on this aspect.

    1. Russia does not consider any ceasefire with Ukraine at this moment useful for them when they think they are winning the war after their recent achievements in Bakhmut. There is a historical precedence here. After 2014, Mr Putin cut a deal with the then Ukrainian leader Poroshenko brokered by the French and the Germans. This was called the Minsk accord. This was used by the West to strengthen Ukraine militarily against Russia. Mr Putin now justifiably holds this particular accord responsible for whatever bad things have been happening in Ukraine since 2022. So it will be impossible for Mr Putin to leave territories that his army conquered after investing so much blood. To Mr Putin the proposal to leave conquered territories would be equivalent similar to if Modiji is asked to leave our conquered territory in the Kashmir valley. I believe Mr Putin will react to the proposal of leaving conquered territories in Ukraine in the same way Modiji will react to us vacating our conquered territory in the Kashmir valley.

    2. The West is in no mood to compromise with Mr Putin as they believe that compromising with him at this moment will jeopardize and liquidate their unipolar moment and exceptionalism.

    Therefore both countries are at this position where peace or even ceasefire does not suit their interest at this moment. Given this context, peace can come to these formidable adversaries where there is a common enemy which historically used to be the Nazi Germany and expansionist Japan. Without fulfilling this pre-condition , I do not believe anyone can bring peace between these two adversaries.

    I would love your views on this analysis of mine.

  11. Gab Singh says:

    @ Debanjan Bannerjee

    If you think Russia’s so called achievements in Bakhmut are a success then I wonder what a defeat for you would be. Russia’s offensive has completely stalled and now Ukraine is preparing for a counter-offensive. I waiting impatiently to see how German Leopard 2 Tanks and American Abrams perform on the battlefield.
    If Ukrainian counter-offensive stalls/fails then there is some scope for a ceasefire. But Russia will still remain under Western sanctions, unless Russia vacates all the Ukrainian territory apart from Crimea.

    India never conquered Kashmir. Kashmir rightfully belongs to India because of Hari Singh’s accession. It is Pakistan who illegally invaded Kashmir (just as Russia has invaded Ukraine) in 1948 and took a part of it. Before 2014 Crimea was internationally recognized part of Ukraine( which Russia also accepted). But legally or illegally does not matter. Either Russia militarily wins and ends the conflict at its own terms or remains under AMERICAN sanctions forever.


    Sir do you think Modiji will have to agree to pay Russia in Yuan like Bangladesh in order to ensure energy security for an election year in 2024 ?

  13. Amit says:


    While there is a lot of discussion about the security threat from India’s northern and north eastern borders with China, not much is discussed about how Pakistan is a Chinese threat from the western borders.

    I’ve been watching many retired military officers talk about what happens to Pakistan. One Lt. General laid out three scenarios – one, Pakistan remains a federally administered state with all the factional fighting as currently going on, two, a weak federal structure with more or less independent provinces, or three breaks up into five regions (balkanisation). His recommendation is for the status quo. As Balkanisation can lead to a refugee problem.

    Another retired major general talks about how the U.S. maybe redrawing maps and how India should play a role in it too. However, he too does not explicitly lay out India’s active role in making things happen. Or barely hints at it.

    It seems like the Indian military does not want to talk about the obvious solution to breaking the China-Pak nexus. Balkanise Pakistan! This is the only solution to the CPEC threat to India. China would not want this, the U.S. may not completely want it as it has a soft corner for Pakistan (though the CPEC is also a threat to US interests in the Gulf). India should definitely want it, as the two other options the Lt. General laid out have a risk of a Pakistan renting out J&K to China or worse. Downside is a refugee crisis, but so what! Prepare for it.

    My hunch is that India is actively involved in the third option. And is not talking about it. Or perhaps is taking a back seat and doing nothing, which would be a mistake. I hope security analysts in India discuss the options India has more openly, as the western front is extremely important to Indian security, apart from northern and north eastern borders, and the Indian Ocean. Not what happens in Taiwan or Ukraine!


    Dear DR Karnad

    I was watching the other day on Youtube a book launch program by a former retired Indian bureaucrat who authored this book on the Pashtuns in Pakistan. Interestingly it appears to me that there are very few Pakistan watchers in Delhi who matter to the policymaking circles in the Raisina hills. I believe people like Sushant Sareen and few handful others (most of whom are senior citizens and ageing) are the only trusted fellows when it comes Pakistan policy in the power corridors of Delhi. On that book related to Pashtuns in Pakistan, I believe the author is silent when it comes to the impact of Imran Khan on the Pashtun politics in Pakistan.

    Do you believe we need fresh thinking when it comes to our Pakistan policy in Delhi ?

  15. Sam says:

    Obsession with China.

    The same class of Indians who are doing propaganda against china today are the same people who forced Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 to make friendship with china(and recognise Tibet as part of china) why-? because the usa had ben friend with china since 1984 and wanted India to be friend too as opposed to Russia.-therefore the Indian parasite class made the Indian foreign policy viz china not to suit India but to suit American interests9Much worse since arrival of traitor manmoahn singh under whom PMO office runs foreign office)-it is doing the same but in revere direction this time because their anglo-american masters want them to do so. The same indian elite class (for example the president of ranbaxy one MR. Singh (of Ranbaxy )and ,, chairman of FICCi at the time in 80s was vehemently opposing any defence increase or of of buying of defence equioments while asking for friendship with china as desired by usa ain 80s). the same FICCi is making propaganda against DRDo and(with 6% of defence budget) and indian scientists saying it has not kept the development of innovations and kept the 50 yrs. old mig 21 not in shape!.) These same Indian traitors want India to buy 40 yrs. old arms (like junk f16

  16. Sam says:

    Nato is a creation of england to occupy germany and harass Russia after 2nd world war which along with first world war was plotted by none other than englishmen.

    NATO was always designed to prevent moves by France and Germany towards independent European defence and foreign policies, such as the West European Union (WEU): this has been a geo-political priority for Washington since the end of World War Two. According to investigative journalist Sy Hersh, the primary reason british / Washington combo blew up the Nordstream 2 pipeline was to prevent closer energy and political ties between Russia and Germany.

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