The past 12 months have been tough for Indian diplomats as they tried to hold what has become the preferred pose for the Narendra Modi government on Ukraine: strategic autonomy. The steadiness shown by the South Block in dealing with the war, which completed a year on February 24, has really tested its core strength. India has performed well and it hopes to use this diplomatic flexibility in its role as president of the G20.
“I think India has been successful,’’ said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. Russia has not lost what it calls a ‘special military operation’; Ukraine is yet to win its ‘war of independence’. Despite the odds, India has managed to pull off its mission impossible.
It has been a year of balances. “We have satisfied both sides. The Russians, in fact, are more than satisfied. It was evident from President Vladimir Putin’s gesture of meeting with our National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Moscow,’’ said Sibal. The meeting, breaking established protocol, was significant in its messaging. “The US had framed the issue as a moral one and suggested that we would be on the wrong side of history. But the discourse has changed. The meeting between American NSA Jake Sullivan and Doval illustrates that point and the need to take forward the engagement,’’ said Sibal.
The Ukraine crisis has come at a time when India is hoping to shape the global conversation with its G20 presidency and cement Modi’s image as a world leader. “In recent years we have seen how trade, connectivity, debt, resources and even tourism have become points of political pressure. The Ukraine conflict has widened the scope of political leveraging,” said External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. A few months ago at IIM Calcutta, he emphasised India’s neutral stand and said the country had the ability and the responsibility to shape the global landscape and speak on behalf of the Global South.
India faced relentless pressure at every diplomatic interaction with the west. It was felt the most in the India-US relationship. A year ago, the US said India’s refusal to condemn Russia was “deeply disappointing”. The Ukraine crisis formed the backdrop of the virtual meeting between President Joe Biden and Modi. Biden said the Quad (comprising India, Australia, Japan and the US) was extremely strong about dealing with Putin’s aggression, except for India’s “shaky response”.
“Before the pandemic, strengthening our relations with Europe was a priority. But the conflict dovetailed Europe with NATO and the US,” said former ambassador Gurjit Singh. “We chose the middle ground to create space for engagement. We led by example for the Global South with our position and our voting in the UN.”
The steadily rising import of Russian oil has been a particularly sore issue. Oleksandr Merezhko, who heads the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, has called for secondary sanctions against countries like China and India for “financing the Russian military machine”. In October 2022, Russia, for the first time, became India’s top oil supplier, going past Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It now accounts for 28 per cent of all oil imported by India. “We owe a moral duty to our consumers.... India will respond according to its supreme national interest,’’ said Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, in an interview. Jaishankar, too, chided the west for asking India to stop buying Russian oil on moral grounds. He said that despite the sanctions, Europe was yet to cut off Russian energy supplies completely.
Going beyond just importing oil for domestic needs, India has emerged as a conduit for shipping Russian oil to other markets. With new western sanctions coming into effect from March 5, India will become an even more important link in the chain. Interestingly, India sent 89,000 bpd (barrels per day) of gasoline and diesel to the US in January. And the US, it seems, has finally started understanding New Delhi’s compulsions. “I want to be clear that we are not looking to sanction India, and our partnership is one of our most consequential relationships,” said Karen Donfried, US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.
The Modi government has used this issue as an agenda against the west to bolster its image both domestically and internationally. “The Global South does not want to choose between the US, which would lead to hegemony, and Russia, because the US still has the ability to hurt you. It is happy for India to be the leader,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
That the South Block has managed to turn the tide of the conversation is certainly a win for the government. “India has managed to navigate treacherous waters,’’ said Unnikrishnan. “It has retained its status as the bride that everyone wants to woo. The US needs India against China, China does not want it in the US camp and Russia needs it for legitimacy.”
India has chosen to keep its engagement with Russia and Ukraine almost on an even keel. While Modi spoke to Putin seven times last year, there have been multiple phone calls with President Volodymyr Zelensky, too. There is speculation about Modi playing mediator between Moscow and Kyiv. India, in fact, played a key role in mollifying Russia after it threatened to walk away from a grain deal with Ukraine last November.
India has been careful not to alienate Russia on global platforms. It worked with host Indonesia to soften the language of the joint statement at the 2022 G20 summit, keeping in mind Russian sensitivities. It chose to stay away from the Munich Security Conference this year. “We did not want to be seen on the same stage where Russia would be pilloried,’’ said Gurjit Singh.
India expects full attendance and no controversies at this year’s G20 summit which it will be hosting. “What we can expect is a statement that will highlight the agenda of the Global South. This is where India’s voice will add vigour. It will be Nehruvian in the sense that Nehru punched above his weight,” said Unnikrishnan.
It may not be an easy task as the war in Ukraine is only likely to intensify. But, for now, India can feel justifiably proud of its strategic autonomy and diplomatic heft and the way it has handled the crisis.