Neutrality best option for India in Ukraine crisis The Statesman 01 Feb 2022 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Neutrality best option for India in Ukraine crisis The Statesman 01 Feb 2022

          India has close strategic ties with Russia and the US, both of whom are locked in a tense situation over Ukraine. While US claims that Russia is likely to invade Ukraine, both Russia and Ukraine state they seek a diplomatic solution, instead of conflict. The Ukrainian President and defence minister have even stated that there is no imminent threat of war, while readying their reserves for a worst-case scenario. China has openly supported Russia and accused the US of not considering Russia’s security concerns. Putin and Xi will discuss the situation on the side lines of the Beijing winter games.  

EU and NATO members, while seeking resolution through negotiations, are preparing to enhance troop deployment in Eastern Europe, as a precautionary measure. Germany, while supporting NATO and EU, refuses to provide arms to Ukraine, claiming it does not seek to add to tensions. Even within European nations there are divisions on backing the US or partially addressing Russian concerns. The US has also announced its intention of deploying troops in Eastern Europe, while increasing arms sales to Ukraine.

The US is adding pressure on India to support it against Russia, which India alludes. The US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman recently spoke to the Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Shringla, on the subject. While Ukraine was mentioned as a topic discussed in the US statement, it was ignored in the Indian press release. The US has already warned that it would impose, ‘crippling costs on Russia’s economy, reinforce NATO’s presence in frontline allied states, and increase defensive assistance to Ukraine above and beyond what we are already providing.’    

The US has still to announce its decision on sanctions against India for procuring the S400 missile systems from Russia. It continues to keep the sword dangling. Their state department spokesperson, while addressing the media, last week, on the sale of the S400 to India, stated, ‘I think it shines a spotlight on the destabilizing role Russia is playing not only in the region but potentially as well.’ The Indian response was that India follows an independent foreign policy and defence procurements are guided by its national interests.

India has close defence ties with Ukraine. Ukraine is currently involved in upgrading India’s AN 32 fleet as also providing gas turbine engines for naval vessels. About 18000 Indian students’ study in Ukraine. Hence, India would desire a peaceful resolution to the crisis. India maintained neutrality during the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014. It, alongside 57 nations, abstained in the UN Resolution in response to Russian annexation of Crimea.   

Simultaneously the US believes that India can play a major role in defusing the situation as it has close ties with Russia. However, India officially announced its neutrality on the subject. The Indian spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi stated in his press briefing, ‘We call for a peaceful resolution of the situation through sustained diplomatic efforts for long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond.’ India is not in the US camp on its dispute with Russia.

It was reported that the Russian side had explained its stance over Ukraine during the Indo-Russia summit in Dec last year. When questioned by the media, in a press conference post the summit, the Indian foreign secretary stated, ‘the Russian side did provide a briefing on that situation.’ He refused to divulge further details. A recent press report mentioned that the Indian and Russian foreign ministers discussed Ukraine in the third week of Jan this year. Both Russia and the US have kept India in the loop.

Security differences between US and Russia over expansion of NATO, in nations which were earlier buffer zones, are unlikely to be resolved soon. Both nations have taken hard and unrelenting stances. For a solution, one of them would need to back down, similar to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This will not happen in a hurry and cannot be achieved through any intermediary. Hence, Indian involvement in any form would never yield any positive result. Neutrality is the best option for the current.

The Indian decision to stay neutral has no doubt irked the US, which is seeking to muster global support for its actions. Had India been a member of an alliance with the US similar to AUKUS etc, it would have had no choice but to back the US. Its independence in foreign policy would have been impacted.

A continuation of the crisis would result in Eastern Europe being the centre of global attention, pushing Indo-Pacific and Chinese actions against its neighbours into the background. While India would hold its ground along the LAC, Chinese pressures would increase against Taiwan and in the South China Sea. On 24th Jan, China flew 39 aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence zone.

For India, imposition of further sanctions on Russia could be an added headache as Indian procurement of defence equipment and spares continue, apart from other economic activities. India currently has 65% of its equipment of Russian origin. As the Indian foreign secretary had stated that without Russian support, ‘our ships won’t sail, and our aircraft won’t fly.’ It would push Russia closer into the Chinese camp as also Pakistan, which could hurt Indian interests.

There would also be global ramifications in case a peaceful solution is not found. Russia is the world’s third largest producer of oil and second largest of natural gas. Most of its supplies are sent to Europe through oil pipelines, some transiting through Ukraine. Currently it supplies one third of Europe’s natural gas and one fourth of its oil. In case of escalation, these would be impacted, enhancing oil prices.

The US could step in to increase supplies but would be able to do little to curb rising prices. China would be a major gainer as Russia could enhance its oil exports to China at lower rates.  Hence demands for a peaceful resolution are rising.

The US may question Indian neutrality and continue to threaten it with sanctions under CAATSA, however, staying neutral, especially in a conflict where both sides are unrelenting is the best option.