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Ukraine War: How India Turns Geo-Economic Necessity into a Geo-Political Opportunity

By: N Sathiya Moorthy

Last Updated: February 16, 2023, 13:46 IST

New Delhi, India

Jaishankar ticking off Western Europe and the US trying to talk India out of their Russian deal meant that New Delhi had converted geo-economic necessity to a geo-political opportunity. (Reuters)

Jaishankar ticking off Western Europe and the US trying to talk India out of their Russian deal meant that New Delhi had converted geo-economic necessity to a geo-political opportunity. (Reuters)

India has reiterated its ‘strategic independence’ with reinvigorated valour, bordering on adamancy, and thankfully, not arrogance

In a few days, the Ukraine War would step into the second year. It’s a war that Ukraine and its American backer possibly thought Russia would not have the stomach for, and Moscow believed it would wrap up in a couple of weeks or so. Today, it has dragged on, and losses to both sides are only mounting, but not their will to end the war and willingness to negotiate.

In their place, the West imposed sanctions on Russia, which blew on their face as never before. At one stage, they also talked about war reparations for Russia to pay and wanted Russian President Vladimir Putin to be declared a ‘war criminal’. Of and on, someone out there makes vague noises about reviving negotiations — but no one, least of all, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is willing to commit the nation not to join North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is all Moscow has wanted all along. In recent days, he has only revived his appeal for NATO admission.

Maybe, Zelenskyy thinks, a NATO entry would make it a NATO war but it could also make it an all-out European war. Existing European members of the America-led NATO still do not have the stomach for it. If anything, nations like Germany, after swinging front and forth and supplying weapons to Ukraine for a time, now seem to be having yet another rethink. Smaller European nations count as transit points for men and material, and it mostly stops there. If the US signals that it wants a NATO war, then the consequences for Europe and possibly the rest of the world, could be disastrous. This time, the world does not have the stomach for it. Nor is it any more a colonial era Europe for them to be able to make their intra-continental war a world war.

Making the distinction

Needless to say, the US-led West too won’t do it. The pressure on Ukraine to abide by the allies who are funding and arming them in what very much was an avoidable war, and what is still a war that needs to be avoided. Russians began the war without friends and allies, and those like China, and even less, India, have been cautious in commenting on the war. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even advised President Putin that ‘it is not an era of war’.

No one, anyway, is talking about China joining forces with Russia on the ground. If anything, Beijing has only distanced itself in the matter even while otherwise conducting military exercises with Moscow. That has only shown how China is making the distinction, though, in the perception of the West, it could be preparations of some kind, for something, but none of them can say what it is and why it is so.


As it happened, the Ukraine War re-unified the West which was developing cracks that were both visible and invisible. Already, Brexit meant that the UK was out of the European Union (EU), which has been talking about a common foreign and defence policy. But there also has been continual re-thinking in continental Europe and that dampens Zelenskyy’s mood.

Greater commonality

If it did not happen, it also owed to the expansion of the EU and NATO, following the induction of erstwhile Soviet states and satellites. France and Germany reportedly resented the US doing business with these small and poor nations behind their back and were telling them what not to do for achieving greater commonality within the EU.

In NATO, the unannounced Franco-German combo hoped to neutralise the US in their time, but not without winning their silent battle in and for the EU. It definitely was not a priority, especially if the EU could have its own foreign and security policy priorities – leading possibly and hopefully to the weakening of NATO from within, again over time.

It was thus that France protested louder than possibly expected when Australia cancelled a massive order for conventional submarines and settled for nuclear subs from the US, that too behind the back of Paris. It was not only a commercial war, it also involved intra-West geo-politics and geo-strategy and trans-Atlantic national prides and egos.

Already, nations like France and Germany in NATO were peeved at the unilateral US withdrawal from Afghanistan without taking them into confidence and taking their clearance, too. That hurt their national pride immensely, especially when they had long ago concluded that America was on the wane though the end may not come any time soon.

Putting out fire with gasoline

The Ukraine War changed all that. After holding out against America, Germany especially seemed to have given in to domestic and neighbourhood pressures. It had to be seen as being with the ‘aggrieved’, though in military terms. In reality, Berlin was/is equally, or even more, concerned about Russian gas for the population facing the German winter.

One year down the line, however, all that is changing. Or, so it seems. If anything, Ukraine has once again divided the EU, and the noises from Brussels are becoming too loud to ignore. It was obvious that leaders failed to agree on a timetable for Ukraine joining the EU, an alternative once mooted for enrolling the nation into NATO, if only to avoid the current war and its fall-outs. There was some agreement on continued European support to Ukraine, but there was none at a recent meeting either on Ukraine’s admission into the EU, despite Zelenskyy spending two days at the conference.

If anything, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Friday criticised France’s President Emmanuel Macron for organising a closed-door meeting that included Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, but excluded leaders of other EU member-states, and said that such behaviour could hurt the unity within the 27-nation grouping. He was peeved at being left out, unlike his predecessor, who was in attendance at another Franco-German conclave on the war. Suffice it to point out that Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who had supported Ukraine a year ago, wanted diplomatic peace initiatives, as continuing military aid to Ukraine was like putting out fire with gasoline.

Fuel, food and fertiliser

But it was a revelation that Russia and Ukraine mattered more than anyone had imagined or thought of, for fuel, food and fertiliser supplies the world over. The idea is still sinking in. Until the war, everyone who knew something about Ukraine knew that the nation supplied food and fertiliser to some countries, and Russia supplied gas and had two specially-laid Nord Stream pipelines to supply gas to Western Europe.

The massive disruption in the supply of these essential commodities that could upset the global economy that was hoping to recover from Covid lockdowns was even more unfathomable. Shorn of frills, details and the respective contexts, the disruption was next only to what the overnight Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil price rise had done to the global economy in the early seventies.

So much so, when economists and policy-makers now talk about ‘supply chains’, they are talking from the experience of what the Ukraine War has fraught already and is capable of doing more. But they do not seem to have found a reliable alternative or solution. They all heaved a sigh of relief when Turkiye negotiated a Russo-Ukraine pact to let food and fertiliser ships move around undisrupted. So relieved is the world that already some people were talking about a Nobel Peace for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, otherwise not a friend of the West. Today, the earthquake that has taken more than 35,000 human lives (and the count is still on) has destroyed Turkiye, too, along with IS-centred Syria.

While the world is rushing all assistance to Turkiye, denial of the same could well mean that even the anti-IS sections of the local population could first turn to them for succour, and later for political leadership and guidance, whether they are still sold on the IS’ idea of a caliphate and all. It happened in Afghanistan earlier, and there are possibilities that people ignored by the rest of the world could fall prey to Stockholm Syndrome, centred on the IS.

Re-reading the foreign policy

The Ukraine War has also shown the West what Putin was really capable of, in neutralising the effect of their sanctions, or more of the same that Russia has been facing. Possibly, the West had gotten used to Russia taking it all meekly in the past, so no one seemed to have weighed as to what Putin may have had up his sleeve.

So, when sanctions struck and Russia hit back by offering fuel at a 30 percent discount on pre-sanction prices, the West did not believe it at first. If the West, especially the US, had thought it was a joke, it was not to be. When they pinched their hands and realised that they were not in their own self-constructed dream world anymore, things had started moving for Russia.

Feverishly, Western leaders landed in New Delhi in a relatively long queue, to dissuade India from doing oil business with Russia. By then, New Delhi had learnt enough about the all-American brand of ‘supreme national self-interest’. They read the American rulebook to America and its friends – if not literally. External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar rather used the occasion to teach Western Europe some basic tenets of India’s foreign policy that had remained mostly intact all through, but needed re-reading for the sake of the nation’s friends in the West.

Not all nations belong in a herd of sheep, and those like India and China, whose hunger for fossil fuel is still very high, lapped up the Russian offer. When it hurt them in geo-political and geo-strategic terms, the US turned to their old friend Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to try and render the Russian oil availability redundant for purchasing nations, especially those like ‘democratic’ India. For once, Riyadh did not yield.

Strategic independence

As it turned out, months later, Riyadh instead played host to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meetings, also with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League. This is not to suggest that the Saudi decisions were a way of identifying with America’s adversaries. Instead, it was a way for Riyadh to move to the geo-strategic centre and tell the world about the nation’s emerging ‘strategic independence’.

It is too early to say if at least the Xi visit, the second one in six years, and more so what all he ‘achieved’ while in Riyadh, including $30 billion contracts with the Saudis was encouraged by the politico-economic fall-outs of the Ukraine War.  Overnight, ‘climate warriors’ from the West could be expected to shout louder than already against the dangers of fossil fuel.

Who knows some of them could even selectively end the use of those fossil fuels even if the world went back to the stone age, overnight. However, they may not be able to achieve it until Man invents an alternative to plastics and other low-end by-products from refining petroleum that have no replacements, even if solar and wind power and lithium batteries could replace all the electricity that the world requires now and also in the future.

Self-confidence, self-assertion

That way, India’s more recent discovery of huge stocks of lithium in the troubled Jammu & Kashmir may be a game-changer, but that will have to wait. More importantly, India’s Moscow relations are not fuel-based, but trust-based. Despite the US and the rest on its sides vide Pakistan and China, New Delhi is yet to find an international ally, a P-5 member, that would raise its hand in veto at the mention of the K-or-A word, respectively standing for Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.

For India, the Ukraine War was/is a mixed bag. Like with the rest of the world, it hit the post-pandemic economic recovery for a time, yes. Yet, India and other developing nations could not have asked for more than cheaper Russian oil, which also kept the global prices low, possibly for the first time during a war in the past hundred years and more.

It was, even more, an occasion/opportunity for India to re-discover its self-confidence, self-assertion and the importance that it was enjoying in the global comity since the end of the Cold War and the near-simultaneous advent of the Economic Reforms. If India’s decision to take Russia’s offer of cheap oil caused foreign ministers from most Western nations to rush to Delhi in a long queue to persuade the nation to reverse its decision, it also necessitated EAM Jaishankar to tick off the West.

Jaishankar ticking off Western Europe there, and the US in the US, trying to talk India out of their Russian deal meant that New Delhi had converted geo-economic necessity to a geo-political opportunity. India reiterated its ‘strategic independence’ with reinvigorated valour, bordering on adamancy, and thankfully, not arrogance. It may have won new admirers for India in the comity of nations, and some old friends may be watching it with amusement, if not great joy as yet. But it would have also won over old-new adversaries for India, who, by the sheer strength of their experience, exposure and priorities, would be biding their time — not for years, but for decades!

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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first published:February 16, 2023, 13:46 IST
last updated:February 16, 2023, 13:46 IST