War or pause in escalation? As the world watches the Ukraine crisis with trepidation, this is the question that looms large. Accusations and counter accusations from both sides continue. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in the United Nations Security Council that “Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack”.
He then continued to sketch out the likely scenario saying “Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions. After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. We believe these targets include Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people.”
Russia has been mocking these claims as fabrication and Moscow insists it has no intention to invade Ukraine. The Russian military videos show troops from Crimea returning to their bases and has indicated that the troops conducting military exercises in Belarus will return they are over.
However, the United States disputes the claim saying the build-up on the Eastern border of Ukraine in the Donbas region has, in fact, gone up.
It is now not only a question of two of India’s closest allies sparring over Ukraine. It has now turned into what appears to be a larger battle of supremacy and Russia re-emerging as a power to reckon with after the implosion of the Soviet Union three decades ago.
So, where does it leave India? Despite having chosen the path of non-alignment after Independence, India saw itself having gravitated towards Moscow in the Cold War era. This time, too, India is trying hard to keep itself equidistant from both US and Russia over Ukraine. So far, it appears India has been able to stave off the pressure.
Let’s start with January 19 when US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman made a call to Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla. Veteran diplomat Wendy Sherman has been leading the negotiations with Russia and strategising for the US and her call came at a time when Russian build-up on the Ukrainian border was raising an alarm.
State department spokesperson Ned Price said, “They discussed a broad range of issues, including Russia’s concerning military build-up on Ukraine’s borders and regional issues.”
However, his India counterpart Arindam Bagchi tweeted to say the discussions were ‘wide ranging’ and exchanged views on “Indo-Pacific, Middle East, UN Security Council, India’s neighbourhood,” but made no specific mention about discussing Russia and Ukraine.
Similarly, during the QUAD ministerial meeting in Melbourne, the US State Department read out mentioned that Secretary Blinken spoke about the “diplomatic efforts in response to Russian aggression”. However, the India side made no mention of this.
To a question by News18, Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said, “On the issue of Russia-Ukraine, I can say there was between Secretary Blinken and EAM Jaishankar an open and honest discussion. I think this is reflective of the close relationship we have with one another. This is a complex issue for US and a complex issue for India as well. We share values and we talk about every issue, including the tough ones.”
This gave a clear indication that India refused to take sides on the matter, which ultimately did not find any mention in the joint statement of the QUAD ministerial meeting as well.
To a question that the Australian media had reported India’s stand to leading to a split, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “Now, if the Australian media wishes to call it a split, that’s their choice. I don’t think that’s a correct characterisation of that. I think he spoke clearly of how India looks at the issue. And obviously, this is a complicated issue, and which each country brings its own perspective to it.”
Meanwhile, the pressure on India is not from the West alone. A few hours before the vote in the United Nations Security Council regarding a discussion on Ukraine on January 31, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershanin was in India.
This discussion was happening just a day before the Russian Presidency of the UNSC kicked-off. It was not lost on anyone why the minister was in India at that crucial juncture.
It has been learnt that there was some amount of pressure from Russia to vote on its side, that is, no. However, India chose to abstain and India’s permanent representative TS Tirumurthi said India was in touch with all concerned parties and urged “all parties to engage through all diplomatic channels and keep working towards a full implementation of the ‘Minsk Package’.”
Russia portrayed the abstention as a support for Moscow and a western diplomat explained that they, too, don’t view abstention always as a neutral vote. However, a source pointed out that India was clear that it was maintaining its sovereign independence in decision making on this critical issue for India.
To the question on why should India take sides, a European diplomat not wanting to be named said it was a question of respect for international law. This was the same argument drawn out by the US as well when Secretary Blinken raised the issue in Quad in Melbourne.
For India, the question still remains how far it can stave off taking a side.
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