As the crisis in Ukraine escalates after the downing of a Malaysian airliner last night by a surface-to-air missile, India will find it harder to navigate the growing tensions between Russia and the West.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an impressive diplomatic debut on the regional stage by reaching out to India’s South Asian neighbours even before he took charge of the nation. Hit by the civil war in Iraq soon after, the Modi government called on its many friends in the region to help evacuate Indian citizens trapped in the conflict zone. At the BRICS summit this week, Modi put his own stamp on India’s engagement with global issues.
But as the West reacts to the tragic turn of events in Ukraine by mounting new pressure on Russian president Vladimir Putin, Modi’s foreign policy strategy of engaging every great power, without a reference to others, will come under some stress.
It was easy for Modi to signal the NDA government’s warmth towards Russia when he met Putin on the margins of the BRICS summit. However, with much of the international fury directed at Putin for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine, the prime suspects in shooting down the Malaysian airliner, Modi may soon find that there are costs associated with India’s “privileged” partnership with Russia.
India now confronts a new phase of international relations where the great powers are no longer at peace with each other. In Europe, Russia is at odds with America and its allies. In Asia, China’s relations with Japan and the United States have entered an uncertain phase.
Given its own separatist challenge in Jammu and Kashmir, India had little reason to support the break-up of Ukraine and legitimise Crimea’s integration with Russia through a referendum. Yet, the UPA government was reluctant to criticise Moscow’s actions in Crimea, given the value India attaches to the time-tested strategic partnership with Russia. If the West was disappointed with India’s muted reaction, Putin’s public expression of gratitude for Indian support accentuated Delhi’s diplomatic discomfort.
Although New Delhi is right in acknowledging Russia’s legitimate interests in Crimea, cannot afford to condone the actions of Ukraine’s rebels in the east who are fighting Kiev with Russian support.
After all, state support to separatism is one of India’s biggest gripes on the regional and international stage. India’s problem, however, goes well beyond the question of selective opposition to cross-border terrorism and the use of militant groups to affect territorial changes in another country.
For India, the diplomatic challenge is not about taking consistent positions on international issues, but of recognising the long-term geopolitical implications of the Ukrainian crisis and acting upon them. Renewed rivalry between Russia and the West will make it harder for Asia to construct a stable balance of power. Through the Cold War, which saw the US and China embrace each other, India relied on Russian support to ensure its security. If Moscow, however, tilts towards a rising China in order to counter the West, India’s strategic dilemmas will become rather acute.
India, then, has a big stake in preventing the further deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. If India’s silence on Ukraine until now has been misunderstood, it must now speak up. Delhi must press Russia and the West to seek a comprehensive political accommodation in Central Europe. And then some. Delhi must also start preparing for the possibility that Russia and America might find that reconciliation elusive.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express