Speaking at the prestigious Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow on October 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave India a special place. “India has made great strides in its development, and, of course, it has a great future…and a growing role in international affairs,” he said. He then paid particular compliments to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding “Prime Minister Modi is the man, one of those people in the world, who is able to pursue an independent foreign policy in the interests of his people.”
The compliment from a powerful head of state has turned heads in India, where Putin himself has many admirers. He has often expressed his appreciation for India not taking sides in the conflict with Ukraine. But the particular reference to India at Valdai — part of the Q&A following his speech — may be interpreted as encouragement to New Delhi to use its good offices to nudge the warring sides to the negotiating table.
Mediation is a big power game, and this may be the right time for India, at the cusp of the G20 Presidency, to enter the year with a record of success — or at least a determined effort — at trying to resolve a war that is now impacting the ordinary man, and one that could ruin India’s global moment. India has credibility with both sides: It is the only country that successfully evacuated 22,000 of its students from Ukraine early in the war, using its diplomacy with both Moscow and Kyiv. Since then, Turkey and Israel have both tried to mediate — with limited success.
What is clear, eight months into the conflict and global hardships, is that Russia is hardly isolated. If Valdai can be used as a barometer, half the world was present to hear President Putin explain his version of the emerging alternate world order. There were representatives from India, Sri Lanka, China, South Korea, Venezuela, Iraq and Kyrgyzstan, but also from the “other” US-led half. Many in the emerging world are, as Putin pointed out, unable to adhere to the standards set by the “Western elite” which insists on the universality of its culture and world view. They want that “these very values be unconditionally accepted by all other participants in international communication.”
The Ukraine-Russia conflict has indeed hastened the establishment of an alternate order, “based on law and the right to be free, original and fair,” one where the dollar is not the determinant, where multipolarity is starting to take shape, where integration is preferred to blind globalisation, where “traditional values… culture and historical experience” matter. This conceptualisation by Putin is not new; he has been presenting the move away from the mainstream since 2018. Long-standing sanctions against Russia have forced the country to become self-sufficient, and find an engagement with other nations on different terms. In this, Russia now has company from a world of Western-sanctioned countries, from China to Iran to Venezuela. Others, like India, remember only too well the pain of sanctions past, and want to keep their options open.
The emerging world now has a global table at a height which is easier to reach, and which doesn’t demand too much internal societal turbulence. If India does attempt to mediate between these two worlds, it will have to work deftly with the US, the other key protagonist of this dreadful drama, and persuade it that only an end to the European conflict will preserve some part of the world order built in its image 75 years ago.
The writer is the Executive Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai