India has astounded the world by so resolutely refusing to toe the western line. It has not supported Russia’s special military operation inside Ukraine per se but tried to understand it, and taken action first and foremost, keeping in mind its own national interest. And that, in part, demanded that India not support any anti-Russia resolutions at the United Nations.
This is Jaishankar’s first visit to Moscow after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war.
India did not support any anti-Russia resolutions at the United Nations.
Russia surpassed Iraq as India’s main oil supplier. Western hypocrisy was called out whereby European countries could continue to buy Russian gas but demanded that India stop buying crude oil.
India has played a behind-the-scenes role in getting blocked Ukrainian grain out.
While the US and EU have been unable to get India on board in boycotting or sanctioning Russia, India has also not endorsed the war, thus, striking a “neutral” position.
India’s Oil Partnership With Russia
Acting in national interest also meant that India did not join any anti-Russian sanctions and that it continued to buy, in increasingly bigger amounts, Russian crude oil, and coal. In November, Russia surpassed Iraq as India’s main oil supplier. As Jaishankar reminded, however, the increase happened because the initial supplies were so low that there was a dearth of options in the world’s energy market.
Of course, the minister has also on a number of occasions called out the Western hypocrisy whereby European countries could continue to buy Russian gas but demanded that India stop buying crude oil because the latter was bankrolling the Russia-Ukraine war.
India had even participated in the Vostok 2022 military drills in Russia earlier this year, which the US had reservations against. “The United States has concerns about any country exercising with Russia—while Russia wages an unprovoked brutal war against Ukraine..,” US Press Secretary Jean Pierre had said.
India’s Ukraine Outreach
Alongside this, however, India had also kept up engagement with Ukraine, sending in humanitarian aid, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been on the phone with Ukrainian President Zelensky a number of times. India had also condemned the Russian operation in Bucha and demanded an international investigation there.
And most famously, Modi had reminded Russian President Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting in Samarkand, on the sidelines of the SCO summit, that “this was not a time for war”. And just as India refused to toe the Western line on Russia, it too has called for an end to military actions and a return of the two sides to the negotiating table. More importantly, India has played a behind-the-scenes role in getting blocked Ukrainian grain out.
While the US and EU have been unable to get India on board in boycotting or sanctioning Russia, India has also not endorsed the war, thus, striking a “neutral” position. This has, of course, won it lavish praise from Russia.
Will the Pakistan Factor Impact India-Russia Ties?
Last week, at a gathering of historians and representatives of traditional religions of Russia in Saint Petersburg on the occasion of the National Unity Day, Putin said, “Let’s take a look at India. Very talented people, purposeful, with such a drive for internal development, will, of course, achieve outstanding results. India will achieve outstanding results in its development – there is no doubt about it.”
A little before that, he had called Modi “a patriot” and praised his independent foreign policy. Russian op-eds and editorials have been positive about India. In fact, bilateral ties have never looked so good—positioning India on a more even keel.
It is a departure from the unease that had come to characterise relations recently with Russia’s overtures to Pakistan and the tight embrace of China. Russia’s engagement with Pakistan, of course, continues but is more of a footnote in the larger engagement with India.
India’s Concern With Ukraine Conflict and Global Economy
In the midst of it, part of Jaishankar's regular follow-up of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s India visit earlier this year, has sent a clear message that India-Russia ties are intact and will not be impacted by the Ukraine war.
In Moscow, Jaishankar not only met his counterpart Lavrov but also Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov who co-chairs the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC).
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on the eve of the meeting said, “Russia and India support the active building of a fairer, more equal, and polycentric world order, realising that it is unacceptable to promote imperialistic dictate on the global arena. Both countries have close positions on essential issues and support compliance with the generally-recognised norms of international law enshrined in the UN Charter. They seek to promote a unifying agenda and build a constructive dialogue in relations between countries”.
In Moscow, Jaishankar hailed the “exceptionally steady and time-tested relationship” between the two countries. Talks focused on trade, investments, transport, logistics, potential prospects in the energy sector, as well as on bilateral, regional, and global issues.
Jaishankar, however, also pointed out to the Ukraine conflict as a concern. “The last few years of the Covid pandemic, financial pressures and trade difficulties; these have taken a toll on the global economy. We are now seeing the consequences of the Ukraine conflict on top of that…”
This in a nutshell, sums up India’s position. It is not blind to the disruptions caused by the Ukraine crisis. It sees a time-tested steadfast partner in Russia. It can stand up to western pressure while fully engaging with it. That is why, the time is ripe for India now to play a more proactive role.
Can India Broker Peace Between Russia and Ukraine?
Speculations have been swirling around Jaishankar’s visit on whether India will be playing any kind of mediatory role in helping both sides get back to the table. Analysts and geo-political experts have also opined that India is in a comfortable position to do so.
Modi is one of the few prime ministers who can work the phones with both Biden and Putin, with Macron and with Zelensky, with Netanyahu and with Raisi.
The annual bilateral summit between Modi and Putin is due this year, and it is not yet clear if and where it will take place. As per tradition, it should be held in Moscow this year.
As India seeks to expand its footprint on the global stage and project power, this is one area it must actively engage in. Countries with smaller global footprint have done so. Kazakhstan is a good example; the Asthana format of talks on Syria has not yielded much yet they have become important.
The long-term consequences of the Ukraine war are catastrophic. Moreover, after spending billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, the US now quietly wants Zelensky to begin negotiations with Russia. India is in a unique position to do so because not only have the Indo-Russian relations looked better but also they are on a more even keel. India must not fritter away the opportunity.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)