Explainer: Interpreting S Jaishankar’s speech and Indian position on Ukraine

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Washington: In what was the clearest explanation of India’s fundamental position, its interests, and its strategy to achieve these interests while being true to its principles, external affairs minister S Jaishankar laid out New Delhi’s stand on the Ukraine crisis.

India’s foreign minister told Parliament on Wednesday that India’s position was guided by its national beliefs and values, national interests and national strategy and broke it down.

In both what he said, and what he did not say, lies the story of India’s strengths, constraints, calculations and aspirations and the larger strategy that is an outcome of these variables.

Values

In terms of beliefs, the minister argued that India had taken a clear side — that of peace. It stood against the conflict and believed no solution could be arrived at by shedding blood and at the cost of innocent lives.

This may sound like usual diplomatic speak, but its significance lies in what it does not say. There is a legitimate debate on the roots of the crisis in the flawed European security architecture in the post-Cold War era, but there is little doubt that the trigger for the immediate disruption in peace has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A desire for peace means a desire to see Russia step back from its aggression. Opposition to bloodshed and innocent lives means opposition to largely Russian actions causing this bloodshed and the lives of the innocent.

Jaishankar reiterated that India stands firmly with the principles of international law, the United Nations (UN) charter, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations.

Once again, it is quite clear that one actor is more responsible for the violation of these principles in the current context than the other. The UN Secretary-General is on record saying consistently that Russia’s actions violate the UN charter. And given that Ukraine is a member state of the UN, and its sovereignty and territorial integrity is under attack today, standing up for these principles means standing up for Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign entity peacefully.

The foreign minister then spoke about Bucha in clear terms, “strongly condemning” the killings, terming it as a “very serious matter”, supporting calls for an independent investigation, and saying how India found the reports “deeply disturbing”.

All available evidence at the moment suggests that Russian forces were responsible for the atrocities. Whether they were isolated or a part of a pattern of atrocities elsewhere, whether they were autonomous actions by a local military unit or ordered from the Kremlin, and the exact nature of the crimes and whether and how they fit into an international mechanism on war crimes may be a matter of debate. But the fact that India supports an independent investigation means that it is willing to let the process play out fairly — and let Russia be held accountable if the conclusions of that investigation confirm the preliminary findings of its culpability.

To those, especially in the West, who believe that India has been merely “neutral” in this war or is a mere fence-sitter with no opinions about the nature and direction of this conflict or even who is responsible for it, the minister’s statement should serve as a corrective. By taking the side of peace, fundamental principles of international order, and opposing mass killings, Delhi has sent an unambiguous message to Moscow.

Interests

This is where the script gets complicated.

In the next part of his speech, the minister outlined the impact of the conflict on the global economy as well as the measures being taken by countries to offset this impact in an interdependent world. He pointed to rising energy costs — as well as the carve out and exemptions on energy trade and Europe’s continued engagement with Russia in the domain. He pointed to rising fertiliser costs — and the efforts to insulate these from volatility. And he pointed out how even non-essential goods, salient for particular individual economies, have been factored in while considering sanctions.

In this context, what are India’s interests? Delhi wants to keep energy prices low to ensure that, as the minister said, citizens were not overburdened — at a time when inflation is a concern, and fuel prices have both economic and political consequences, this is a clear signal that India will need to do what it can to safeguard its energy security.

This is particularly hard to do when countries in West Asia have not stepped up their production (neither the Saudis nor Emiratis are too pleased with Washington at the moment and are less susceptible to western nudge in this direction than they would have been in the past); Iran is still not a part of the global chain with the nuclear talks stalled; and Europe’s energy diversification plans aren’t clear — but what is certain is that if it does diversify, it will have to go to a limited pool of suppliers which will cause prices to rise even more. Any stability and predictability in terms of energy supplies and prices is months away. India has no choice but to keep its options open till then.

The minister said fertiliser prices and food prices have direct implications for India — once again given both the central role of agriculture in the economy, as well as the potential socioeconomic consequences of high food prices, there is little doubt that any government in Delhi will ignore these core national interests. And on this, India is not alone. A recent Crisis Group report on the mood in the UN pointed out that while the West may have succeeded in getting 140 countries to back a second resolution condemning Russia, it was much harder this time, for states in Asia and Africa want issues of food security addressed as a part of any diplomatic moves on Ukraine.

“Even the security of the nation is at stake, as we maintain our defence posture in the manner that the current security challenges warrant,” said Jaishankar. This was a hint at the challenge posed by China at India’s borders, and Delhi’s need to ensure that there was no deficit in terms of weapon systems, spare parts, maintenance requirements when it came to facing its complex neighbourhood challenges.

In this backdrop, given the clear energy, food and defence interests at play, the minister made it clear pursuing its interests was entirely legitimate for India, called for restraint in giving it a political color, and hinted that time will tell which country was doing how much — this was a signal to the West that its double standards were in full view, and patronising sermons that tried to obscure its hypocrisy, would not find a receptive audience in Delhi.

Strategy

So what is The India Way, to borrow the tile of the book written by the minister, to deal with this global uncertainty in a manner that combines protecting its interests and advancing its beliefs and values?

Jaishankar laid out four principles.

One, he said, India continues to press for cessation of hostilities, end to violence, and direct talks between the Ukrainian and Russian presidents — and put on parliamentary record that this was a message that had been delivered by the Prime Minister himself to both sides as well as to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov during his recent visit to India. India, he said, would be happy to contribute to this process.

Given that it is the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been calling for direct talks with Russian president Vladmir Putin, India’s espousal of this position is support for the Ukrainian position on the mechanism for a resolution of the conflict. And given that Russia remains primarily responsible for hostilities and violence by the simple fact that its troops are in a country which is not its own, Delhi’s appeal is directed to Moscow.

Western interlocutors have consistently encouraged India to step up its peace efforts — a Delhi dialogue between Putin and Zelensky with India as facilitator (not necessarily a mediator) would, for instance, offset some of the current criticisms that India is confronting about its position. The minister has opened that door by speaking about India’s willingness to offer any assistance for talks, but only cautiously — for India is well aware that peacemaking can be a thankless job, there are other actors who are engaged in these efforts at the moment, and Delhi would rather err on the side of discretion than overreach. Rather than get taken in by western encouragement, or even domestically driven delusions of grandeur by parts of its own ruling ecosystem, Delhi is exhibiting maturity but also restraint in offering its good offices.

Two, the minister spoke about the need for urgent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, India’s provision of aid even when it was engaged in evacuating its students, and an initiative to deliver medicines — on the explicit request of the Ukrainian side.

In this domain, India, once again, has room for convergence with a range of actors and partners. By agreeing on concrete humanitarian assistance, Quad found a diplomatic way out in early March to bridge the divide between the US’s desire for outright condemnation of the Russian invasion and India’s reluctance to engage in name-calling but focusing on substance. This is unglamorous work, often hidden from headlines, but it is important work as the human costs of the war rise — and will earn India goodwill at the popular level, arguably more than a more explicit statement would.

Three, the minister pointed to the need to work with the international community to mitigate economic hardship. This also entailed India supporting other countries, when it could, in domains where it had a comparative advantage. The minister cited the lines of credit to Sri Lanka, and the rising export of rice, sugar and wheat in the last quarter as some examples in this regard — and linked it to India’s larger philosophy that had driven its supply of vaccines and medicines during the pandemic. And finally, the minister spoke about India having to work with other partners to source materials, the supply of which have been affected by the outbreak of the war — through what he termed commercial diplomacy.

All these fit in with India’s recognition that it has multiple interests; on specific issues, it has to work with a specific set of countries; it cannot make one hostage to another — and the conflict has made this even more imperative. But while doing so, it will continue to abide by its larger principled stand — which is simple but effective. The war is bad for the world and it is time to end it.



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