With the war in Ukraine entering its second month, New Delhi saw a flurry of visits from world leaders this week, emphasising the growing importance of India on the world stage.
Starting with British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, foreign ministers of Austria and Greece and the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, made a beeline to India. Besides, US President Joe Biden’s close aide Daleep Singh and German Foreign and Security Policy Advisor Jens Plotner were also here during the week.
Apart from these top dignitaries, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, too, was scheduled to arrive in New Delhi on April 2 but had to postpone his trip at the eleventh hour as he was tested Covid-positive.
After foreign ministers of the European countries travelled to New Delhi to discuss the Ukraine crisis and to nudge India to change its position on the issue at the UN General Assembly and Security Council, it’s now the turn of the British Foreign Secretary and the Russian Foreign Minister to tour India, which, diplomats believe, has the potential of becoming an effective and powerful intermediary, if the situation demands.
On arriving in New Delhi, German leader Plotner said the world must understand the geopolitical consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Germany, he said, was looking for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and that he is in India to share his country’s perspective on the crisis in the eastern European nation.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s agenda for talks with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar include strategic issues resulting from the war, as well as specific discussions on purchasing Russian oil, payment mechanisms and sanctions against Russian banks. Incidentally, it is the highest-level visit from Russia to India after Moscow launched its military offensive against Ukraine on February 24.
While announcing the visit of British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had said she will hold consultations with her counterpart Jaishankar on bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest.
On the postponement of Bennett’s visit to India, Ambassador of Israel Naor Gilon said the visit has been postponed and it will be rescheduled. “We are working with our Indian partners on another date for the visit as part of the celebrations of 30 years of diplomatic relations between the countries as well as 75 years of India’s independence,” he said.
“Israel will continue to strengthen its robust friendship and growing partnership with the people of India,” he asserted.
Non-aligned foreign policy
India has doggedly pursued a non-aligned foreign policy since Independence, where, according to the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, “we will stay away from the big blocs…to be friendly to all countries… not join any alliance.” But will the war in Ukraine now put India’s fabled neutrality under strain?
Fence-sitting is a bigger diplomatic gamble now than in the past, given the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the worst aggressions in decades and India’s relations with the West have never been stronger.
India has abstained on all Ukraine-related resolutions at UN bodies, though it has repeatedly called for respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.
PM Modi bats for dialogue
In his phone conversations with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for an immediate cessation of violence and a return to the path of diplomacy and dialogue.
It’s quite interesting to see how New Delhi has carved out its diplomatic space in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Sources in the North Block believe that maintaining equidistance from both sides — despite being called “shaky” by the US President — New Delhi has been able to put its point across that “it is not aligned with Russia.”
India’s position as one of the few world powers not to condemn Russia’s invasion has made it a target for criticism from the US and Europe. Rather, it has continued to trade with Moscow despite Russia’s growing isolation.
Distinctive diplomatic space
New Delhi has created a distinctive diplomatic space for itself, carefully calibrating its stand between Russia on the one hand and the West, led by the US, on the other.
This has been reflected in India’s abstentions — some half a dozen so far at the UNSC, UNGA and the Human Rights Council — be it Westsponsored or Russia-sponsored draft resolutions.
Along with the abstentions, the Indian side has made statements underlining the three core principles: UN charter, international law and territorial integrity and sovereignty. This is a reference, experts say, very thinly veiled, to Russian action in Ukraine and Chinese action in IndiaChina border as well as the Indo-Pacific.
This has reassured the US-led West that Delhi is not echoing the Russian line that Moscow faces an existential threat from NATO. Yet, in several conversations, India has flagged that Moscow’s concerns need to be heard as well.
The two countries share a decades-old relationship harking back to the Cold War, and Russia is also India’s biggest defence supplier.
At the same time, India’s close ties with Russia do not mean that it has been aloof to the crisis in Ukraine. Since the war broke out on February 24, India has either made or received at least 26 phone calls at the level of Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar.
Meetings with world leaders
PM Modi has had at least three meetings with world leaders, including the Quad, and Jaishankar has had at least six with his counterparts visiting New Delhi.
The diplomatic calendar is dotted with visits or proposed tours of leaders and officials from Israel, UK, Nepal, Germany, the European Union and some eastern European countries.
New Delhi has already communicated to its Western allies, the US, in the Quad, and in Europe that it can’t echo their criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, Washington does not want to box Delhi into a shrinking space in which it does not have flexibility as it will be “counterproductive,” said a US diplomat.
New Delhi has reinforced this by explaining to US interlocutors how India’s defence supplies are closely tied to its threat from China — a common challenge to both the US and India.
Sensing a gap between India and the West, China — which has been backing Putin — made an extraordinary outreach by sending Foreign minister Wang to Delhi, despite sharply-worded critical statements by Delhi against him and Beijing’s position at the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).
Jaishankar has made it quite plain that there is a distinction between India’s and China’s position on the Russian war on Ukraine. Having said that, there is a realisation that Beijing, by making the outreach move, has created a diplomatic space in the bilateral ties for India to respond favourably — if the redlines are met and the remaining friction point at PP15 in eastern Ladakh is resolved. One objective from Beijing’s point of view is to get Modi for the BRICS Summit later next year.
Biden rushes top advisor
US President Joe Biden, in the meantime, sent his top advisor and the key person leading his administration’s economic sanctions on Russia to India, which so far has refused to toe the American line and maintained its own independent strategic position.
Coinciding with the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit, US Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Daleep Singh, an Indian American, was in New Delhi for close consultations with his counterparts on the consequences of Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine and mitigating its impact on the global economy, among other issues.
Modi-Putin speak thrice
The West also hopes that India will maintain its leverage with Putin — PM Modi has spoken to Putin thrice since the war began — so that Delhi can be used to deliver messages if such a need arises.
Russian Ambassador Denis Alipov had met senior officials in the Ministry of External Affairs ahead of the visit by Foreign minister Lavrov.
Significantly, the spurt in these high-profile visits has come ahead of preparations for the upcoming ‘2+2’ foreign and defence ministerial dialogue in Washington.