Russia rains missiles on 40 Ukrainian cities after an explosion on a Crimean bridge that Putin blames Ukrainian special forces for. As the War in Ukraine continues for the eighth month and death toll rises, more than two-thirds of the UN votes against Russia’s annexation- can India continue to abstain?
This has been a particularly heated week in the war in Ukraine- seeing an eruption of hostilities that could change the course of the war. In particular this visual, of a truck exploding on the Kerch bridge that connects Russia to the Crimean peninsula- set off hopes in Ukraine for damaging Russia- but then came the retaliatory strikes. Let’s unpack it all-
What has happened?
- At the end of September, after conducting what Ukraine called rigged referendums, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of four areas of Ukraine into Russian territory, triggering a new round of US and EU sanctions, and a sharp reaction from Ukrainian president who filed a fast track application for membership of NATO- taking tensions to a new level
- On October 8, last saturday, a massive explosion ripped through Europe’s longest... Crimean Bridge- or Kerch Strait bridge- a set of parallel road-rail tracks 19 kilometres long- killing 3 people and causing a devastating fire.
- Putin’s reaction was immediate to what he said on TV was a terrorist strike, and send several rounds of missile attacks on 40 Ukrainian cities and towns- including on residential buildings, and power plants
- Ukraine, that has asked the US-EU for more advanced air defence systems has also allegedly struck the Russian city of Belgorod and troops have retaken some territory in Kherson and Luhansk in the past few weeks
- Take a look at the map- this is the latest position- where as you can see, Russian troops have taken land that completes its connection all the way to Crimea, which was annexed in 2014. On paper, the land it has taken makes up 15% or 90,000 sq kms of Ukraine.
Where is the United Nations in all of this?
1. The UN appears to be completely paralysed in effecting peace- particularly since the invasion was carried out by a Permanent member of the UN Security Council. Every resolution in the UNSC has been vetoed by Russia.
2. After Russia vetoed a UNSC resolution against its referendums in the four areas of Ukraine, the UNGA took up the resolution this week: the outcome was overwhelming: 143 of 193 members voted for the resolution to reject the referendums and the annexation of Ukraine territories by Russia. 5 including Russia, Belarus, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria voted against the resolution. India, was among 35 countries that abstained- we will speak about that in just a bit
3. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who is visiting India next week, may have constrained his own role by taking a very critical stand on Russia from the beginning of the war, and thus reducing his ability to mediate
4. The UN has been successful in mediating on lifting Russian and Ukrainian blocks on food shipment exports- on wheat, sunflower oil and other commodities for the rest of the world
5. It will be important to also watch what role, if any, the UN can play ahead of the G-20 summit in Indonesia next month- where President Putin has said he will attend, Western coaliton countries have threatened to boycott his appearances- and a joint communique, or a “family” photo at the end of the Summit seems virtually impossible. India will also watch closely, as it takes over the G-20 Presidency in December.
India’s stand at the UN however has changed little. In the past month, it has voted against Russia twice at the UNSC- but both times on procedural votes- allowing President Zelenskyy to address the UN virtually, and that voting on Russia’s referendums should be public. But on substantial issues like the Russian invasion, attacks on civilians, humanitarian access, nuclear safety issues, referendums and annexation, India has abstained.
Remember, an abstention is not an absent vote, it is a considered decision not to take a stand, and the US and EU have repeatedly said that abstainers including India and China are tacitly helping Russia.
What is India’s explanation of its stand?
At the UN, India’s Permanent Representative gave a detailed explanation after the vote on referendums:
“Our decision to ABSTAIN is consistent with our well thought out national position. I would also quote my External Affairs Minister from his address to this very August Assembly last month- India is on the side of peace, and will remain firmly there. We are on the side that respects the UN Charter and its founding principles. We are on the side that calls for dialogue and diplomacy as the only way out. We are on the side of those struggling to make ends meet, even as they stare at the escalating costs of food, of fuel and fertilizers. It is, therefore, in our collective interest to work constructively, both within the United Nations and outside, in finding an early resolution to this conflict. My Prime Minister has said unequivocally that this cannot be an era of war. With this firm resolve to strive for a peaceful solution through dialogue and diplomacy, India has decided to ABSTAIN. I thank you.“: Khamboj
Here are the reasons Ambassador Khamboj set out:
1. Dialogue is the only solution to the issue, and channels of communication are needed
2. Drastic measures will further impact food and energy security issues for the Global south and should not complicate a struggling global economy
3. The resolution did not address “pressing issues at play” of importance to India- but didn’t name them
Another reason put out is India’s traditional relationship with Russia
When asked in Australia this week whether India would “rethink” its relationship with Russia, particularly its defence ties, here is what EAM Jaishankar said.
As the months wear on, however, more questions are being asked about India’s stand:
1. If India’s dependence on Russia is because of defence supplies, then aren’t these supplies going to be reduced because the war. In which case, India will perforce have to cut its dependence on Russia.
2. If India’s votes at the UN are due to not wanting to disrupt a buyer seller relationship with Russia, then shouldn’t Russia be equally worried about not losing its biggest buyer?
3. If India adheres to the UN charter, why isn’t it criticising Russia for violating it by invading Ukraine, as the UNSG has said
4. How can India underline that sovereignty and territorial integrity is vital, especially given India’s own sensitivities on referendums including on Kashmir and more recently Khalistan...and at the same time not vote for resolutions against Russia for the same?
5. Even on sanctions, India has held it will buy oil from wherever it needs to – indicating Russia, but gave up oil over the threat of sanctions on Iran and Venezuela just 3 years ago
The fact is: India has a major global footprint, and from the 1950s has played a role in global peacemaking- it has a particular role here as one of the few countries with open lines of communication to both Moscow and Kyiv. But it can only play that role if it is consistent to principles not to parties in the conflict. As the war progresses, and intensifies it cannot continue to vote in one way, and explain its votes in another.
:Books just out or coming soon:
1. Ukraine’s Revolt, Russia’s Revenge by Christopher M. Smith, American State department officer
2. Russia’s Road to War with Ukraine: Invasion amidst the ashes of empires by Samir Puri 3.Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin and Russia’s War Against Ukraine by Owen Matthews
4. Ukraine and Russia History: Why is Russia invading Ukraine and What Does Putin Want? Roman Abramovic (not to be confused with the oligarch Abramovich)
5. How Realist Is India’s National Security Policy? March 2023 by Kanti Bajpai
6. India in the United Nations: Interplay of Interests and Principles by C.S.R. Murthy an academic
7. Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies during the Cold War by Zorawar Daulet Singh
An older book, which is worth reading for another perspective to the western view
8. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics By John Mearsheimer