China’s recent mediation efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis have once again spotlighted India’s approach to conflict resolution. By holding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastward expansion responsible for instigating the war; by painting America as the biggest obstacle to ceasefire; by exploiting the differences among western countries regarding the extent of support to Ukraine; by further cementing the Beijing-Moscow relationship, and ensuring the survival of the Vladimir Putin regime, China has effectively positioned itself in opposition to the American approach. This is not how India views its role in resolving the conflict.
India has increasingly used varied symbolic instruments of power to enhance its soft power appeal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi now projects India as the “mother of democracies” and as a “moral force” to enforce global peace.
In sharp contrast to the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first outreach last month to the Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, since the Russian invasion, Mr. Modi has spoken to Mr. Zelenskyy many times. In October and December last year, Mr. Modi, in his telephonic conversation with Mr. Zelenskyy, had expressed India’s solidarity with Ukraine while extending support for peace efforts. And in September, Mr. Modi had publicly told Mr. Putin that “today’s era is not of war” — a remark that seemed to be a reprimand to Moscow. Even the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, felt compelled to describe this widely-reported remark as “significant”. Washington understands the importance of India’s continuous engagement with Ukraine because that is an important way of bringing New Delhi’s response to the Ukraine war into alignment with its own. The geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and the Ukraine conflict are in many ways inter-connected.
The regular Modi-Zelenskyy interactions may be seen as underscoring India’s rising stature and recognition of its unique position in the emerging global order, despite western criticism of India’s continued energy imports from Russia and export of excess refined Russian fuel to the European market. During Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova’s recent visit to New Delhi, she remarked (in a widely reported tweet) that “India wants to be the Vishwaguru, the global teacher and arbiter. In our case, we’ve got a very clear picture: aggressor against innocent victim. Supporting Ukraine is the only right choice for true Vishwaguru.” The hint here is that the ‘Vishwa Guru’ image that the government seeks for the country will remain imperfect if India refuses to take a strong moral position on Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Nationalist ideas have always influenced the Indian state, contributing to their further proliferation in society and polity. The choice of the ‘Vishwaguru’ phrase by Ms. Dzhaparova is not accidental as it is at the core of the Modi government’s nationalist foreign policy discourse. The contemporary salience of Vishwa Guru image, which builds on historical trends in India’s political thought seeking to emphasise the distinctiveness of the country’s cultural ethos and civilisational values, also highlights the unique nature of ‘soft power’ in foreign policy debates. Soft power is simultaneously ubiquitous and ambiguous, accepted as significant yet narrow in its policy impact. It should be understood as any other form of “nonmaterial” power which interacts with material resources or hard power, either enlarging their impact or making up for their absence.
Lack of hard power
That India lacks hard power has been acknowledged by Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ‘ideological fountainhead’ of India’s ruling political dispensation. In a recent speech, he had said that if India had been adequately powerful, it would have stopped the Ukraine war. He argued that “Russia attacked Ukraine. It is being opposed. But nobody is ready ...to stop Russia because Russia has power and it threatens.” Drawing a contrast with supposedly selfish global powers, Mr. Bhagwat asserted that “If India had such [material] power in its hands, then such an incident [Ukraine war] would not have come before the world.” This narrative assumes that a powerful Indian civilisational state will stand for global peace and stability.
While New Delhi has expressed its disapproval of the Ukraine war, it has avoided taking a clear position in many UN resolutions on the issue. This may be understandable as India has often taken an evasive position on conflicts that involve its traditional allies. However, critics are not unreasonable in arguing that this ambiguity does not behove a nation aspiring to become a permanent member of the UNSC, which implies a commitment to speak as a global voice against territorial aggression and rights violations similar to what Russia has unleashed on Ukraine. Moreover, the normative pillars of the democratic, self-confident and morally superior Vishwa Guru identity cannot be identical to those underlying the cynical hegemon maximising its power at all costs, bereft of any morality.
While New Delhi’s seemingly evasive position in the Ukraine war underlines India’s traditional discomfort in viewing its national interests in binary terms as well as Russia’s military and geopolitical importance for India’s military preparedness, yet Russia’s justifications for its military actions in Ukraine do not resonate among most of India’s political elite. These justifications are sometimes parroted by China, including the latest unabashedly pro-Russian statement by the Chinese Ambassador in France regarding the legal status of the post-Soviet republics, with a view to reserving the right to use force against Taiwan. India has no such revisionist motives. India’s views on sovereignty converges with a universally acceptable Westphalian notion and thus clash fundamentally with the communist China’s political philosophy of ‘might is right’.
Democracies enjoy legitimacy globally and this legitimacy can transpose an authoritarian ruler’s use of force into violence against the population. Ukraine is seen as a victim which is resisting aggression from an authoritarian neighbour. The Modi-Zelenskyy interactions highlight the fact that such narratives engender Indian sympathies for the victimised target. Nevertheless, the Ukraine war alone is not sufficient to undermine India’s historical ties with Russia, which is based as much on New Delhi’s military dependence on Moscow as it is on the anti-colonial strand of India’s strategic autonomy doctrine.
A pursuit of ‘multi-alignment’ may have given New Delhi some diplomatic space in the ongoing war in Ukraine. However, it may not be sufficient for India to try to play the role of a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. India currently lacks the material resources to match the extent of China’s economic and military potential.
Through his charm offensive of a phoney peace diplomacy, Mr. Xi’s primary aim is to discourage Mr. Zelenskyy to launch the much-discussed counteroffensive, so that Russia’s dependency on China rises further. Driven by the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, Mr. Putin has unleashed forces that have already done immense damage to Russia’s global standing and offended most of the democratic world. Thus the Modi government must ensure that India’s refusal to condemn Russian belligerence and continued increase in the import of Russian fuel is not interpreted as a pro-Moscow approach. While India’s ties with Russia are likely to be on a downward spiral, the piecemeal distancing from Russia will take a bit longer as New Delhi struggles to find some manoeuvring space in the emerging nexus between Russia and China.
Vinay Kaura is Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur, and a Non-resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, Washington DC