The impact of war on India - Russia ties | In Focus podcast

D.B. Venkatesh Varma speaks to us on how the war is upending geopolitics, and the impact on India-Russia ties.

Updated - April 13, 2022 08:10 pm IST

Published - April 07, 2022 07:55 pm IST

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Delhi reaffirmed India’s decision not to join the sanctions regime against Russia, despite a string of emissaries from the US, EU and other countries calling on India to shift its position in the Ukraine crisis.

Guest: D.B. Venkatesh Varma, former Indian Ambassador to Moscow

Host: Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu

Edited by Reenu Cyriac

Here is the full transcript of the conversation (edited for clarity)

Hello and welcome. This is the Hindu’s In Focus Podcast. Today we’re looking at Russia’s war in Ukraine…With me, India’s former ambassador to Moscow, Ambassador D.B. Venkatesh Verma to discuss just where this conflict is heading and whether India’s position on Russia is going to see any changes.

Suhasini Haidar: Where do you think the war is headed?

Venkatesh Verma: Well, we are six weeks into the Russia -Ukraine war. We’re also six weeks into Russia -West global conflict. I think we are coming towards the end of the first phase. And at the end of the first phase after six weeks, we have two major stalemates. On the military front, the Russians are pulling back from their major deployments around Kyiv and they are repositioning themselves to Donbass. That is the first stalemate; I think the Russians would have hoped for more but they got less. The second major stalemate is the stalemate along the economic front. The United States and its allies, imposed very severe sanctions right at the beginning. And the expectation was that the shock of these very major sanctions would crush the Russian Rouble, create economic instability, and bring about a change in the political views of how Moscow would conduct this war. While the Rouble fell to 214, today it is at 85 to a US dollar (April 5). The Russians have turned the tables on the European gas supplies. These two stalemates are also on the brink of two major escalations. I think they are looking towards a very major escalation of the military situation in eastern Ukraine. As you would notice, that in the last two weeks there has been a major influx of American and NATO weaponry into Ukraine. So, the Ukrainian army will also be fairly well equipped this time; there is no element of surprise. The economic warfare, I think, this has been a very major dimension of this conflict, has now reached a new a new crescendo, so to speak, with the allegations of war crimes that have come up in the last few days, horrible as they are, but are still part of a larger process of generating additional Western pressure on Russia. And you’ve seen the comments directed against President Putin as a war criminal. So, I would say unfortunately, the prognosis is very pessimistic. The prospects for peace are less now than they were a week ago. Russia and Ukraine have been talking for five or six rounds. And they have agreed tentatively on a non-nuclear, non-Alliance Ukraine, and a non-deployment of offensive weapons, but on Donbass and in Crimea there are question marks. I really find it very difficult to say that this track would go forward.

How do you think the allegations of war crimes will change the situation?

I would also like to mention that President Putin’s popularity in Russia has increased to over 80%. It was hovering around 60% when the war began. That is only to be expected, because countries tend to rally around their leaders. The narrative in Russia is that the West is out to get them. And this is a fight, not merely about Ukraine. There is also a fight about Russia and Russia’s place in the world, which of course feeds into the narrative that is now coming out of the West. I mean, the images coming out of Bucha are horrible, you know, there is no condoning war crimes. But I suspect these are not the only instances of war crimes being undertaken either by the Russians or by the Ukrainians. There have been videos circulating around of how Ukraine ill-treated Russian prisoners of war. But that said, the public mood in the West is very, very hostile. And that is being I think, drummed up, so to speak, probably from their point of view, for valid reasons, including in France, President Macron has been in the forefront of asking for additional sanctions on this now, others are asking for a war crimes tribunal against Russia. If you pitch it at that level, then where is the space for accommodation? So the space of accommodation between Russia and Ukraine, in fact, pales into insignificance compared to the conflict that has now arisen between Russia and the West, which I have said in my writings, it’s not just a conflict, it is almost a crusade. We can debate who’s right and wrong. But when you define confrontations in such absolute terms, it is very difficult to find exit gates out of such situations.

Many had assumed that when the 20,000 odd students, Indian students and Indian citizens from the Ukraine had been brought out that actually that may have been an end to India’s direct involvement engagement with the Ukraine war. Yet we’ve seen a flurry of diplomatic visits, dignitaries, officials, ministers coming to Delhi, of which most asked for a shift in the UN position, they asked for a shift in India’s decision to procure more oil from Russia. And they discouraged India from setting up alternative payment mechanisms. Do you think that there is any kind of change of thinking in New Delhi as a result of all the pressure?

First to begin with, I think ‘Operation Ganga’ that was undertaken by the government was a success, a great relief for Indian nationals and for our Indian students. And I think Prime Minister Modi’s personal equation with President Putin helped extract our Indian students from a very active combat zone. But you’re right, we assumed that was the only dimension in which India was involved, but it was just the beginning. Now, we’ve had several visitors as you say, but almost all of them came with the same talking point. And there is I think, we should recognize, in the West, there is a sanctions coalition. They see amongst themselves a certain solidarity, which is political in nature. And they see among themselves, the nature of the costs that they are willing to pay for the sanctions to be taken forward.

Now, we are not party to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, nor are we party to the Western campaign to lay siege to the Russian economy. Imagine for a moment if we had had voted in favor of the first United Nations Security Council resolution around the 26th of February. None of these visitors would have come here; we would have been taken for granted. So, I think the first lesson to learn is, please don’t sign blank checks in this period of great turmoil. We need to look out for ourselves. We have substantive interests, and our doors will be open for dialogue. We will listen to other people’s concerns. But we would expect our concerns also to be taken into account. The message that we have given is that we would like a reduction in violence and peace settlement to come about through dialogue. We are not neutral, we are not fence sitters, but we are a non-belligerent state, and we don’t like the consequences that each of these parties to this conflict, take for granted. I think it is to the credit of the government and Prime Minister Modi that, you know, the message that has really come out is that India will speak up, India will speak up for peace, but India will also speak up for its own interests. And I think that message has gone through which is, I think, the essential first step to say that India is an essential interlocutor, not a passive bystander in this conflict. This conversation will go on. But I think without this first step, I think we would have been just brushed aside -the value of our abstention at the Security Council and subsequently in our statements, I think have held us in good stead in the Realpolitik world of diplomacy.

You use the word Realpolitik. We are now hearing voices even in Parliament saying, how is it that India cannot actually criticize what seems to be wrong, that there is an aggressor in this conflict, and that aggressor is Russia? Why is it not possible for India, to simply say that we think what Russia did is wrong?

Russia did cross a very big red line in terms of transgressing sovereignty and territorial integrity of another state. But there are several other red lines that have been crossed, which have led to this dramatic train-crash of European security, in the post-Cold War period - NATO expansion, the lack of accommodation of Russian interests in eastern and central Europe, the absolutely aggressive postures that have been taken by some of the smaller states of Europe, both in Central and Eastern Europe. Now, you have gotten into a train wreck, where all the countries involved are somehow partially responsible. And today, this process has led to the devastation of a country, tragic as it is, and with the negative effects impacting across the region and, globally. Now, a mere condemnation of a certain section of the reality is not going to help. I think keeping doors open for dialogue, keeping doors open for resolution, toning down tensions, toning down conflict, and toning down the War. I think there is a message to be given out to Russia, that please conclude and limit your War aims in Ukraine. We need to send out a message to our western partners, to please turn down the means and methods in which they’re conducting the economic war with Russia, because it affects us as well. What about our grievances in terms of the negative impact in terms of energy, you know, the food grain prices, the lack of supplies, and the disruption of our relations with Russia, which continues to be for us a very important partner?

Russian FM Lavrov was in Delhi at the end of that long list of visitors. What do you think was the purpose of Mr. Lavrov’s visit? And do you think that purpose was achieved?

Yes, the purpose was achieved, because there was a public demonstration, public viewing of the fact that we are not shy to deal with our friends, even in times of great difficulties, that’s number one. Number two, this is not merely an issue of black and white, this is not a conflict just between democracies and autocracies. There are very few takers to this clean distinction that has been drawn. And that is part of this absolutist vision of this conflict that has now emerged between Russia and the West. But we also had very practical issues to discuss with the Russian Foreign Minister, our banking issues, or energy ties have to be looked at and our defence ties as well. These are long standing relations. And I think the Russian side has heard very clearly from us that India expects, and in fact, would see in its favor, a toning down of conflict, a cessation of conflict, and some peace settlement in Russia and Ukraine. It is not just for regional stability, not just for Russia, and Ukraine, it is good for us as well. And hearing it from a close partner such as India, I think, adds to the richness of the conversation that we’ve had with Russia, which of course began with Prime Minister’s three telephone conversations with President Putin.

Do you think India could lose some of its credibility if it picks a side? In other words, if India was not seen, as neutral, as non-aligned as balanced in this conflict, could India actually lose out on the international stage?

This whole notion that our partners will hold us to account for positions we have taken, I think, is something that we should dispel. If there are issues, we are willing to explain where we come from, but we refuse to be taken for granted. Either way, in terms of the support for what Russia is doing in Ukraine, or support for the measures that the West is taking against Russia, we will stand very firmly in favor of our own interests.

Of the visitors we discussed, there were at least three or four, including the European Union Special Envoy, the German national security adviser, the UK Foreign Secretary. And then of course, the US deputy NSA, who came to Delhi and said there are consequences for countries that will build these payment mechanisms to deal with Russia in a manner of subverting sanctions against them. Should India worry about sanctions?

No, India should be engaged in dialogue with all of them. But there are certain essential parts of our international engagement which includes a sustenance relationship with Russia. That is non-negotiable. We are not part of the sanctions-coalition with United States and its Western allies against Russia. These are not based on international law. At the same time, we are not interested in deliberately trying to see how we can sabotage the sanctions regime that they are conducting vigorously. This notion of consequences is not a one-way street, you know, if there are consequences to us, we will also reciprocate, but that is not a path, I guess, is something that we want to go down. As a result of these meetings in Delhi, there is greater sensitivity and a greater understanding of where India is coming from. So to put India in the dock for a conflict, which has escalated without consultation with India, without taking India’s interests into account, and the notion that we will somehow fall in line…. that is a wrong conclusion. And I think many of our guests who came to Delhi have been disabused of these notions.

And yet, five years ago, when the US Trump administration asked India to what it called zero out oil imports from Iran, and subsequently from Venezuela threatening, of course, other sanctions, including the CATSA sanctions against India, the same government, the Modi government did actually accept that demand and did zero out its oil intake from Iran, which was one of its cheapest oil source, and from Venezuela as well? Do you think it was a mistake to have given in the last time?

No, this is the first time these countries are imposing such massive economic costs on a country of Russia’s size; this has never been done in history before. Nobody knows the onward consequences of this, there is always this law of unintended consequences that is at play. People in Washington and Brussels know how this started, I bet no one knows how this is going to end. So, you know, you can’t send a flame thrower into a building and say that it is only one part of the building that will burn down. You might end up bringing down the entire edifice of international cooperation and globalization, as we know it. And, you know, we will sort out those who are truly our friends and those who wish to only consider us as fellow travelers without a mind of our own. We have interests and we have specific ways of pursuing them.

But given the difference from the reaction to Iran sanctions, the question being asked now is why is India refusing to shift its position when it comes to Russia? Is it just about defense dependency? Is it the traditional relationship? Is it that India is part of a greater construct with Russia when it comes to RIC, BRICS and others?

Well, in the past with relation to Iran, we could say that there was an identified end game. But with Russia, there is no identified end game. No one knows how this is going to end. So why would we get onto a train whose destination absolutely no one knows, including the people sitting in the front engine. I think to sign on to sanctions, with absolutely no end game in sight, is a recipe for very predictably, negative consequences.

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