Russia and the Ukraine Crisis: An Indian Perspective

02 Jul, 2014    ·   4541

Ambassador Ranjit Gupta explains the rationale behind India's decisions regarding the Russia-Crimea issue in the international fora

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow

Since the Crimean Parliament’s 6 March, 2014, decision to seek independence, India has issued several official statements regarding evolving events in or related to Ukraine, including a warmly worded message of congratulations to Mr. Petro Poroshenko on his election as Ukraine’s President.

The statement issued on 6 March, inter alia, stated that “India hopes that a solution to Ukraine’s internal differences is found in a manner that meets the aspirations of all sections of Ukraine’s population.  It would be important, in this context, for a legitimate democratic process to find full expression through free and fair elections that provide for an inclusive society.  India calls for sincere and sustained diplomatic efforts to ensure that issues between Ukraine and its neighboring countries are resolved through constructive dialogue.”

Later on 6 March, India’s National Security Advisor speaking informally to the press said, “We hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully and that the broader issues of reconciling the various interests involved, and there are after all legitimate Russian and other interests involved, are discussed and negotiated.”

The statement issued on 18 March, inter alia, stated that “President Vladimir Putin telephoned the Prime Minister today and discussed the evolving situation in Ukraine and the recent referendum in Crimea…  The Prime Minister thanked President Putin for explaining the Russian position with regard to recent developments in Ukraine. He emphasized the consistent position India has had on the issues of unity and territorial integrity of countries. The Prime Minister expressed his hope that all sides would exercise restraint and work together constructively to find political and diplomatic solutions that protected the legitimate interests of all countries in the region and ensured long-term peace and stability in Europe and beyond.”

It would be relevant to note Russia’s take on this conversation. As per published excerpts from a press conference held by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 24 May at St. Petersburg, in relation to India’s position he stated that “Speaking of India’s stance, we are, of course, grateful to the Indian government and to the Indian people for their level-headed stance. I am glad that the Indian government considered the historical and the current political aspects in approaching this issue. I am glad that they based their opinion on these fundamental principles, including the importance of Russia-India relations. We appreciate it.”

The main reason why Putin was pleased with India’s stance despite the Indian Prime Minister specifically raising the issue of the importance of maintenance of the unity and territorial integrity of states in his conversation with Putin was because India had not condemned the Russian action and had – along with 57 other countries, including all BRICS countries – abstained in the vote on the UN resolution on 27 March.

Though India has been uncomfortable about the annexation of Crimea, India has also been cognizant of Russia’s very deep civilisational and historical linkages with Crimea. Also, India cannot entirely ignore the fact that Western activities and policies in the peripheral regions of Russia ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union have hardly been altruistic, and appear motivated by a Cold War mindset.

Though the problem in Ukraine is pre-eminently a European problem, in an increasingly economically and geopolitically interlinked world, there are consequences even far away: the $400 billion Russia and China gas deal, which had been under negotiation for a decade, and prospects were not very optimistic, suddenly got finalised very quickly. Another and even bigger gas deal between them may soon see the light of day. These are significant strategic consequences and they enhance China’s strategic flexibility and leverage increasing its proclivity to be assertive vis-à-vis all its neighbours. Any strengthening of the Russia-China relationship has implications for India.

Even though India has very good relations with Ukraine and is sympathetic to its plight, India has a vital national interest stake in maintaining a strong partnership with Russia. The erstwhile Soviet Union, and later Russia, has been India’s strongest, indeed more often than not the only strategic supporter amongst the major powers for India for the best part of the past six decades. Lacking the leverage provided by Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council to protect its vital national interests, India needs to maintain a strong strategic partnership with Russia. Therefore, India cannot become a partner in any Western scheme of isolating Russia.  

Notwithstanding the high sounding rhetoric about principles and values that great powers constantly spout, the unvarnished reality is that it is the mechanics of global geopolitics and the imperatives of national interests that determine the stances of every country on any particular issue. There is no reason why it should be any different for India.

Some or all of these reasons would perhaps have gone into determining India’s stance in relation to events in Ukraine, which has been somewhat ambiguous and decidedly nuanced, but admittedly tilted in favour of Russia.

Worse things have happened in the past decade – the unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq and the complete dismantling of its erstwhile administration and army leading directly to the utterly tragic consequences we are witnessing today. No major power can claim the moral high ground.    

It is highly unlikely that the annexation of Crimea would be reversed. Attempts to do so will not succeed. However Russia must cease interference in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine should have a more decentralised and federalist internal polity. Neither Russia nor the West would like a major breakdown in their mutual relationship; nor can they afford it. There are indications that Russia is stepping back. A via media will be found. The Ukraine issue is amongst many and more dramatic geopolitical changes in Eurasia in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and all concerned countries have learnt to live with the changes and so it is likely to be with the situation in Ukraine.

This is an edited version of Ambassador Ranjit Gupta's speech, presented as part of the IPCS delegation, at the Nato-Asia / Pacific Dialogue, titled 'Cooperative Security in a New Strategic Security Environment' that was held in Seoul, Republic of Korea, from 24–25 June, 2014.