Jaishankar speaks to EU, U.K. Foreign Ministers

Jaishankar speaks to EU, U.K. Foreign Ministers

Despite the distance, hard for New Delhi to disengage from Ukraine crisis

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar returned from a visit to Europe on Thursday morning to the news of the Russian attacks on Ukraine and the diplomatic fallout. He also took a number of calls from European leaders pressing the need for India to change its position, which has thus far not criticised Russia’s actions, and in particular, support a UNSC (United Nations Security Council) resolution and vote expected on Friday. The resolution is to be brought by the U.S. and European allies, affirming the “territorial integrity of Ukraine”, according to sources.

“Discussed the grave situation in Ukraine and how India could contribute to de-escalation efforts,” Mr. Jaishankar tweeted about the call with European Union (EU) High Representative (HR/VP) Josep Borrell Fontelles, whose call was followed by the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. The EU, the U.K. and U.S. have announced an “unprecedented package of sanctions” against Russia, and have each separately expressed their hopes that India would also support their positions.

In briefings ahead of Mr. Jaishankar’s visit to Germany and France last week, European diplomats had stressed that India would need to “pick a side” in the event of a Russian invasion or military attack on Ukraine, and would not be able continue to balance its ties with Moscow and its stated commitment to the international rules-based order.

Response to resolution

To begin with, India must consider its response to the resolution on Russian actions that the U.S. proposes to table along with allies, which would include a condemnation of the airstrikes ordered by President Putin, an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of troops, as well as possibly put to vote proposed punitive action, including strict financial sanctions.

While the condemnation and actions will undoubtedly be vetoed by Russia, which is also at present holding the Presidency of the UNSC, all eyes will be on where countries like India will vote. In three statements made at the U.N. thus far, India has refrained from any criticism of Russian actions, and has repeatedly referred to the “legitimate security interests of all parties”. It also abstained on a vote to discuss the situation in Ukraine earlier this month, which was welcomed by Russian officials.

“There is still time for India to reconsider its position, given Russia has now attacked Ukraine,” said a western diplomat, adding, “Once the vote takes place, if India still abstains, then it will be seen simply as support for Russian aggression, and it will be much harder for India to credibly defend the international rule of law in its neighbourhood in the future.”

‘Principled position’

Government officials have thus far explained India’s stand as a “principled position” that is based on pushing for diplomacy to resolve the situation. In an interview to French daily Le Figaro, Mr. Jaishankar called the Ukraine crisis “the result of a complex chain of circumstances over the last 30 years”, referring to the post-Soviet rebalance, when many former Soviet states joined the NATO alliance. Russia has repeatedly protested this with the U.S. and EU, and tensions accelerated last year over the question of Ukraine’s membership of the NATO.

“The present deterioration of the security situation in Europe is a result of mismanagement or breakdown in big power relations. India should not be expected to pay the price for the failures of their policies,” observed Former Indian Ambassador to Russia Venkatesh Verma, speaking to The Hindu.

Apart from the hope that its long-standing partner Russia and its friends in the West de-escalate and resolve the situation through talks, India also has concerns over the impact of the sanctions on future energy and defence deals with Russia, as well as the inflationary price of oil that has breached the $100 a barrel mark. In addition, New Delhi’s choices are made more difficult by the fact that its two biggest adversaries- China and Pakistan, have come out in full support of Russia, as evidenced by the meeting in Moscow between President Putin and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, and a call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Thursday.

While evacuating Indian civilians from the conflict zone is a priority, the government must mull all the diplomatic repercussions of the crisis, making it difficult to disengage from the situation in Europe, despite the distance. 

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