Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)
New Delhi: In the wake of the Russian military offensive against Ukraine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi late Thursday night spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and "appealed for an immediate cessation of violence" while also "reiterating his long-standing conviction that the differences between Russia and (the US-led Western security alliance) Nato can only be resolved through honest and sincere dialogue".
Mr Modi also "called for concerted efforts from all sides to return to the path of diplomatic negotiations and dialogue". An official statement said Mr Modi also "sensitised the Russian President about India’s concerns regarding the safety of Indian citizens in Ukraine, especially students, and conveyed that India attaches the highest priority to their safe exit and return to India", as President Putin briefed PM Modi on the recent developments regarding Ukraine. The conversation took place just hours after New Delhi activated its contingency plans and began efforts for evacuation of about 16,000 Indian nationals, including students, who are now stuck in Ukraine, through land borders with four neighbouring nations -- Hungary, Poland, Slovak Republic and Romania.
Interestingly, in a briefing late Thursday evening, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said India would be willing to facilitate "engagement" between parties to the dispute. The foreign secretary also said Mr Modi chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) late on Thursday evening and had directed that the "topmost priority" should be the safety and security of Indian nationals in Ukraine and their evacuation from there. The MEA said its teams were being sent to these land borders "to assist in the evacuation of Indian nationals from Ukraine"
These measures were undertaken after Ukrainian airspace was shut, with an Air India flight from New Delhi turning back and returning mid-air in the morning.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, a shaken India had earlier in the day advised all sides -- in a tightrope walk without taking any names -- to exercise restraint and de-escalate, while regretting that calls by the world to give time for peace initiatives were not adhered to. The foreign secretary said India had a stake in the Ukraine issue due to its close ties with both Russia and Ukraine, economic engagement in the region and so many Indian nationals being in Ukraine. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar is also expected to speak to the Ukrainian foreign minister and his counterparts from Ukraine’s neighbouring nations.
Asked about a resolution expected to be brought by the United States at the UNSC, Mr Shringla said New Delhi had seen a draft resolution but that changes were expected to that as well which New Delhi would have to examine first before deciding on which way to vote. He also said India would have to study the impact of Western economic sanctions against Russia, while conceding that "any sanctions will have an impact".
The CCS meet chaired by Mr Modi on Thursday evening is expected to have to examined various aspects of the Ukraine crisis, including the economic impact of rising global oil prices and efforts for evacuation of Indian nationals. The CCS meet was attended by Mr Jaishankar, defence minister Rajnath Singh, home minister Amit Shah, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and NSA Ajit Doval. The Indian Air Force has already been sounded out on evacuation efforts.
Asked about the criticism in some quarters whether the evacuation move could have begun earlier, Mr Shringla said while this was one view, many students were not willing to leave earlier as their classes were not online. He said the Indian embassy had now managed to persuade all Ukrainian universities to hold classes online too so that the Indian students would not miss out. Describing the situation as "evolving and complicated", Mr Shringla said while till recently there were about 20,000 Indian citizens in Ukraine, about 4,000 had left, adding that the Indian embassy there had been issuing advisories in the past few weeks as well.
New Delhi said the MEA team in Hungary is on its way to Zahony border post opposite Uzhhorod in Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine, while the one in Poland is on its way to Krakowiec land border with Ukraine. The team in Slovak Republic is on its way to Vysne Nemecke land border with Ukraine while that in Romania is on its way to the Suceava land border. The Indian Ambassador in Kyiv, Mr Partha Satpathy, said that India is "working out modalities to see how we can evacuate our citizens through the neighbouring countries along the western border of Ukraine". Two facilitation points will also be set up, one each in Poland and Romania.
Sources said on Thursday: "Today morning, a large number of Indian students in Ukraine turned up outside the Indian embassy in Kyiv. Naturally, not all could be accommodated inside the embassy premises. Accordingly, the embassy organised safe premises nearby and the students were moved there. This process took some time, given the ground situation in Kyiv. No Indian national is currently stranded outside the embassy. As fresh students arrive, they are being moved to the safe premises. The embassy is continuing to assist Indian nationals, including students, in Ukraine".
Speaking at the UNSC emergency meeting Thursday, India’s permanent representative T.S. Tirumurti called for immediate de-escalation and warned that the situation was spiralling into a major crisis. Mr Tirumurti advised that the "legitimate security interests" of all sides be respected even as he regretted that the "calls of the international community to give time to recent initiatives to defuse tension" were not heeded.
A fresh advisory issued by the Indian embassy in Kyiv on Thursday stated: "As you are aware, Ukraine is under martial law which has made movement difficult. For those students who are stranded without a place of stay in Kyiv, the mission is in touch with establishments to put them up. We are aware that certain places are hearing air sirens/bomb warnings. In case you are faced with such a situation, Google Maps has a list of nearby bomb shelters, many of which are located in underground metros… While the mission is identifying a possible solution to the situation, please be aware of your surroundings, be safe, do not leave your homes unless necessary, and carry your documents with you at all times."
Sources said high-level meetings were held in the MEA through the day to put into operation contingency plans and additional Russian-speaking officials have been sent to the Indian embassy in Ukraine and are being deployed in countries neighbouring Ukraine. The MEA control room was also expanded and made operational on a 24x7 basis.