Going by what Mahatma Gandhi told Gen. L.P. (Bogie) Sen, he would not have approved either of India abstaining for the seventh time on a United Nations vote calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, or of the determination with which the G-20’s Indian hosts ensured that the meetings spoke only of the Ukraine crisis and never of the Russian invasion.
This may "not be the era for war", as Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, at once earning enthusiastic American applause. But the International Crisis Group has its eye on 10 global wars that might explode during 2023. As for Ukraine, both the aggressor and victim are locked in what looks like an existential struggle.
If President Putin needs victory to bolster Russian prestige, fighting back is a matter of survival for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the 45-year-old ethnic Jewish professional comedian who was elected President of Ukraine in 2019 and has since then led his 44 million people with extraordinary grit and resolution.
The challenge, which now extends beyond war to winning the peace, has also provided Xi Jinping, China’s President for a third term and backed by the National People’s Congress, with another chance of playing the international diplomat. Having helped Iran and Saudi Arabia sign a pact, President Xi released his 12-point position paper: "The Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis," the day after the UN General Assembly’s own resolution, "Principles of the Charter of the United Nations underlying a Comprehensive, Just, and Lasting Peace in Ukraine".
Whatever the justification for Russia’s belligerence, its forces are now reportedly embarked on a campaign of extermination. Putting civilian casualties at 100,000, Ukraine’s Prosecutor for War Crimes accuses the UN high commissioner for refugees of gross underestimation in saying that more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have perished. Some 18 million people without homes, power, water and food desperately need humanitarian assistance; 14 million have been displaced internally; five million have fled abroad. The port city of Mariupol acquired mythic significance when its defenders hung on for 82 days until Kyiv ordered Ukraine’s Azov Regiment entrenched in Mariupol’s mammoth Azovstal steel plant to surrender to the Russians.
Neither of the two peace plans on the table takes a comprehensive view of the human cost of the war or the challenge of post-war reconstruction. China equates victim with aggressor and is more concerned with denouncing the sanctions that the West imposed. The UN paper, which at least "demanded" a complete Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, was approved by 141 votes to seven, but the 32 abstentions (China, South Africa and other fence-sitters) sadly also included India.
Convinced that Russia is waging genocide, President Zelenskyy is reportedly preparing a counter-offensive. His forces are now equipped (or shortly will be) with Germany’s Leopard-2 tanks, the US M1 Abrams main battle tank and Britain’s Challenger 2. Not that Mr Putin could have expected an outright victory even if Ukraine had little prospect of acquiring this additional hardware. Nor, given the geopolitical reality and American and European Union fears of risking a third world war with too much military help, can Ukraine expect more than a stalemate. A total victory any time soon being out of the question, there is no alternative to a negotiated settlement.
The question is: can President Xi be a credible mediator?
The West, which sees his plan as paving the way for a possible future attempt to forcibly annex Taiwan, replies with a resounding "No!" It objects that even if China is not actually supplying weapons to Russia, substantial Chinese purchases of heavily discounted crude oil and coal throws Moscow a lifeline. Moreover, soaring Chinese exports to an isolated Russia mean handsome profits that compensate for the Sino-American decoupling. China’s fence-sitting resolution actually supports Moscow by condemning sanctions and also referring -- like the G-20 meetings under Indian auspices -- to "the Ukraine Crisis" without a word to indicate invasion, a continuing war, Russia’s deliberate devastation of civilian targets and the ever-lurking threat of a nuclear attack. Although China’s plan does call for respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, it says nothing about the chunks of Ukraine -- 18 per cent of the country according to one estimate -- that Russia occupies militarily.
Despite Mr Modi’s war comment, similar criticism can also be levelled at India. "Vishwa Guru" and "mother of democracy" we might fancy ourselves to be (no one else does!), but India has strayed from the courage and diplomatic finesse that P.V. Narasimha Rao demonstrated when caught in a Cold War dilemma.
Russia today accounts for about 45 per cent of India’s defence purchases. India buys Russian oil at well below the $60 cap the West has imposed. New Delhi has reportedly reduced its oil import bill by about $3.50 billion even though Indian imports from Russia have gone up from 68,000 barrels a day to approximately 1.50 million barrels. All this may explain the subservience that is justified by citing the national interest. But it must be recalled that Narasimha Rao had defied a US embargo in 1992 to in effect gift 10,000 tonnes of Basmati rice to Cuba in response to a personal request from Fidel Castro’s veteran foreign minister, Isidoro Malmierca Peoli.
Another valid objection to India’s Russian connection is that the lower price Moscow charges is not reflected in what Indian consumers have to pay. The Indian cost of petrol, diesel and gas should be at least 40 per cent lower. Not only does the government make a handsome profit but its favoured private refiners are allowed to export the finished product to other countries.
If anything is more unethical, it is ignoring the difference between right and wrong, a tactic that only benefits wrong, as Theodore Roosevelt warned.
Despite regarding all wars as "a curse to humanity", Mahatma Gandhi told Gen. Sen on the eve of his being posted in Kashmir to repel the Pakistani tribal invaders: "You’re going in to protect innocent people, and to save them from suffering and their property from destruction. To achieve that you must naturally make full use of every means at your disposal."
That is also the only honourable course on Ukraine for India’s leaders. The least that is expected of them is to actively support peace talks under UN auspices to ensure that Russia vacates its aggression so that territorial disputes can be discussed and resolved in a non-belligerent atmosphere.