K.C. Singh | As Biden & Putin jostle, where does India stand?

Five months after the Ukraine war started, its international ramifications are still unfolding. While Vladimir Putin’s Russia was unable to achieve its primary objective of quickly occupying Kyiv and overthrowing the Volodymyr Zelenskyy government, its revamped strategy of capturing large swathes of territory in the south and attacking the eastern region of Donbas seems to have worked. But Russia is so far unwilling to stop its “special military operation” which it had launched on February 24.

By blockading the Ukrainian ports, Russia has engendered a global food crisis as Ukrainian grain lies blocked in silos, unavailable to a hungry world, especially Africa. The twin shocks of high energy and food prices are causing inflation and economic distress even in rich nations. The American strategy of strangling the Russian economy through sanctions failed as Russian oil and gas exports have continued to fill their coffers. The European Union is nervous over the Russian gas getting turned off.

When Nord Stream I was shut down for its annual maintenance in mid-July, the speculation arose whether Russia would simply not resume supplies even when the pipeline was ready for operation. Germany and France are to take a call on persisting with their current approach of weaning themselves off Russian energy by the yearend or to break away from the US-led consensus to punish Russia.

Against this background, US President Joe Biden arrived in the Gulf-West Asia region on bilateral visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

On July 14, he attended a virtual summit in a new configuration called “I2U2,” — of the leaders of India, Israel, the UAE and the US. Five days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin, travelling abroad only for the second time after Ukraine war, landed in Iran for both a bilateral visit as well as a three-way summit that included Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was jostling for strategic influence by the United States and Russia that echoed their antagonism over Ukraine. Where does that leave India?

First, Mr Biden’s foray into the Middle East. High fuel costs in the US, as the mid-term election approaches in November, made Mr Biden swallow his words about isolating Saudi Arabia and treating their Crown Prince as a “pariah”. Bumping into him outside King Salman’s palace instead of a cold handshake, the two had a knuckle bump. Observers noted the paradox in the situation.

The confusion was exacerbated when Mr Biden was asked about the Saudi statement on the talks, which contradicted his claim about raising the Jamal Khashoggi killing at the meetings.

In response, he simply implied that the Saudis were lying. If restored mutual confidence was the aim, the visit failed. Noticeably, the Saudis made no public commitment on ramping up oil production or separating from Russia in the OPEC+ configuration.

The “I2U2” grouping, being dubbed as the Western Quad, mirrors the Quad in the Indo-Pacific in which the US and India partner Australia and Japan. But a significant difference is that whereas the original Quad has a clear objective to contain China, even if mostly tacit or even denied, the new group has three members other than India which treat Iran as a regional threat. Despite the agenda being non-security, Iran will see India through this prism. The UAE may have sent its ambassador back to Tehran or even opened a dialogue to normalise relations, the deep distrust between them will stay. Iran considers the entire Shia crescent that extends through Shia-majority Iraq to Syria and Lebanon as its playground. The UAE, under its new leader Mohammed bin Zayed, has inserted his country into the power play in Yemen, Syria and even Libya. Iran sees the UAE as an upstart, lacking the population or history to back its imagined role as arbiter in regional disputes.

India is an immediate beneficiary of the I2U2 summit. The agenda covers six areas — energy, food security, health, space, transport, and water. Basically, it addresses climate change, global public health, and technological cooperation. Emirati funds, Israeli technology and US support are supposed to combine with Indian size and strength in some areas. The instant result has been two projects in India. The UAE will invest $2 billion to develop food parks in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The other proposal is to advance clean energy projects. The first one reflects the BJP’s fixation on domestic political advantage as Gujarat goes to the polls at the end of the year. Why could not the investment have been also shared with Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. After all, there is a high-speed freight corridor that late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had envisioned, which connects the north to western ports. This should be operational soon.

India’s strategic alignment with two US-led groups will only make it more difficult to play along with Iran in the Gulf and West Asia as well as to keep India-Russia relations evenly balanced.

The effect of this may not be immediately visible. Iran and Russia are nations with long histories, past colonial supremacy, and equally long memories. Iran particularly nurses hurts and internalises them for retaliation even many decades later.

The Nupur Sharma issue showed the impact Islamophobia can have on India’s relations with the Islamic world. In the UAE’s case, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sensibly chose to stop over in Abu Dhabi, using the pretext of condoling the death of the elder half-brother of current President Mohammed bin Zayed, to bury the Nupur Sharma issue. In Iran’s case, the foreign minister’s India visit offered the same opportunity. But in the case of Iran, it will be a mistake to think they will just ignore “I2U2”, especially seeing the strong words used by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his meeting with President Putin against the United States and Nato.

There are two readings of the current state of the Ukraine war. One, that the Russian economy may appear stable but is getting hollowed out and defence stores are depleted.

The other, that the energy crisis in Europe and Mr Putin remaining resolute may split the Western alliance, with the attendant consequences for the Ukrainian government and even nation.

The next few months, with Covid-19 respreading and the monkeypox threat emerging, are risk-prone globally. This is particularly so as the Chinese and US economies are slowing, and Ukraine war is persisting.

The battle against climate change and the economic and health security of all nations are in danger. Winter is fast approaching.

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