Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allusion to the possibility at the G20 Summit and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar expressing strong support for dialogue and diplomacy to restore peace during his first visit to Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, geopolitical observers are rife with the speculation that India could play the mediator. However, India has conventionally never come in between two warring countries to broker peace.
But with Modi, one never knows. Especially during his first term, he was also the de facto foreign minister of the country, giving relations with several countries and global forums a new direction regardless of the formidable presence of the late Sushma Swaraj with the portfolio and turning the inertial foreign missions of India into interfaces rather than glorified tent houses that merely organises events, barely moves beyond protocols and is reluctant to appreciate changing equations in international relations.
The name of India is doing the rounds in light of its government’s measured reactions to the conflict. It has expressed concern about the war without condemning Russia. It has emphasised the importance of the UN Charter, which highlights the sanctity of a recognised country’s territorial sovereignty.
Commentators are saying that India is the right representative of the “Global South” (developing and less developed countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania) and it is also in a good position to appreciate the economic impact of the war on the said regions.
Why is India on top of the list of probable countries that could mediate between Russia and Ukraine?
The answer involves a lot of positives about New Delhi. India is seen as a neutral player, having walked the diplomatic tightrope and winning credibility on both warring sides. It has seen instances of successful diplomatic involvement earlier by way of preventing the attack on the nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine and during the Black Sea grain shipment, it held discussions with Russia to intervene.
The suggestion enjoys some international backing. Mexico suggested that the prime minister of India, Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General António Guterres should mediate between Russia and Ukraine. It floated the name of the pope because Russians and Ukrainians mostly belong to the Russian Orthodox denomination of Catholic Christians, which might make them approach the negotiations with reverence.
Another positive is India’s good relations with both Russia and the West. India can use this unique leverage to put pressure on Russia to end its war in Ukraine. It would not have been unique if the West could trust China, another country Russia is pally with, in the face of US-led Nato sanctions, but the US does not trust Beijing in the post-Covid, post-Hong Kong, post-Taiwan scenario.
Some say a peace-keeping exercise by India might address its geopolitical aspiration to occupy a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
What are the challenges for India to be a mediator?
India cannot be said to fully understand the dynamics of the Russian and Ukrainian people, Russia and the European players, and Ukraine and European partners and move ahead accordingly. Further, it does not have experience beyond negotiating in bilateral and multilateral formats whereas negotiating in a crisis is a different ball game.
Pessimistic observers are not sure India will take the risk in a part of the globe beyond its immediate region (surgical strikes and an airstrike in Pakistan, for example). A geopolitical crisis of the size of the Russia-Ukraine war may be too much to handle.
The West may doubt India due to its closer ties with Russia. India keeps buying Russian oil at discounted prices despite the West’s criticism.
Also, India and Russia share strategic ties in nuclear, space, defence, energy and connectivity sectors, which may make even Kyiv look at New Delhi with suspicion. The West is equally circumspect about Russia transferring its military technologies to India, a favour that Moscow does not extend to other countries that import hardware from it.
Joker of cards: China
Meanwhile, China is playing the role of the joker in a pack of cards. If India stays away from Russia, it risks witnessing the strategic relations between Russia and China develop further.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis has entered a new phase, in which Indian diplomacy could aid in a range of realistic ways to address the stated challenges.