The initiation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict makes a lot of geopolitical sense. For months leading up to Russia’s retaliation launched on 24 February this year, Putin had been cautioning the world in general and the US-led Nato in particular that clubbing next-door Ukraine with the Cold War-era military alliance was not advisable. Ukraine, it has been observed in contemporary history, acts as a buffer zone between Russia and the rest of Europe — witnessed most evidently during the Second World War when the army of Nazi Germany tried to invade the Soviet Union by marching through Ukraine. Since it was a buffer zone, Adolf Hitler soon realised it would spend his force’s energy and then diverted his attention to Stalingrad, which was a more tortuous route to Moscow. That gave Soviet Russia time to gather and organise its forces for resistance while it stretched German resources thin.
A similar buffer zone existed between India and China until 1950-51 when the expansionist regime of Mao Zedong annexed Tibet. A supine, romantic and submissive Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister drunk with the potion of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai“, looked on like a mute spectator even as the Dalai Lama fled his home and hearth with a bunch of followers to Delhi. India is still suffering, with China breathing down her neck — and the world turns anxious every time a Chinese incursion in Indian lands happens — thanks to the vanishing of the buffer zone called Tibet. Putin, the patriotic Russian, could not be expected to repeat a deluded Nehru’s folly. It would have been dangerous for Russia to see weapons of mass destruction, of which the Nato has a stockpile, deployed next door.
Many in Ukraine wanted friendly relations with Russia rather than the hostility with the big neighbour that Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s flawed policy — made worse by prodding and provocation by the Joe Biden administration — pushed the former constituent of the USSR into. Meanwhile, the lost leader of the US, the recently ‘coronated’ President Joe Biden, went on provoking Russia, threatening Moscow with dire consequences should it take countermeasures against Ukraine. He prodded Zelenskyy to the point where Ukraine found itself on the brink of accepting Nato membership. With Russian interest paramount in his mind, a patriotic Putin could not have it anymore. Taking military action against the audacious attempt to finish off Russia’s buffer became inevitable. This was the message Putin had to give to the world: Ukraine in Nato was unacceptable.
In the midst of this turmoil, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar made his first Moscow visit where he reiterated India’s commitment to peace. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, went to meet heads of states in Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 Summit where he underscored India’s position. All this while, several attempts by the Biden administration to pressure the Modi government to condemn Russia were successfully shrugged off. So effective was India’s diplomatic tightrope walk that the West not only accepted India’s increased trade with Russia, notwithstanding the US sanctions on Moscow, but also saw officials of the White House and Department of State praise Prime Minister Modi for his astute observations on geopolitics shared with President Biden on the sidelines of the summit.
This places India in a unique position as the best possible mediator to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian stand-off, more so in a scenario where both sides to the dispute are now eager for a negotiated settlement. No other country enjoys such good offices with both Washington and Moscow to be able to pull this off. Whereas the Zelenskyy regime may appear reluctant to seeing India as a mediator, given that the West is no longer interested in continuing with the military approach, the comedian-turned-politician is bound to come around.
It is to be noted here that while New Delhi repeatedly refused to bend under the pressure to deplore Moscow and thus did justice to the decades of all-weather friendship between the two nations, India’s relations with the US also has been constantly improving since the coming of a BJP-led NDA government first in the late 1990s, which strengthened further under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi for the past eight years. The natural affinity between the world’s largest and richest democracies — not appreciating this potential was another mistake of Nehru — would make Washington trust New Delhi’s honesty in brokering a pact between the sides presently in conflict. The US would not offer to any country the leeway it reserved for India amid deepening Indo-Russian ties, which was along the lines of not imposing sanctions against India for the import of S-400 missile defence system by the latter while it had punished other countries like Turkey and Iran for importing the older versions of the Russian missiles.
Also worth taking into account is the fact that, since 24 February, President Zelenskyy has not issued any statement against India regardless of New Delhi’s enhanced trade with Moscow. Ukraine knows about the decades-long history of India-Russia friendship, including the military equipment exports from Russia to India, and will eventually be confident of India’s noble intentions.
Importantly, the world is aware of India’s Hindu ideology witnessed over the past 5,000 years during which it only defended its territory while never eyeing that of another civilisation in the ancient and mediaeval eras or another country in the modern age. This is a fact appreciated in literature as well as political commentary across the civilised world. And India’s appreciation of civilisations reflects also in its tacit recognition of the fact that there is a civilisational element in the Russia-Ukraine clash, which the Occident failed to see initially but will see now.
In the complex, somewhat overlapping and somewhere conflicting international relations, the West cannot but trust China, another country that has maintained good relations with Russia since February. The opaque and suspicious actions of China during the Covid pandemic, Beijing’s denial of democracy in Hong Kong, the CPC regime’s threat to annex Taiwan, the expansionist designs of the communist autocracy over countries on the shores of the South China Sea and frequent incursions into Indian territories do not go down well with the US-led West.
What is pertinent from the Russian point of view, settling its border dispute with China was a compulsion that the new world order pushed Moscow to. The Russia-China truce is uneasy, as Moscow realises what kind of an opportunistic force Beijing has been throughout modern history. There are instances from the 20th century like taking undue advantage of the Soviet Union’s preoccupation with the Cuban missile crisis to attack USSR ally India in 1962 and China’s flip-flops during the 30-year-long Vietnam war. The CPC regime has a track record of ditching allies, which makes Russia wary. Given the trust deficit in US-China as well as Russia-China relations, Chinese moderation in a possible Russia-Ukraine deal is ruled out.
In contrast, successive Russian governments as well as its people have had a positive outlook of India. The strong bonding between the decades-old friends is only strengthening further with the Russian government’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of India-Russia all-weather bilateral relations. Coupling that with ever-strengthening US-India ties, and adding no objection from Ukraine, makes India the best possible mediator to disentangle the knots in Russia-Ukraine relations.
The hint that Prime Minister Modi dropped at the G20 Summit in Bali recently and the urge for dialogue by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar during his first visit to Moscow since February throw up an opportunity that the world must grab. India’s assertion on every global platform that peace must prevail is unexceptionable, as is its stress on the UN Charter. India can truly help see peace and prosperity return to the buffer zone between Russia and the West.
Gone are the days when geopolitical commentary was dominated by talks of a bipolar and then unipolar world. If not multipolar, it’s tripolar at the least, with the new India certainly as a pole. If the other two are the US and China, a dictatorial, expansionist, opaque, hegemonic, communist regime has proved dangerously unreliable. Whereas India — proven as a stable, peaceful, transparent, trustworthy and vibrant democracy — has emerged as an axis around which nations rally for better bilateral and multilateral relations. Most importantly, for a better future for humanity.