Is India a possible negotiator

Harsha Kakar
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, visited India recently. Apart from interacting with his Indian counterpart, Dr S Jaishankar, he also had multiple interactions with the media intending to convey Ukraine’s views on its ties with India. Dmytro tweeted, ‘we paid special attention to the peace formula and the next steps on the path of its implementation.’ It appeared his visit was intended to convince India to participate in the forthcoming peace summit in Switzerland. India has thus far not confirmed participation.
This view was amplified when Dmytro mentioned in his press interaction, ‘India is well-positioned, not only in terms of bilateral relations between India and Ukraine but also in terms of the high regard India enjoys in the Global South. If India sits at the table of the peace formula, then many other nations will feel much safer and comfortable sitting next to India and they will come and join this effort.’ The west is aware that India is an accepted voice of the Global South.
In the early stages of the war, India was, amongst few nations, able to extricate its students from Ukraine.Convoys of Indian students were escorted by Ukrainian forces to the Polish border through a humanitarian corridor established by Ukrainian and Russian authorities.India-Ukraine relations were strong and it supplied India with military hardware.
Subsequently, as western support to it grew, Kiev began blaming India of bypassing western imposed sanctions and procuring Russian oil. It accused India of funding the war. For a long time, India was compelled to defend its decision on procuring Russian oil on multiple global platforms.
New Delhi, from the outset, maintained neutrality in the war and emerged as one of very few nations which could engage with both, Russia and Ukraine. As Jaishankar stated, ‘We are a country which can openly speak with the Russians about this (Ukrainian) problem, its various aspects. You know, other countries used us to convey messages.’ India always insisted that dialogue was the way forward while the west believed that it could exploit Ukraine to draw down Russia economically and militarily.
The western strategy was initially effective. Russian operations were stalled. However, the Russian economy did not collapse while its military production slowly increased, alongside provision of ammunition and drones from Iran, North Korea and China. Simultaneously, the west began finding it difficult to meet Ukraine’s increased military demands.
Ukraine is currently losing funding support from Washington as US elections draw close. Both Trump and Biden have differing views on the war. Trump has promised to stop aid while Biden swears to support. Images flood social media on decay within US cities due to lack of central funding, as the same is earmarked for Ukraine. Hence, US public opinion no longer favours supporting the war. US Congress blocks passing of bills seeking additional funds for Ukraine, adding to Biden’s problems.
Further, US priority has shifted to Israel, especially after its recent strike on the Iranian embassy building in Syria. Europe by itself is unable to fulfil weapon demands of Ukrainians. Its own production capacity is limited. With sinking economies, current European governments are also wary of expending excessive funds on Ukraine. It was Boris Johnson, as PM of UK, then expecting Ukraine to push back the Russians with western support, who stalled Ankara sponsored peace talks.
Ukraine has a major disadvantage as compared to Russia, which is availability of manpower for the frontline. The former army chief of Ukraine, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, had stated in Feb, ‘We must acknowledge the significant advantage enjoyed by the enemy in mobilizing human resources and how that compares with the inability of state institutions in Ukraine to improve manpower levels of our armed forces without the use of unpopular measures.’
Mercenaries have also reduced to a trickle in Ukraine. A British spokesperson mentioned that a few of their soldiers could have gone to Ukraine ‘in their personal capacity.’ Ukraine was forced to bring down its recruitment age from 27 to 25,though this would do little to fill the gap. Shortages also exist in critical artillery ammunition as Europe production cannot meet Ukrainian demands.
Meanwhile Russian artillery, missiles and drone barrages are breaking down Ukraine’s infrastructure well in depth. Ukrainian frontlines are collapsing as Russian military pressure increases. Politico quoted a senior Ukrainian general mentioning, ‘There’s nothing that can help Ukraine now because there are no serious technologies able to compensate Ukraine for the large mass of troops Russia is likely to hurl at us.’
In another few months Russia will launch its fresh offensive which may be difficult to stall.Currently, Ukraine is fighting to prevent further loss of territory while Russia to prove that its military power remains formidable. It is evident that Ukraine will never be able to regain territories lost to Russia. It must now seek to preserve what is left with dignity.
It is at this juncture that Ukraine has requested Indian support. It is hoping that India’s presence at the table in Switzerland would draw in other nations which could enhance pressure on Russia to accept Ukrainian conditions of withdrawal from its territory. However, Russia is not part of the deliberations. It is possible that this conference would determine what conditions Ukraine could project as also build support towards its reconstruction.
India’s stand on the conflict has not changed. It continues to insist on dialogue being the only way forward. India is aware that Russia will not surrender territory captured, which could mean determining a via-media, suitable to both. This would imply both sides scaling down their end states.
India is amongst few which can effectively engage with both warring sides. Jaishankar summed up India’s approach by mentioning in an interview to German daily Handelsblatt, ‘Wherever we can help, we are happy to do so. We are open when we are approached. However, we do not believe that we should initiate anything in this direction on our own.’
Ukraine has approached India to help negotiate a settlement, aware that New Delhi can influence Moscow. In what manner India takes it up is to be seen. If India does so successfully, its global reputation would witness a boost. Most important however is that all stakeholders, including Europe and the US, must be on board.
The author is Major General (Retd)