We know even more so after the Ukraine imbroglio that we walk a lonely road in checkmating China. The weakening of the Western alliance has emboldened China

A new Great Game is being played out in Ukraine. It has shifted attention and focus of the West, away from the Indo-Pacific, from China’s rise and the threat China poses to the existing world order. Already, the Quad is being spoken of as a vehicle for vaccine diplomacy and economic cooperation! India’s partners in Quad are berating the Russian Federation for violating the rule-based order and accusing naked imperialism. They are looking at the Chinese market as an alternative to Russian goods. Where does this leave India?

From a Western and EU perspective, the events of the past few days are a sharp reminder that conflicts need not always be fought out in distant lands. Indeed, the decline of ‘Pax Americana’ and the precipitous and disastrous retreat from Kabul on 15 August 2021, leaving ordinary Afghans who had welcomed the Western forces to their fate, was a rude reminder to India, a key strategic partner of the US and EU, that she stood alone in any military confrontation with China.

The meltdown in Ukraine has been in the making since 2014. Emboldened by NATO membership for the Baltic states at a time when Vladimir Putin was not in power, President Joe Biden, under attack from the Republicans for the debacle in Afghanistan and facing a difficult election in the Senate by November, saw in Ukraine’s candidature for NATO membership, an excellent election gambit for domestic purposes.

A Cold War warrior, Biden ignored repeated Russian protests that this was a red line that could not be ignored. Russia would not accept NATO’s nuclear weapons on Ukraine’s border with Russia. Foreign office pundits, ignorant of European history, overlooked that large parts of Ukraine have been Russian for centuries. Ukrainians come from the same soil and are fellow Slavs. Their religion is Orthodox and from the 18th century fought invaders together with Russians. For the Russians, Ukraine was and will remain part of their history, culture and civilization.

Buoyed by promises of support, President Zelensky was in no mood to back down. Ukraine was already in a partnership arrangement with NATO through the ‘NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partnership’. Zelensky mistakenly calculated that NATO would provide military support in the unlikely event of a Russian incursion. Indeed, he repeatedly asserted that a Russian attack was neither imminent nor forthcoming.

India was in a quandary. As a non-permanent member of the Security Council, her first challenge was to respond to an extremely one-sided resolution threatening action against Russia under Chapter VII. This reference was taken out to accommodate China and to prevent a second veto by China. Despite a spirited explanation of vote after the vote India was left in the uncomfortable company of China while abstaining on the resolution. India’s foreign policy options were looking increasingly limited.

Adding to India’s conundrum were the fate of over 24,000 Indian nationals, mainly young students, left stranded in basements or bunkers, all over Ukraine. With airspace closed, the only option was to transport them, with support of Ukrainian authorities and Russian forces, to neighbouring countries, from where they could be airlifted to India.

The presence of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in Moscow while the Russian forces were moving into Ukraine, watching him discuss bilateral issues with a pan-faced President Putin, was an unpleasant reminder of how much India’s reliable all-weather friend had moved to an anti-Western and anti-India front. Firmly in China’s camp, isolated internationally, Putin would inexorably move away from India.

Where would India be in such a situation with regard to a CAATSA waiver on the S-400? How would we procure the spare parts for its huge inventory of Russian weaponry and how would India be able to work around the tightening grip of Western and US sanctions?

The answer lies in diplomacy. Today India is uniquely positioned as an honest broker on both sides. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to President Putin and President Zelensky. India is in continuous contact with Americans, French and EU leadership. PM Modi has appealed for cessation of violence and a return to diplomacy after his conversation with Zelensky. The Americans too have modified their earlier hard line on insisting India join the Western position. Ned Price, State Department spokesman has expressed Washington’s understanding of India’s relationship with Moscow which is “distinct” from the one shared by the US with India.

India should now use its influence to persuade both sides to reach an understanding which would guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty in those areas outside the breakaway Republics and a guarantee from Ukraine of “no NATO dagger pointed at the heart of Russia”. The crippling sanctions too would need to be withdrawn.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Henry Kissenger, no friend of India as we know too well, nevertheless had invaluable advice to offer to the West. He said: “Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

Kissenger added: “Ukraine has been independent for only 23 years. Not surprisingly, its leaders have not learned the art of compromise, even less of historical perspective. Viktor Yanukovych and his principal political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko… represent the two wings of Ukraine and have not been willing to share power… We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction… For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”

India should now forcefully use its considerable diplomatic clout and its deep friendships on all sides to end the conflict and stabilise the region. The additional advantage in such a solution would be to persuade India’s strategic partners including its Quad partners to turn back their focus on China and the Indo-Pacific.

Even so, we know even more so after the Ukraine imbroglio that we walk a lonely road in checkmating China. The weakening of the Western alliance has emboldened China. Gandhi had said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

India uneasily awaits the next Chinese misadventure on its borders. Unlike Zelensky, we know we are alone. We have always been alone. We need no support. We are India.