There has been considerable international attention on the visit of India’s external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, to Russia, regarding the possibilities of an intervention to end the nine month-long war in Ukraine. India, for its part, has consistently taken the position of not joining the chorus of Western nations in condemning Russia’s invasion, while appealing for dialogue to end the conflict. To be sure, this stance was reiterated during the minister’s talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. But there are subtle shifts in India’s position of late with a greater degree of candour in telling Russia that this is not an era of war. This was first articulated by prime minister Narendra Modi when he met Russia’s president Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in Samarkand. Jaishankar similarly told Lavrov that “the global economy is simply too interdependent for a significant conflict anywhere not to have major consequences elsewhere”; that the global south is feeling this pain very acutely. The minister forcefully underscored that India would extend support for any initiative that de-risks the global economy, including help on issues like food grain and fertiliser shipments, among others, that have been adversely impacted by the ongoing war. Earlier, too, during a visit to New Zealand last month, the minister stated “whatever we can do, we will be willing to do” to facilitate participants in the conflict to sit down and talk.
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It merits a mention that India has played a behind-the-scenes role in de-risking the global economy from the war that has unleashed the spectre of a full-blown global food crisis—with prices of wheat and other essentials spiraling up—that threatens vast parts of the global south with starvation and hunger. In July, for instance, the country played a role in selling the proposal to Russia to allow grain shipments through the Black Sea to reach global markets. This deal was brokered by the United Nations and Türkiye. Two months later, when Russian forces were shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, India told Russia to back off, according to an article in the New York Times. This grain shipment deal was later called off and restarted by Russia largely due to the intercession of Türkiye’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As for other efforts to negotiate peace in Ukraine, earlier this year France’s president Emmanuel Macron floated an idea to hold talks along with Modi but this did not materialise for various reasons, including elections in France. Given India’s help during pivotal moments like these, there are no prizes for guessing why there is considerable global interest on the outcome of India’s external affairs minister’s two-day state visit to Russia.
That said, there are objective limits to what India can do to facilitate dialogue to end the war, beyond interventions like getting grain shipments going. India is not the principal channel of communication between Russia and Ukraine, or for that matter between the US and Russia. There are other players like Türkiye, which is perhaps president Putin’s diplomatic lifeline to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ukraine has been staging stunning military counter-offensives since early September and an increasingly cornered Russia has annexed four regions through referenda and has mobilised reserves for this never-ending conflict. Alas, a bitter war can end only if both sides feel the need to silence their guns.