India as peace broker
G Parthasarathy assesses the recent G20 Summit, where India’s calls for an end to the war in Ukraine through Moscow-Kyiv dialogue was a key talking point
The 17th G20 Heads of State and Government Summit, held in Bali, Indonesia from 15-16 November, in which major economic powers from across the world participated, was a focus for global attention. As the US and its NATO allies, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, faced off against each other over Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the meeting became a venue for heated debate on the issue.
India, Indonesia and others stressed the need for a negotiated, peaceful and political settlement to the territorial disputes between Russia and its neighbour Ukraine. But tensions run deep. Moscow has long viewed US moves in Ukraine as an effort to take control of, and end its access to, the warm waters of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean region. President Putin, therefore, moved decisively in 2014 to take control of Crimea, thus establishing direct Russian access to the Black Sea.
It is, however, pertinent to note that Russia has held control of Crimea, which served as its principal access to the ‘warm waters’ of the Mediterranean, since the 18thcentury. Moreover, the Port of Odessa in Southern Ukraine was also an important centre for Russian access to the sea. Russia has historically feared that it would become virtually landlocked if its access to the sea, for trade across the Mediterranean, was totally taken over by a none-too-friendly Ukraine, or indeed by any other foreign power.
The US and its Western allies have responded strongly to Moscow’s actions by imposing economic sanctions on Russia, and virtually flooding Ukraine with huge supplies of weapons and ammunition. The Russians responded with heavy firepower on Ukrainian positions. Strengthened by their military reinforcements, the Ukrainian shave thereafter given the Russians a hard time when it comes to holding on to Russian-controlled territory across south-eastern Ukraine.
Yet it would be unrealistic to expect Russia to cut its losses and withdraw, in a manner that would compromise its access to the sea, particularly in Crimea. With the onset of winter, the Russians are targeting major urban centres in Ukraine with heavy firepower, aimed at cutting off supplies of electricity and gas to major populated centres in Ukraine. Moscow has simultaneously cut off the supply of gas to major EU countries. This will inevitably result in very difficult and freezing winter months for a number of NATO countries.
Given its close relations with both Russia and NATO members, India has been acutely aware that the conflict in Ukraine can only be ended by a negotiated political settlement between Russia and Ukraine. Prime Minister Modi made India’s position clear in a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, whose members include Russia, China, India, Iran and Russia’s former Central Asian Republics. Mr Modi told the Heads of Government attending the Summit, including President Vladimir Putin: ‘Today’s era is not of war and I have spoken to you about it on the call. Today we will get the opportunity to talk about how we can progress on the path of peace. India and Russia have stayed together with each other for several decades.’
India has good reason to reject calls from NATO countries to join sanctions imposed on Moscow by the US and its Western allies. New Delhi has to bear in mind that the tensions that arose on its Northern Borders with China last year have not affected Moscow’s close and continuing economic and security ties with India. Moscow has also now emerged as the largest supplier of oil to India, at very competitive prices. This has been particularly helpful in enabling India to sustain an economic growth rate of over 6 per cent in its current financial year, while curbing its trade deficit and the fall in its foreign exchange reserves.
New Delhi also noted that, in cutting off gas and petroleum supplies to NATO members, Moscow was responding strongly to Western economic sanctions and massive arms supplied to Ukraine. This is leading to global oil and gas prices rising through the roof. India, therefore, readily accepted Moscow’s offer to step in to meet its essential requirements for oil and gas at reasonable prices.
New Delhi is also confident that its suggestions for resolving the impasse between Russia and NATO will be carefully considered by President Putin. Mr Modi also spoke to Ukraine’s President Zelensky, making it clear that talks between Ukraine and Russia are essential to resolve differences between Moscow and Kyiv. One hopes there will soon be moves, by all concerned, to replace confrontation with dialogue.
The G20 Summit Declaration proclaimed that it is essential to uphold international law and support the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability. It calls for respect for the Charter of the United Nations, by the protection of civilians and infrastructure in armed conflicts. The Summit Declaration also categorically holds that the use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible. It urged that diplomacy and dialogue are crucial for resolving differences. Most importantly, the Declaration reiterated what Mr Modi had strongly urged during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit meeting in Ukraine earlier this year, by declaring: ‘Today’s era must not be of war.’
India is scheduled to host the next G20 Summit. The baton has, therefore, passed from Indonesia to India, and it must lay the groundwork, in consultation with others, for the next Summit. Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the Bali Summit provided an opportunity to take the Indo-British relationship forward. In doing business with India, the UK will certainly get an opportunity to compete better with its erstwhile European Union partners, once an India-UK Free Trade Agreement is signed. India has done well economically in recent years, even during and after the pandemic, although economic challenges still remain.The potential for defence collaboration between India and the UK should also grow faster, as India is now moving forward, with increasing indigenisation, in its defence industries, where its private sector is extensively participating.
G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and President of the Indian Habitat Centre in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office