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Ukraine Top Diplomat’s mission to India is a qualified success

Kuleba can claim success for his mission to Delhi insofar as he can interpret Indian participation in the summit as elevating it as a large–scale event that involves the non-Western world as well. 

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Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba during a bilateral meeting, in New Delhi. | Photo credit: PTI News

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s talks in New Delhi on Friday essentially devolved upon meetings with just two Indian officials — his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar and the  Deputy National Security Adviser Vikram Misri. Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t receive Kuleba. Taken together, the host country took a studied low-key approach to Kuleba’s visit.

Like Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s banquet for the Scottish thanes in Shakespeare’s play, the horrific terrorist attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall on March 22 somewhat dramatised Kuleba’s visit. 

In the emergent situation, the poise and dignity with which Jaishankar performed as the unruffled host was remarkable. Unlike Macbeth who was so distressed that the thanes were told to leave and decided himself to visit the witches the next day, Jaishankar was the consummate diplomat, although cross-border terrorism — especially the state-sponsored variant — is a highly sensitive topic for Indians.    

No sooner than the breaking news from Crocus City Hall reached Jaishankar while transiting Singapore on an ASEAN tour, he spoke up on India’s profound relationship with Russia. Jaishankar underscored why India should and will look at its relationship with Russia from its perspective. 

“So, tell me has Russia helped us or harmed us? Has Russia at crucial moments contributed or obstructed? Going ahead, are there gains to be made from Russia, or is it only damages which will come out?” Jaishankar asked. 

He added, “So, if I do my calculations from my perspective and my experiences, I will get the answer. And the answer in this case is that Russia is a country with which we have always had a positive relationship.

“Both India and Russia have taken that extra care to look after each other’s interests. So, I think we should have that confidence as we go forward.”

Indeed, Jaishankar’s remarks set the tone for Kuleba’s visit a week later. There was something disjointed about the timing of Kuleba’s visit. As he was holding talks in Delhi, word came from Moscow that the Russian investigators on Crocus City Hall incident are inching closer to give underpinnings to the evidences of Ukrainian nationalists’ complicity in the incident. On Friday, they pieced together the evidence that the perpetrators were paid in cryptocurrency. 

Kuleba’s mission was primarily aimed at getting India on board a likely ‘peace summit’ in Switzerland in summer anchored on the so-called ‘formula for peace’ which President Vladimir Zelensky had floated in November 2022 calling for, amongst other things, the withdrawal of Russian forces from its new territories of Donbass, Zaporozhye and Kherson oblasts and the Crimean Peninsula. Prior to Kuleba’s arrival in Delhi, Zelensky made a call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to urge him to participate in the ‘peace summit.’ Modi’s response, however, was limited to reaffirming the “consistent support from India for all efforts aimed at achieving peace and ending the conflict as soon as possible.”

The curious thing about the peace summit is the west’s game plan to keep Russia out of it even as the representatives of civilised countries would develop a settlement plan and only then familiarise Moscow with their decision. The idea is to isolate Russia.  

The catch here is, Zelensky has impetuously enacted a law, which expressly forbids him from participating in peace talks with Russia. He did this apparently to placate the US and the UK! On the other hand, Ukraine is today finding itself in a much weaker position. The West is no longer confident that Russia can be defeated in the war. 

Zelensky’s formula for peace is not gaining traction in the Global South. This is where China and India’s participation in the planned summit in Switzerland is seen by Ukraine and its western mentors as a potential ‘game changer.’ 

India associated itself with the process at the earlier meetings in Saudi Arabia and Turkey while that didn’t mark any shift in the Indian position on Ukraine question as such. India closely follows China’s footfalls in such trapeze acts and Being has already signalled that it is considering participating in the forthcoming peace summit, while also adding a caveat that all interested parties, including Russia, need to be involved in resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Delhi will likely emulate Beijing’s stance. 

While in Delhi, Kuleba was uncharacteristically restrained as regards the forbidden turf of India’s relationship with Russia. But flashes of his acerbic wit were in display in a separate interview with the Financial Times, a paper which, as a shrewd observer of DC politics, he’d know to be exceptionally close to the Biden Administration. 

Kuleba openly challenged Jaishankar’s remarks at Singapore by telling FT that “the co-operation between India and Russia is largely based on the Soviet legacy. But this is not the legacy that will be kept for centuries; it is a legacy that is evaporating.” 

In good measure, Kuleba added, “The Chinese-Russian relationship should be of particular attention for India in light of its national security prerogatives.” The gratuitous remarks betrayed a sense of frustration. 

To be sure, FT took note that “Kyiv has struggled to win sympathy from India and many other countries in the so-called Global South. These states have mostly avoided taking sides in a war they see as the business of rich nations, and whose economic price they have paid in disrupted trade and higher costs.

“The Ukrainians’ push for a potential rebalancing of ties between New Delhi and Moscow is unlikely to gain purchase in a country that prides itself its independent foreign policy and has a decades-old close relationship with Russia… Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month extended “warm congratulations” to Putin after his re-election in a race the opposition was given no meaningful chance to contest.” 

However, the bottom line remains that Delhi may send a representative to the summit in Switzerland, but is unlikely to change its initial position on the need to resolve the conflict on a bilateral basis. So, Delhi’s representative, while registering his presence in Switzerland, will keep his eyes and ears open but is not going to sign up on anything that treads on Russia’s sensitivities and core concerns. 

Nonetheless, Kuleba can claim success for his mission to Delhi insofar as he can interpret Indian participation in the summit as elevating it as a large–scale event that involves the non-Western world as well. 

Delhi is well aware of the high probability that the Ukraine war might escalate in the downstream of the terrorist attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall. The Biden Administration is singularly disinterested in any peace talks with Russia — at least, not until the November elections. 

This is apparent in the tantalising hint given by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs Gen. C.Q. Brown on Thursday that providing long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine that can reach Moscow, wouldn’t necessarily mean crossing the Kremlin’s ‘red line’. According to Defense One magazine, Russia’s muted response to a series of recent Ukrainian attacks well inside of Russian territory has emboldened the Pentagon to draw such an audacious conclusion.    

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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