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India's Reaction to the Situation in Ukraine: Looking Beyond a Phrase

Ukrainian soldiers ride on military armoured personnel carriers as they take part in a military exercise near Kharkiv March 14, 2014. U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday he still hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis heading into a pivotal weekend (REUTERS/Stringer).

There has been some interest in India’s reaction to the situation in Ukraine. Initially, commentary focused on India’s silence. When official Indian reaction emerged, analysis focused almost entirely on the comments of India’s national security advisor, specifically his observation that “legitimate Russian … interests” were involved. Some interpreted this as an endorsement of Russian military intervention; others found the overall Indian reaction confusing. However, neither was this reaction in support of Russia’s action—nor was it surprising and unpredictable.

The Official India Reaction

On February 28, the Ukrainian ambassador in Delhi met with a senior Indian foreign ministry official, reportedly to request support for the new government in Kyiv and for India to take a stand against Russian actions in Crimea. The Indian government did not publicly comment then or for the next few days. On March 3, India issued a travel advisory, asking Indians in Ukraine to register with the Indian mission there. Subsequently, the foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted that India was “closely watching [the] fast evolving situation and hope[d] for a peaceful resolution.” The foreign minister, on his part, noted that “the government is yet to formulate a position on the issue.” 

It was not till March 6 that the Indian government elaborated a position. At the end of a media briefing, Shivshankar Menon, the Indian national security advisor, responded to a question, stating:
“As far as we are concerned, we are watching what is happening in the Ukraine with some concern. We would hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully and that the broader issues of reconciling the various interests involved, and there are after all legitimate Russian and other interests involved, are discussed, negotiated, and that there is a satisfactory resolution to them. But more than that at this stage when everything is still fluid, I do not think we can tell you.”

A Ukrainian embassy spokesperson in Delhi responded strongly, noting “We are not sure how Russia can be seen having legitimate interests in the territory of another country.” He did add, “If there are any legitimate interests, those can be discussed diplomatically, not by sending in troops.”

Indeed, a number of foreign and Indian observers highlighted the phrase “legitimate interests.” Menon wasn’t alone in his view of Russian interests in the situation, but many interpreted his comments in particular as Indian support for Russia’s intervention in Crimea. Less commented upon was his reference to “internal” issues of Ukraine, his emphasis on a peaceful settlement, or his observation of the involvement of not just Russian but various others’ interests. What was also hardly noticed was that in the official Indian statement issued later that day, there was no mention of “legitimate interests.” That statement expressed concern about the escalation of tension, especially given that India has 5,000 citizens in Ukraine (most of whom are students), adding:

“India welcomes recent efforts at reducing the tension and hopes that a solution to Ukraine’s internal differences is found in a manner that meets the aspirations of all sections of Ukraine’s population. It would be important, in this context, for a legitimate democratic process to find full expression through free and fair elections that provide for an inclusive society. India calls for sincere and sustained diplomatic efforts to ensure that issues between Ukraine and its neighbouring countries are resolved through constructive dialogue.” (emphasis added)

Not Surprising

There have been questions about India’s statements and its overall reticence, particularly in neglecting to mention explicitly respect for territorial integrity. Its reaction, however, has been quite predictable. This is a situation that involves India’s partners and principles, and the establishment of another precedent for a policy approach (military intervention) that India has stated it does not support.

Delhi did not approve of the actions of its American and European partners vis-à-vis Ukraine prior to and during the protests in Kyiv and elsewhere. This reflects its general opposition to external actors getting involved in the domestic political affairs of any country. There has also been general discomfort about, if not disapproval or dislike of, what’s perceived as U.S. support for democracies and democratization only to the extent that voters elect governments that Washington likes or prefers. Despite this disapproval, there was no public comment, given India’s close relations with the U.S. and some of the other European countries involved.

As for the reaction to Russia’s actions on February 27-28, those created an awkward situation for India as well. India’s relationship with Russia, as many have pointed out, is long-standing and stems from different imperatives. Russia remains the largest source of military equipment for India and a key diplomatic partner. Moscow’s willingness at times to use its veto in the U.N. Security Council for Indian interests adds to the value of the relationship. Accurately or inaccurately, many also consider Russia to have stood by India in the past when few others had. Given this relationship and the above-mentioned disapproval of the U.S. and EU approach, there’s little desire in Delhi to come out swinging against Moscow. On the other hand, while India is disapproving of external political intervention, it is even more disapproving of military intervention. While some observers argue that Russia’s action does not have implications for India because of India’s size and its nuclear deterrent, it is not lost on the government that it has two neighbors (at least one larger than it) with whom it has territorial disputes and who claim historical, ethnic or religious linkages with groups in India.

Not Unusual

Some have said that India’s relative silence is evidence of the end of the days of India’s “moralistic running-commentary on world affairs”—a phrase made famous by then minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor. However, historically, it has not been unusual for India to stay relatively silent or temper criticisms on issues that aren’t in its immediate vicinity and in which its partners and principles are both involved—and at odds with each other. For example, when there was a Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia in 1968, even though public and parliamentary opposition to it was vocal, the Indian government avoided harsh criticism of the Soviet Union—a crucial partner at the time. A cabinet minister even resigned in protest against this approach. However, Indira Gandhi’s government did not change it, abstaining from voting on a resolution condemning the Soviet action because the wording could not be changed from “condemn” to “deplore.”

Lest one think Indian reticence is reserved for Moscow’s actions, there are instances of India holding back when the U.S. was seen as a crucial partner as well. In 1961, when news of the Bay of Pigs invasion emerged, then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried to avoid commenting on the situation even as condemnation came from various global quarters. His government ensured that the issue was not discussed in parliament. Under pressure, especially from the communist parties, to comment, Nehru eventually stated in parliament that he could not see how the invasion could have occurred without American help or encouragement. Just a few days later, however, he played down his previous criticism and expressed faith in U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s assurances that there would not be American military intervention in Cuba.

There have been numerous other such instances in Indian history. There have also been instances when immense public pressure or domestic criticism has led Indian governments to change its stance. For example, Nehru eventually speaking up against Soviet actions in Hungary in 1956 or, a decade later, Indira Gandhi expressing criticism of U.S. actions in Vietnam, moving away from the relative official Indian silence (including her own) on the subject until that point. In other instances, India has moderated its stance when its interests vis-à-vis a major power involved have changed. For example, after initially criticizing the American military intervention in Iraq, then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government seriously considered joining the U.S. “coalition of the willing.”

The Situation Today

Questions about the Indian attitude today are obviously intertwined with the discussion about what kind of role India will play in the world. However, thus far the Indian government has calculated that it has more to lose from taking a more active stance than to gain in terms of others’ perceptions of it. There’s also the fact that loud pronouncements might lead to others noting that India has intervened politically and militarily in its own neighborhood in the past as well, albeit perhaps for different reasons.

Furthermore, there is little domestic interest in developments in Ukraine. With national elections around the corner and few direct Indian interests in Ukraine, attention and coverage have been quite limited. There have been a couple of editorials calling for a diplomatic resolution. Another editorial went further, criticizing Russia for its actions and the U.S., U.N. and EU for their “tepid response.” There have also been some analytical pieces on whether or not recent developments signify a return to the Cold War. However, analytical pieces have been few and far between. Even opinion pieces have been fairly limited, other than a couple from two former Indian diplomats who have traditionally been skeptics of “the West.” Unsurprisingly, their pieces blamed the U.S. and EU for the crisis, criticized Western “interference” in Ukraine and expressed understanding of Russia’s interests. Even these commentators, however, didn’t see an acceptable resolution as one that would involve a Russian takeover of Crimea.

There has been some commentary that beyond the fact that India has relations with a number of the major powers involved, the Ukraine issue “doesn't matter to India much.” Most Indian economic analysts, however, have disagreed. They have been concerned about the negative impact on the stock market, the value of the rupee and energy prices. This reason is indeed partly why India would like to see the crisis resolved speedily and peacefully.