C. Raja Mohan writes: India’s Ukrainian Dilemma
As diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis in Ukraine continue, now is the time for Delhi to pay greater attention to central Europe, which is at the heart of the dispute between Russia and the West. Delhi cannot always see this critical region through the prism of Russia’s conflict with the West. It must deal with its growing strategic importance.
As prospects for defusing the crisis have grown amid the scheduled summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin – brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron – it is important to remember that Europe Central is no longer just a piece of territory that Russia and Western powers can divide into “spheres of influence”. Central Europe today has its own identity and the political agency to reshape European geopolitics. A big market between Russia and the West will only work if it is acceptable to Central Europe.
As External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar meets with all Indian Ambassadors to Europe this week, it is a good time to review Delhi’s stakes in European security and elevate the importance of Central Europe in the reckoning Indian geopolitics. Putin deliberately raised the military temperature around Ukraine. He presented a clear set of demands, in writing, to the United States and NATO for a radical overhaul of the current European security order that Putin views as hostile to Russia. At the heart of his proposals is the demand for a dominant role in Central Europe. One can quibble about Putin’s wisdom in embarking on this risky geopolitical gamble, but there can be no misinterpretation of what he is looking for. He wants to leverage military tension for specific political ends. As the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, said, quoting Clausewitz, “war (or the threat of war) is a continuation of politics (by other means)”.
Continued high-level talks between Putin and Western leaders could yet lead to de-escalation and substantive negotiations on European security. But the carefully crafted military tension on the ground could easily spiral out of control. Growing clashes between Ukrainian security forces and Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine could trigger an escalation neither side wants.
As the clouds of war gather over Ukraine, the focus is on India’s diplomatic poise, its reluctance to publicly warn Russia against invading Ukraine and, above all, its reluctance to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is not the first time that Russia’s approach to Central Europe has put Delhi in a difficult situation. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 revealed significant tension in Indian diplomacy.
In Central Europe, India’s pragmatism of not offending Moscow (an important partner) runs counter to the complete unacceptability of Putin’s doctrine of “limited sovereignty”, a continuation of the policy of Soviet era of saying that socialist states must subordinate their sovereignty in the name of the “collective interests of the socialist bloc”. While Putin’s predecessors, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, abandoned this doctrine, he sought to dramatically restore it by demanding Russian scrutiny of Ukraine’s geopolitical direction as well as a veto over Central European security policies.
The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 came amid Jawaharlal Nehru’s thunderous denunciation of the Anglo-French attempt to seize the Suez Canal. As Delhi minced its words on the Russian invasion of Hungary, many opposition leaders criticized Nehru’s ambivalence. That India needed the Soviet veto in the UN Security Council over the Kashmir issue clearly shaped Delhi’s willingness to subordinate its foreign policy principles to political expediency; but it exposed India to the accusation of diplomatic double standards. The invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the 1968 Prague Spring came at a time when Delhi was leading Asian criticism of the US war in Vietnam. As Delhi writhed in the diplomatic wind to balance its political dependence on Russia with its commitment to national sovereignty, it was again accused of geopolitical hypocrisy.
The potential Russian invasion of Ukraine comes amid India’s military tensions with China and Delhi’s continued reliance on military supplies from Moscow. It also comes at a time when Delhi is trying to build an international coalition against China’s brazen attacks on the territorial sovereignty of its Asian neighbors. Delhi has no desire to see this coalition crumble because of Russia’s aggressive actions in Europe.
For now, Delhi is in a safe corner in calling for diplomacy in resolving the Ukraine crisis. But if Russia invades Ukraine, the pressure on India to rethink its position will increase. Such an examination must ultimately lead to an independent appreciation of the geopolitics of Central Europe. Five crucial factors should shape this review.
First, Russia’s claim to a large sphere of influence in the region has no takers in Central Europe. Neither the former members of the Warsaw Pact like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, nor nations like Ukraine and the Baltic Republics that were part of the Soviet Union want to be part of the sphere of Putin’s reconstituted Russian influence.
Second, although Russia has legitimate security interests in Central Europe, they can only be achieved through political compromise. Moscow cannot impose a sphere of influence against the wishes of its potential members. Central Europeans have long memories of Russian regional domination and look to the West for guarantees of their sovereignty. Third, few central Europeans adhere to the French vision of “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”. They are betting that NATO, led by the United States, is a better option than a Europe independent of Washington. They see with even more disgust the prospects of a Russian-German condominium over central Europe. Fourth, while eager to be part of Western institutions, Central Europeans resent any attempt by the US and EU to impose political values that run counter to their traditional cultures. Finally, Central Europeans are keen to develop sub-regional institutions that can strengthen their identity. The Visegrad Four – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – is one of them. The so-called “Three Seas Initiative” brings together 12 European states operating in a vertical axis running from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and the Black Sea in the south.
These groups of states are both a barrier and a bridge between Russia and the West. They underscore the complexity of European geopolitics and are valuable partners for Delhi in India’s long-awaited strategic engagement with Europe.
The author is Senior Researcher, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and International Affairs Editor for The Indian Express.