Thursday, March 30, 2023

India and the Ukraine crisis

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By Dilip Bobb

New Delhi is caught in a cleft stick over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has close military ties with Moscow which it would be unwilling to jeopardize, and there are other reasons for India to walk a fine line. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first international leaders to speak to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin hours after the invasion and called for the “immediate cessation of violence”. In the phone conversation, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, Modi called for concerted efforts from all sides to return to the path of diplomatic negotiations and asserted that differences between Russia and NATO can only be resolved through “honest and sincere” dialogue.

President Putin briefed Prime Minister Modi about Ukraine, a Russian readout of the conversation said. Putin outlined the fundamental assessments of “Kiev’s aggressive actions” against the civilian population of Donbass, as well as the many years of “destructive policy” aimed at breaking the Minsk agreements. “In these circumstances, and also in connection with the unacceptable for Russia military development of the United States and its NATO allies on the territory of Ukraine, it was decided to launch a special military operation,” the Russian statement said on the conversation. Modi “thanked President Putin for the clarification and asked for assistance in ensuring the security of Indian citizens currently in Ukraine,” said the Russian statement. President Putin said: “necessary instructions” would be given.

The Modi-Putin telephonic talk came after Ukraine’s India envoy Igor Polikha said the country was “deeply dissatisfied” with New Delhi’s position on the deteriorating situation. Polikha said that PM Modi is among a very few global leaders to whom President Putin listens to and New Delhi can leverage its proximity with Moscow to control the situation. “I don’t know how many world leaders Putin may listen to. But the stature of Modi-ji makes me hopeful that in case of his strong voice, Putin at least should think over,” Ambassador Polikha said.

Apart from calling for a cessation of hostilities, India has so far avoided outright condemnation of Russia. India’s growing relationship with the US is also a factor that will impact its response to the invasion of Ukraine. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a telephone call with India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, stressing on the importance of a “strong collective response” to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Blinken dialled Jaishankar to discuss Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday.

For India, the immediate fallout will be on the stock markets, which crashed on Thursday to a level not seen for years. The other major fallout will be on oil prices. Crude crossed $100 for the first time since 2014. A $100/barrel mark on crude is here and all signals point to the commodity crossing those levels, if tensions escalate further and for longer between Russia and Ukraine. Experts say the global economy can withstand a short-lived price spike, but a spike with a higher peak and longer duration does much greater damage to global oil demand and its recovery to pre-pandemic levels. Eighty percent of India’s oil needs are met by imports and the Union finance minister now has another headache to contend with. As a nervous market is buffeted by Ukraine, Covid recovery and oil price, it is a trying time for the Indian economy. Links between financial markets and geopolitical strife remains uncertain, but uncertainty is the last thing the markets need after hitting record highs in recent months. Other major factors that will have a role to play are that inflation will rise and retail prices will show an uptick, as India will have to pay more for imports. Russia and Ukraine are both major trading partners.

The other issue raised by the PM in his telephonic talk with Putin was to do with concerns about the safety of around 15,000 students in Ukraine. With the Russian operation having closed off the airspace to civilian flights, Indian students are stranded in the east European country. Only around 450 students were air lifted by Air India before Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian flights. Jaishankar has been in touch with his counterparts in Ukraine’s western neighbours—Poland, Romani, Hungary and Slovakia—to seek their help in facilitating the transit of Indian students through their borders. Indian officials have already been sent to these land borders. From Kyiv, it would take about nine hours to reach Poland and 12 hours to the Romanian border.

Read the related article: War of the World

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