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Naatu Naatu’s Kyiv Connection, a Bihari in Russian Parliament, India’s Ukrainian Diplomacy and Other Stories

Naatu Naatu’s Kyiv Connection, a Bihari in Russian Parliament, India’s Ukrainian Diplomacy and Other Stories

  • As host of the G20, India’s actions and statements will be watched closely and the run-up to the summit can potentially provide a way out of this mess. If New Delhi succeeds in pushing for peace, it will be India’s big moment on the international stage.

It feels great to write about India and Ukraine when the Telugu dance number ‘Naatu Naatu’ from the Telugu film “RRR,” bagged an Oscar. This song is thrilling and wowing audiences in India and worldwide. But did fans know that the backdrop for this song and dance sequence was the Mariinksy Palace in Kyiv, the Ukrainian President’s official residence? Of course, right now, Volodymyr Zelensky, with an unshaven face and military-like clothing, is bravely leading his country from a bunker. Hopefully, things will improve, and the President and his people can soon shake a leg to ‘Naatu Naatu’ and Eurovision contests.

A little over a year back, on 24 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a special military operation “to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime.” One year on, a fierce war is underway in Ukraine, bringing with it more death and destruction, and no end is within sight.

In the last few days, the media has reported the likelihood of Putin attending the G20 Summit in India in September this year. Before that, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit would have taken place in Goa from 4-5 May 2023 with dignitaries from China, Central Asian states, and Pakistan and giving the Russian President company were it to attend this one also in person. Hopefully, Putin, like Zelensky, can celebrate the end of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in India with Goan food, music and dance.

This conflict has put some unwanted and unwarranted spotlight on India. New Delhi has been criticized for not adequately condemning the aggression or leaning toward Russia. Last September, Prime Minister Modi told Putin that now was not the time for war. Nothing more needs to be said by India. This was a preventable war, so why should it be India in the dock?

Abhay Singh, an Indian-origin Member of Russian Parliament from Putin’s United Russia Party.

Last year, early into the conflict, Ukraine’s Ambassador to India invoked Mahabharata and said, “Kyiv was “deeply disappointed” with India’s position, and Prime Minister Modi could do more. India-Ukraine ties may be a tale of a few missed opportunities and misunderstandings. Beyond frenetic diplomatic activity, many whataboutisms and alternative facts appear in a parallel New Delhi-Kyiv conversation through high-decibel language.

But for India, even during the Soviet era, Ukraine was important. India opened a consulate in the port city of Odessa as early as 1962. India-USSR trade was mostly routed through Ukrainian ports. The disintegration of the Soviet Union changed all that and Russia had little choice but to identify alternative ports on its own Black Sea coast and at other locations.

Expectedly, in this crisis, India’s immediate priority was to evacuate its stranded citizens. The Indian Government launched ‘Operation Ganga’, which successfully rescued almost 18,000 Indian students and nationals, bringing them safely back through bordering countries. This was a brilliant rescue operation by India, but something like this could be done only with the cooperation of both Ukraine and Russia. In this situation, Prime Minister Modi spoke separately to Zelensky and Putin, seeking cooperation in implementing the evacuation plan. An Indian minister claimed the war was stopped for 3 hours, and the stranded students were given safe passage.

Indian (and African students) complained that they had to battle racism at the hands of border guards as they struggled to reach frontier crossing points in wintery conditions. Some Pakistani students reportedly carried Indian flags to make the journey easier. A senior Ukrainian official expressed anguish that European people with blonde hair and blue eyes were being killed. It is understood that this official apologized quickly. To be fair to the concerned Ukrainian authorities, they must have done their best to help Indian nationals and others trying to leave as was humanly possible during a war.

Talking of Pakistan, our western neighbor has been working closely with Ukraine for almost three decades. Pakistan acquired nearly 320 Ukrainian T-80UD tanks between 1991-2020 and, in the more recent past, negotiated an $85.6 deal for their upgradation.

It may surprise some that one Abhay Singh, an Indian-origin legislator from Putin’s United Russia Party, is doing national duty in the Russian Parliament. As they say, Abhay ‘hails’ from Patna but is firmly committed to wholeheartedly representing Kursk city, the ruling Party and Russian sentiments. His message was that Ukraine was to Russia, what Pakistan was to India, and western powers had done a lot to create a feeling of mutual hatred. Alexey Kupriyanov from Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations reiterated the same easy-to-digest comparison.

Talking of Pakistan, our western neighbor has been working closely with Ukraine for almost three decades. Pakistan acquired nearly 320 Ukrainian T-80UD tanks between 1991-2020 and, in the more recent past, negotiated an $85.6 million deal for their upgradation. If media reports are to be believed, Pakistan may return 44 of these tanks to Ukraine, presumably for immediate use on the battlefield. Pakistan has also delivered ammunition to Ukraine, with these deals being facilitated by Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom. This is a win-win situation for both countries, with Kyiv getting additional supplies of weapons and Islamabad winning friends in the U.S. and elsewhere as it desperately negotiates with International Monetary Fund towards expeditiously inking a rescue package for its economy.

Incidentally, it is understood that Ukraine was interested in selling these tanks to India in the immediate aftermath of its independence. But for various reasons, this proposal did not go through. From India’s angle, it must have made sense to source most items from a single vendor, Russia, rather than go all over the former Soviet Union (FSU), hunting for supplies.

On 29 December 2022, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba criticized India for trying to profit from cheap Russian oil. Kuleba seemed to tell India there could be no neutrality in the face of mass war crimes by Putin’s army. An Indian may well ask a counter question why Ukraine was then doing deals with Pakistan, known for harboring terrorists and indulging in nuclear proliferation. Let us recall that Pakistan has even been described as a ‘Nuclear Walmart’ ready to sell nuclear technology for cash.

Going back in time, on 15 May 1998, at a UN disarmament forum, Ukraine condemned India by saying that it had voluntarily eliminated the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world and committed itself not to carry out nuclear testing. It accused India of endangering existing international nuclear non-proliferation arrangements. It is fascinating these days to read western writings in periodicals and newspapers speculating scenarios where Ukraine would still have been in possession of N-weapons, making life difficult for Russia.

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To be fair to New Delhi, India has been measured in its pronouncements on Russia-Ukraine issues. For instance, in March 2018, in response to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, India reiterated its consistent position on issues of unity and territorial integrity of countries. India cannot, for instance, help legitimize Pakistan’s illegal occupation of its territory by justifying Moscow’s actions concerning Crimea.

Interestingly, one of India’s most visible opposition leaders came perilously close to criticizing Russia for having attacked Ukraine. During his UK visit on 2 January this year, one of them said, “Essentially, what the Russians have done in Ukraine is that they have said we do not want Ukraine to have a strong relationship with the West and they have basically told the Ukrainians that if you will have a strong relationship with the West, we will alter your geography. That is the exact same principle that can be applied to India.”

In an article in a prominent English newspaper published in northern India on 7 March 2023, the author argued that a position of neutrality on Ukraine might have diminishing returns because the Kashmir issue had been pushed to the backburner at UN Security Council. To strengthen this line of thinking, Pakistan’s young Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, on 11 March 2023, admitted that despite best efforts, his country had failed to gather support in the United States for the Kashmir issue.

India’s actions and statements will be watched closely because forthcoming global events in the country this year and the run-up to them can potentially provide a way out of this mess. If New Delhi succeeds in pushing for peace, this will be India’s big moment on the international stage.

There could be scope for other battles, and we can live with them. For instance, is Borsch (sour soup) Russian or Ukrainian?

Gitesh Sarma is a retired Indian diplomat.

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