Listen to this article:
The global role for India that New Delhi claims is its manifest destiny is slipping away over the horizon above eastern Europe.
There is disbelief in Turtle Bay over India’s mealy-mouthed response at the UN Security Council to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The heavily caveated, and ultimately meaningless, remarks by India’s permanent representative to the UN at the emergency meeting on Ukraine refused to call out Vladimir Putin for tearing up the post-Cold War order that has maintained a warmer and more prosperous peace in Europe since 1990.
India’s subsequent abstention on Friday on the vote at the Security Council ‘deplor[ing] in the strongest terms’ Russia’s ‘aggression’ against Ukraine has put distance between India’s diplomacy and the rest of the Security Council, barring Russia, China and the UAE. This is not a bridge-building abstention; rather, this is missing the point, because in the eyes of the United States and its NATO and other Western European allies, Russia’s actions are a violation of a ‘rules based order’. Nor is it a matter of interpretation. There was little room for doubt in President Joe Biden’s candid assessment on Thursday that the two countries have not ‘resolved… completely’ their differences on this issue. Just in case further clarity was required, Biden continued, ‘Any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.’
This is, of course, not the first time that India has fumbled in response to developments in Moscow. But a country that will not study its history objectively is condemned to repeat it. Jawaharlal Nehru paid a price in terms of international credibility for not responding sharply and publicly when Soviet troops rolled into Hungary in 1956. Then too, India’s representative at the UN, Krishna Menon, had abstained on the vote condemning the Soviet Union, much to the United States’ disbelief and dismay. It is therefore ironic that the Modi government, which has made a cottage industry of criticising Nehru, appears now to be repeating that same silence that condemned Nehru to the charge of double standards. New Delhi stumbled again in its response to the attempted August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, instead of joining with international condemnation of the tanks rolling towards Red Square, spoke of this coup as a lesson to those who wanted to bring about change too rapidly.
To be clear, what is happening in Ukraine is not about change or self-determination. It is about tearing up an international agreement encapsulated in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that protected Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But it is also much wider than that, for tied up in the Budapest Memorandum is a host of assumptions about a rules-based international order, the sanctity of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the norms that govern the way states resolve their differences.
The break-up of the Soviet Union was hastened by Ukraine’s referendum in December 1991 in which Ukrainians (including those in the Donbass region) overwhelmingly voted for independence. With this, Ukraine became the third-largest nuclear weapons state, after the United States and Russia, and ahead of the UK and France. Ukraine was persuaded to give up its nuclear arsenal (which was stored on Ukrainian land, but controlled by Moscow) and sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state. In return, the US, UK and the Russian Federation (as nuclear weapons states) committed to recognising and respecting the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine (and Belarus and Kazakhstan, who also acceded to the NPT as non-NWS); extended assurances against the use or the threat of use of force; refrained from the use of nuclear weapons against them; and promised to consult if any of these commitments were called into question.
Assurances, of course, are not a legal commitment to military assistance. But those who argue that there is no legally binding provision for upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity may wish to pause and consider the lesson this whole sorry episode offers on giving up nuclear weapons. Some observers might well conclude that had Ukraine not renounced its share of the Soviet stockpile and retained possession of that arsenal, even without control of it, the international community (including Russia) might have tried a little harder to resolve the simmering tensions that Putin harbours over Ukraine.
But it is not just the NPT that is being stretched by Russia’s aggression. It is, as Blinken argued, a question of defending a rules-based international order. Richard Haas probably mirrors the official position in Washington, DC when he observes that the Indian stance ‘despite Russia’s blatant aggression vs Ukraine highlights that it remains unprepared to step up to major power responsibilities or be a dependable power. Disappointing as well as short-sighted, given the rise of China.’
In contrast, the Kenyan representative to the United Nations has showed India how an aspiring post-colonial state ought to respond. Martin Kimani’s intervention at the Security Council debate on Ukraine is worth quoting at length for his nuanced approach to a difficult history that still robustly defends the rules-based order that builds on that past. Speaking of the need to ‘settle for the borders that we inherited’, Ambassador Kimani went on to explain that:
“Rather than form nations that looked ever backwards into history with a dangerous nostalgia we chose to look forward… We chose to follow the rules of the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations Charter not because our borders satisfied us but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace. We believe that all states formed from Empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighbouring states. This is normal and understandable. …However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. …We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis including racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors. We reject it again today.”
A yearning for the past; irredentism and expansionism: India arguably suffers from one, and is currently threatened by the other. It is a rules-based order that protects the sovereignty of states, which India has so robustly defended with respect to what happens within its borders. It is a rules-based system that protects the sanctity of borders, which India is hoping other states feel as strongly about when it comes to differences with China over the LAC. Abandoning these goes back to a pre-Westphalian jungle where, as Thucydides remarked a few millennia ago, ‘The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.’ India’s larger neighbour to its north, with a defence budget three times that of India, greater manpower, a larger airforce, navy and nuclear stockpile, might well be taking note.
Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher who primarily focuses on security and politics in the Indian subcontinent, especially nuclear politics.