How Feasible Is it For India to Broker Peace Between Russia and Ukraine?

New Delhi certainly has the ability and diplomatic space to lead an effort to halt the conflict. But a great deal depends on timing.

Some recent developments – Narendra Modi’s rebuke of Russia at the SCO summit in Samarkand, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to Moscow, a Washington Post story asking Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to be open to negotiations with Russia – have triggered speculation that New Delhi could possibly play the role of peacemaker in the Ukraine war. Does India have the necessary heft and stamina to take up the task?

Ƒor the record, speaking at a Hindustan Times event on Thursday, Jaishankar has said that it would be “premature” to speak of India acting as a mediator to make peace between Russia and Ukraine. Note that he did not reject the notion.

Wars end when one combatant decisively defeats the other, or when both are too exhausted to carry on. As of now, the war in Ukraine does not meet the first condition. Though it has reached a point where both have suffered grievous losses, they have not brought either Russia or Ukraine to the point of accepting a ceasefire. The Russians want the Ukrainian state erased and its army neutered, while the latter want the Russians to pull out of all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, pay war reparations and face war crimes tribunals.

The biggest task before a peacemaker is to provide a formula that would cut through the maximalist demands of either side, and through diplomacy and persuasion, set up conditions that could lead to a ceasefire.

Notwithstanding claims that countries are profiting from the war, the international community would want the war to end at the earliest. This is because it has already roiled the global economy and it comes with the ever-present danger of escalation to the nuclear level, something which will be destructive for everyone.

So, while India has escaped the energy price spiral by buying discounted Russian oil in ever larger quantities, it is not oblivious to the larger dangers the war brings and is therefore keen for it to end. It has repeatedly called for the ending of the war and a resolution of the issues in contention through dialogue. This was evident in the very public revelation that Prime Minister Modi told President Vladimir Putin at the sidelines of an SCO summit in Samarkand in September, that “this is not the era of war” and that the problem in Ukraine needs to be resolved through “diplomacy and dialogue”.

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On his return from Samarkand, Modi had dialled Zelensky at the beginning of October and offered to assist in initiating peace talks, noting that there was “no military solution” to the problem. But Zelensky had spurned the offer. In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 21, Zelensky had laid out “non-negotiable” conditions for peace that included punishment for Russian war crimes, restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity and security guarantees from other countries for Ukraine.

Recall the role India played in ending the war in Korea in 1953. New Delhi supported UNSC resolutions that sought to restore the status quo without criticizing any party, but it refused to support any moves to assign blame to one party or the other. It was able to engage all the principal players – the US, USSR and China – and succeeded in building consensus that led to the Armistice Agreement. Subsequently it played a role in implementing the agreement.

Are we at such a conjuncture with regards to Ukraine? Not quite. Most Western countries remain somewhat unhappy with New Delhi’s neutrality in the war, yet they realise that it has the credibility to engage Moscow. Last month, speaking at a conference in New Zealand, Jaishankar said that India was willing to do whatever was needed to facilitate talks.

A view shows a building of a local school destroyed during a Russian missile attack in the village of Novooleksandrivka, in Kherson region, Ukraine November 9, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko

For its part, despite some concerns over India’s close ties with Washington, Russia realises that India has taken a distinctive position driven by its own interests. In abstaining from censuring Russia at the UN, India was not unique; South Africa, or even American allies like the UAE and Turkey, did the same. But with all of Europe ranged against it, Moscow has come to realise the value of Asian friends like China and India.

Actually as Jaishankar keeps on repeating, India’s position on Ukraine has been taken with Indian interests in mind. But definitely, New Delhi does not see the continuance of the war as being in its interests. Besides the importance of ending the war which is generating global turbulence, it is also India’s interests that the Russians, who are the principal source of India’s military equipment do not go deeper into the mire, something that could also skew their relationship with India’s bête noire, China.

Russia and Ukraine held several rounds of talks to halt the February invasion and cease fire. There were reports of proposals, such as a Ukrainian commitment not to join NATO if the Russians withdrew to the pre-war borders. There were also suggestions, such as that by Henry Kissinger that Ukraine cede Crimea and Donbas formally in exchange for peace. Western leaders like President Macron of France have been quite explicit in saying that a settlement would require the Ukrainians to sit down with the Russians and work out terms. Though, he did say that the timing should be decided by Kyiv.

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But in September, with the Russian decision to annex Ukrainian territory, all talk of dialogue and negotiation has gone. Though diplomacy allowed grain exports to be resumed through the Black Sea, October has seen a new and deadly Russian missile bombardment that has escalated the conflict to the point where even countries like China and India have called for de-escalation.

New Delhi certainly has the ability and diplomatic space to lead an effort to halt the conflict. But a great deal depends on timing. In a warlike situation, there are always spoilers lurking in the wings. India’s substantial standing in Moscow cannot be doubted. But minus some sort of a go-ahead from the US, the task would be difficult since New Delhi lacks the kind of traction needed in Kyiv. But at the end of the day, what matters would be whether Ukraine and Russia have been softened up enough to move “off ramp”.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Note: This article was edited after publication to add a reference to S. Jaishankar’s comments at a Hindustan Times event.