Frank talk with Biden on Ukraine may help

Ukrainian soldiers walk nonchalantly in Bakhmut city, a strategic hub, amidst Russia’s attacks, Donetsk, Oct. 2, 2022

The inconclusive outcome of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phone call with Ukraine President Vladymyr Zelensky on Wednesday could have been easily foretold. The initiative simply didn’t make sense. 

Before Modi’s call, Zelensky had already sought a fast-track NATO membership in a dramatic move underscoring that Kiev is entitled to access the alliance’s vast military resources to fight Russia; he also signed a presidential decree thereafter ruling out any talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Again, only earlier this week itself, the Biden administration had made it unambiguously clear that this is not the time for negotiations. In effect, both Zelensky and Biden literally smothered Putin’s Sept. 30 offer of negotiations. 

Following up on President Biden’s call with Zelensky on Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on the latest “drawdown” of $625 million worth additional arms, munitions, and equipment for Ukraine from the Pentagon inventories:  

“We will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and independence with extraordinary courage and boundless determination.  The capabilities we are delivering are carefully calibrated to make the most difference on the battlefield and strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table when the time is right.” [Emphasis added]    

The thrust of Blinken’s remark is: ‘There is a time to fight and a time to negotiate and at a juncture when the Ukrainian counteroffensive is making some progress, the Biden Administration will prioritise the military path so that at some point in time in future Zelensky can negotiate with the Russians from a position of strength.’ 

Does that smack even remotely of any US interest in peace talks in time present? Certainly, not to my mind. The Indian foreign policy establishment must be aware that Zelensky will only do what Washington wants, which means that his decree ruling out talks with Putin is part of the White House’s long game to push for regime change in the Kremlin.  

The US estimates, rightly or wrongly, that the Ukrainian “counter offensive” should press ahead during the coming 6-8 weeks’ time, before Russian forces get beefed up with an additional 370,000 troops (which includes 300,000 by way of the partial mobilisation and another 70,000 volunteers.) 

Indeed, the Ukrainian side is bullish too, and is now claiming that from Liman city in Donetsk, which it captured last week, its forces intend to press ahead to push back the Russian forces in the entire Luhansk region, the eastern part of Donbass.

Against such a militaristic backdrop, it is preposterous that India is in such haste to release a peace dove into the sky. What was Delhi’s intention behind the call to Zelensky? To uphold “the importance of respecting the UN Charter, International Law, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states,” as the MEA readout says? Or, to emphasise that “endangerment of nuclear facilities could have far-reaching and catastrophic consequences for public health and the environment” (which is a well-known fact of life)?   

Indeed, while India’s abstention at the UN Security Council vote on September 30 was the right decision, our “explanatory note” turned out to be a badly drafted sheet of paper with staccato rhythm, which conveyed a sense of exasperation that India was called upon to put something on record. 

India is being evasive. Compare, for example, the Indian explanatory note with the cogent, well-argued, consistent Chinese statement made by its PR on September 30. Whereas India is dancing around the First Circle of the Ukraine question, the fact remains, as the Chinese ambassador put it, “the current crisis in Ukraine is a result of the accumulation and interplay of various problems and tensions over a long period of time. Facts have shown that political isolation, sanctions and pressurisation, fuelling the tensions, and bloc confrontation will not bring peace. Instead, they will only worsen the situation, and make the issue more complicated and intractable.” 

Shouldn’t India too develop an opinion on these core issues? Equally, it is incomprehensible that Modi is yet to have a call with Biden regarding Ukraine conflict. How could there be a Hamlet play without the Prince of Denmark? 

It will be incredible naïveté to think and act as if the conflict in Ukraine is between Russia and Ukraine. It’s a proxy war, stupid!  Therefore, having waded into the diplomatic arena, India should raise with the US its blatant interference in Ukraine. 

According to Blinken, the latest drawdown announced by Biden on Monday “will bring the total U.S. military assistance for Ukraine to more than $17.5 billion since the beginning of this Administration.” Now, let us ask Biden how his successive drawdowns have helped the cause of a ceasefire and “dialogue” as a near term priority. 

The point is, Zelensky has no real motivation to negotiate with Moscow so long as the Biden Administration is generously supplying  him with advanced weaponry. Not only weaponry; Russians have stated at the UN on Tuesday that Washington is “increasing the deliveries of weapons to Ukraine, providing its military with intelligence information, ensuring the direct participation of its fighters and advisers in the conflict. [This] not only prolongs hostilities and leads to new casualties, but also brings the situation closer to the dangerous line of a direct military clash between Russia and NATO.” 

Arguably, India’s topmost priority as a peacemaker at this crucial juncture of the Ukraine conflict — during a proverbial lull before the storm — ought to be to persuade Biden to beat the swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, as the Bible says. 

India, perhaps, is the only country that enjoys close friendly relations with both Washington and Moscow. Being a QUAD member and the “lynchpin” of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China, Delhi presumably wields some influence in the White House on issues affecting international security? Why not use some of that political capital for the noble cause of peace? After all, the US’ vital interests are not at stake in the conflict in Ukraine, which is 10,000 kilometres away from America’s shoreline. 

If India is dead serious in its mission to bring peace to the steppes along the Dnieper River, the thing to avoid is any temptation to do grandstanding, to create optics or to insert into the news cycle for its own sake. Go, instead, straight into the inferno and talk to Biden.