Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s short visit to Germany pegged on the Indian-German Intergovernmental Commission meeting in Berlin on Monday inevitably came to focus on the Ukraine crisis. The western media would have loved to grill Modi on India’s reluctance to criticise Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. But German hosts thoughtfully skipped the customary Q&A after the joint appearance of Modi and Chancellor Olaf Scholz before the press.
India’s prudence is self-evident as much as Germany’s zealousness to flaunt its condemnation of Russia. Modi and Scholz are sailing in different boats. Modi draws flak for being a “strongman” who views the Ukraine crisis through the prism of India’s interests, while also taking a principled stance, whereas, Scholz carries the burden of vacuous moralising.
Scholz must prove constantly that he is indeed a loyal ally of President Biden and is by no means a “pacifist.” (To get a hang of Scholz’s predicament, read Spiegel’s maddening interview with him, here — alternatively annoying, infuriating, taunting, affronting and goading.)
Modi can afford to be nonchalant because he is clearheaded about where Indian interests lie — its strategic autonomy in a highly unpredictable international environment. But Scholz is nervous as a mouse because German interests are caught up betwixt the crosscurrents of European politics and the NATO’s epochal struggle to bring Russia down on its knees.
Modi is well ensconced in power while Scholz heads a precarious coalition of disparate partners. Modi could witness Scholz and his foreign minister Annalena Baerbock speaking in two different voices on Russia. Baerbock insisted that Russian forces should vacate Ukrainian soil before Western sanctions can be lifted, but Scholz toned down saying that the lifting of Western sanctions is linked to Russia and Ukraine reaching an agreement.
Germany is a divided house when it comes to Russia ties. On the contrary, aside the clutch of noisy American lobbyists operating in India, the Indian public at large recognises the centrality of India’s friendly relations with Russia.
India gets the space to manoeuvre, as Russia is excessively indulgent towards Delhi’ stance, which is, quintessentially, neither to support nor to oppose Moscow’s intervention — something like Professor Godbole in the EM Forster novel A Passage to India, a Brahman Hindu who is very spiritual and reluctant to become involved in human affairs.
Scholz who is new to international diplomacy could have learnt a thing or two from UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s recent visit to India. Johnson put Ukraine on the back burner and focused on the agenda of “Global Britain” to create his country’s post-Brexit pathway in India’s vast market.
That said, Scholz has done remarkably well in getting the US off his back over sanctions against gas supplies from Russia. Germany’s dependence on Russian supplies of oil and gas (and coal) has been heavy and the Americans accept it as a reality. The point is, Germany and Russia have had a dense relationship and Ukraine crisis comes handy for Washington to try to redefine the parameters within which German-Russian relations will work in future.
In India’s case, if Washington dared to bully the Modi government, it was largely because in the post-Cold War era, under successive Congress governments, India’s relations with Russia got atrophied to such an extent that Americans convinced themselves that it was a conscious Indian policy direction dictated by the compulsions of “Washington Consensus,” which has been a beacon light for India’s past leaderships. Unsurprisingly, the Biden Administration misjudged that Modi too must be fair game.
But the core difference between the German and Indian predicament is that while German industry is a stakeholder in the relationship with Russia, India’s corporate houses, for reasons best known to them, sidestep the Russian turf in deference to the US wish. Thus, Washington has powerful Indian lobbyists and, therefore, the Modi government’s audacity to pursue an independent policy toward Russia becomes commendable.
The chances are that Germany may pick up the threads of its relationship with Russia once the Ukraine conflict ends. In the chronicle of the “German Question” in European history, Russia had the role of a balancer, mostly. But there is a deep economic and political crisis waiting to erupt in Germany and how it pans out is crucial.
The rising inflation and the dramatic fall in living standards is souring the German mood, as the debris from Ukraine falls on it. So far, an estimated 5 million Ukrainian refugees have entered Europe. This figure is expected to double in a near future.
Meanwhile, the looming food crisis will also put tens of millions of people in Africa or the Middle East on the verge of starvation fuelling in turn large scale migration to Europe. Such migration will inevitably bring the dregs of Ukrainian society into Germany, which means that organised crime, human trafficking, illegal drug distribution and transnational crime, etc. will increase. Make no mistake that the Ukrainian mafia will introduce a new vicious culture of crime as it begins to dominate the European streets.
All in all, a fine balance has been struck during Modi’s visit. The joint statement conceded the host country’s prerogative to reiterate its “strong condemnation of the unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russian Forces.” But it formed a “stand alone” statement of a solitary sentence, which helps signal India’s distancing from it. Germany joined India’s call for an “immediate cessation of hostilities,” although Berlin just announced a major transfer of offensive weaponry to Ukraine as part of the US-led “coalition of the willing” and implicitly acquiesces with the Biden administration’s aggressive agenda of “weakening Russia” militarily.
Significantly, the sombre mood in Germany got reflected in the joint statement. The Indo-German economic relations are far below potential and will remain so. CNN carried a grim report in the weekend that not only is German economy is heading into a recession but may suffer “structural damage” that will make recovery a drawn-out process.
Clearly, behind the German rhetoric today, the fact remains that Berlin’s intelligence apparatus played a dubious role in Ukraine by navigating the ascendancy of the neo-Nazi forces to usurp power in Kiev in the coup in February 2014. This controversial past is now further complicated by Berlin fuelling the conflict by despatching tanks into Ukraine, which was after all the invasion route of Nazi Germany.
When it comes to Ukraine, Germany doesn’t make good company for India. We have a transparent record and with great honesty and integrity, Modi could forewarn , with Scholz listening, that “there will be no winning party in this war, everyone will suffer.”