India’s Response to Russia’s War in Ukraine
India’s Response to Russia’s War in Ukraine
Podcast / Asia 20+ minutes

India’s Response to Russia’s War in Ukraine

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks with Crisis Group trustee and former Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon about New Delhi’s response to the Ukraine war, India’s foreign policy and why the war could strain relations between Western capitals and the rest of the world.

Since late February, when Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border en masse, India has steered what it portrays as a neutral course on the war. It has abstained on UN votes condemning Russia’s invasion. New Delhi refuses to publicly blame Moscow for the crisis, even while emphasising India’s traditional respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. It has maintained India’s historically close ties to Moscow, increasing Russian oil imports and receiving Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on a diplomatic visit in April. Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended, along with his Argentinian, Indonesian, Senegalese and South African counterparts, the summit of the G7 — or Group of Seven — which brought together leaders from seven industrialised countries, mostly NATO member states. On the agenda were the Ukraine war, its wider ramifications and ways to tackle rising commodity prices, as well as other global challenges. 

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks with Crisis Group trustee and former Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon about India’s foreign policy and its response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They discuss Modi’s participation in the G7 summit and look back at what has motivated New Delhi’s response to the war, particularly its relations with Russia. They talk about the key priorities driving India’s foreign policy and its security dilemmas in Asia, notably its border dispute with China in the Himalayas and its long rivalry with Pakistan. They discuss India’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, Japan and the U.S. and what role the Quad might play in Asian security in the years ahead. They also talk about the contrast between the way New Delhi and other non-Western capitals view the Ukraine war, especially Western sanctions against Russia, and the views among NATO leaders. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the war in Ukraine, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Ukraine country page.

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt.

Richard  00:06
Hi and welcome to Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. Today, we’re going to talk about India’s response to the war in Ukraine and what it says about India’s place in the world, Asian geopolitics and some of the Ukraine war’s global reverberations.

Clip  00:20
India is not a member of the G7 nations. But India has been invited. And this comes on the heels of the West’s and India's different stances on the Russian war on Ukraine. The United States and Europe have chosen to go the sanctions way but India instead has chosen diplomacy. The question of course is, will New Delhi's cameo in Germany affect its relations with Moscow?

Richard  00:41
So just last week, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi attended the G7 Summit, along with leaders from Argentina, Indonesia, Senegal and South Africa. Since late February, when Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border en masse, India has largely steered what it portrays as a neutral course on the war. It abstained on UN votes condemning Russia’s invasion. New Delhi refuses to blame Moscow for the crisis, even while emphasising its respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. Its position prompted warm words from Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, when he was visiting the Indian capital last April.

Clip  01:15
Our Western colleagues would like to reduce any meaningful international issue to the crisis in Ukraine. You know our position. We do not hide anything and we appreciate that India is taking this situation in the entirety of facts, not just in a one sided way.

Richard  01:41
So, why has the world’s largest democracy chosen, like many other countries in the global south, to sit this one out? What does it say about India’s foreign relations, Asian politics more broadly and how the war is perceived in the non-Western world? I'm really delighted today to be joined by Shivshankar Menon, former Indian Foreign Secretary, National Security Adviser and a Crisis Group trustee. Shankar is also the author of a widely acclaimed book, India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past and Present, which was published about a year ago. It's a book obviously about Asia but its insights and analysis and prescription are really global in scope. Shankar, welcome on. Thanks so much for joining today.

Shankar  02:20
Thank you. And thank you for having me. It's good of you to ask.

Richard  02:24
So Shankar let’s start with that G7 meeting. Modi was there as we heard. But if Western leaders hoped it might be an opportunity for the Indian premier to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine more explicitly, that didn’t happen? 

Shankar  02:41
I'm not sure that it was actually an effort that was designed to shift the Indian position on Ukraine because Indian Prime Ministers have attended G8/G7 meetings since 2005 as invitees, depending on what was being discussed. And, I think it's been quite clear, over the last few months, where India stands on the war in Ukraine. That it certainly doesn't approve of the invasion. But it doesn't think that the continuation of the war is going to lead to any good result for anyone. And, frankly, that both sides need to get to the table and find peace and find a peace which respects Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. So, I think from an Indian point of view, you know, in the same week, Prime Minister Modi had just been to the BRICS summit with Putin, Xi Jinping, it was a virtual summit. But in the same seven days, he then went to the G7, met with them, and then visited the UAE on his way back to India. So I think for India, this is part of being in touch with everyone, of working with everyone, of trying to further what India sees as the big issues of our day. First, obviously, is peace and security. I think there's no question the Ukraine war brings that home to us every day. But there are also other big issues, the debt crisis in developing countries. The IMF now says that 41 developing countries are at risk of debt default. There's a food crisis going on,  thanks to food prices going through the roof. But this is not only a result of the Ukraine war, these are both crises that have been there for three or four years. We've been raising it in the G20. We raised it at the G7 as well. And, of course, climate change on top of all this. So we have fundamental issues to discuss with our partners. And it's been our practice as India to work with everyone to try and find something that works for everyone as well.

Richard  04:49
And so we'll come back to some of those crises that you talked about. But could we back up a little bit and talk about India's response to the war in Ukraine? I mean, since the Russian invasion in late February, India has abstained on a couple of the UN General Assembly votes. It's distanced itself like many governments across parts of the world from the West's efforts to isolate Russia. How would you describe the motives behind the Indian response to the war?

Shankar  05:20
From an Indian point of view, there's been a war going on in Ukraine for several years. I mean, Crimea was taken in 2014. But there's been a proxy war for a long time. And now it's become a state to state, a straightforward invasion by Russia into Ukraine in February. And we have consistently argued that all sides, whether it's the rest of Europe, western Europe, whether it's Russians, whether it's primarily the Ukrainians, but the U.S., they all have interests in this. And these interests need to be sorted out across the table, not either by invasion, or military means and not by isolating one or the other, or trying to destroy one or the other country involved in this because, frankly, none of those solutions are going to be long lasting and permanent. And this is why we've stressed from the beginning, why we abstained on the resolutions. We’ve stressed that we don't think name-calling or sanctions is the way forward to solve the problem. And neither do we think an invasion is a solution to the problem. The way forward is to sit and adjust one's interests. And there are core interests here. After all, the eastern borders of Ukraine are less than 300 miles from Moscow. So missiles, NATO troops on Ukrainian soil would be seen as a threat by Moscow. But at the same time, the western borders of Ukraine are less than 100 miles from Vienna from Prague, Warsaw, and also 300 miles from Berlin. So vice versa, Russian troops and missiles in Ukraine will be seen as a threat by the others. So there has to be some way of adjusting these interests around the table through negotiation. And that's really what we would support. But isolating Russia, driving her economy into the dirt, or creating actually a highly militarised and polarised Europe, I don't see that contributing to a stable European security order. And that's what this is about, primarily about a European security order, which works for the Europeans.

Richard  07:24
And what would you say to the argument, which is felt certainly in parts of Europe, in the U.S., felt very strongly that this is a major violation of international law? The gravest since the Iraq war, for example. A major violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. Just as the G7 and NATO were meeting, these Russian missile strikes killed a lot of civilians. What do you make of the argument that is, again, very deeply felt in Western capitals, that this is a global challenge. And this is not just about European security, it’s about the sort of violation of international law matters more broadly, and it’s very difficult to compromise when that's what's sitting at the other side of the table?

Shankar  08:01
Let me deal with them one by one. Moral outrage: all sides claim moral outrage and normally use that to motivate their own population and to justify what they're doing. And in post colonial societies like India, frankly, listening to moral outrage from countries which have a history, it doesn't go down very well. So forgive me if you find cynicism. And this is not just in India, if you look at the number of countries who chose not to sign on to sanctions, or who chose one way or the other to maintain links with Russia. So this is not just a purely Indian phenomenon. But moral outrage I'm not sure justifies anything. In fact, the danger with moral outrage taken to an extreme is that it prevents you from arriving at reasonable solutions which accommodate various interests. Legality: yes, it's illegal, but it's not the first illegal act. I mean, each one thinks everybody else’s is the most illegal and the most criminal. But I'm sorry, for an objective observer, legality has been in short supply in international relations for some time. And frankly, look how few cases of invasions, of sanctions, of actions against other states have been taken to the Security Council, which ultimately could legalise these in the last few years. In fact, it's getting less and less if you look at the numbers. We have a practical problem in the Ukraine right now, which does have global effects. It has huge effects on energy prices, on gas, on food prices. It accentuates the economic hardship that the global economy is threatening to be faced with. And certainly, yes, but it's not a challenge to the global order. By the way, it's a challenge to the European order. It doesn't change the balance of power in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, on the Eurasian continent. And frankly, because to my mind, when you look at the world today, for some time now, we have been in a world between orders. This is not a very orderly or just world that we're living in, you could say we had a bipolar world order in the Cold War, you could say that then morphed into a unipolar moment when the U.S. was the sole superpower and, frankly, still is the sole superpower. There is no other power, which has reach across the world.

Richard  10:42
As in the only power that's able to project militarily between continents?

Shankar  10:46
Militarily. Wherever she wants to cross, whenever she wants to. And no, there is no other power that can do that. But as I've argued for some years, from about 2008, 2012 maybe onwards, you can date it differently. We are really between orders. The old post-World War Two order is not working. It's not delivering. And this is why when you look around you today, all the great powers are revisionists, every one of them is a revisionist. This is a very strange situation. As a result, we've made our multilateral institutions very weak and ineffective. When you look at the response of the multilateral system to Covid. Pathetic. So for me, this is a situation where that’s where the real danger comes. Because it's a situation without order, without agreement between the powers on how the world runs, on the norms that we should be following, even on the legality which we claim to follow. But frankly, it's hard to think of a power which cannot be accused of hypocrisy.

Richard  11:54
How would you define the U.S. as revisionist?

Shankar  11:57
Well, they’re building back better? What is that? That's changing today's world to go back to something they regard as better? That's revisionist. And when you're talking of a free and open Indo-Pacific, for instance, what you're implying is that it's not free and open today. And we need to work to make it free and open. There's a whole host of things. I mean, the U.S. has changed position on many things, on the WTO, on international trade.

Richard  12:26
And so part of the Indian response to Ukraine, as you say, has been informed by the Indian perspective on the war. But it's also presumably been informed to some degree by India's relations with Moscow.

Shankar  12:41
But it also serves India's interests. For India, it's an impossible choice between the West on the one hand, the U.S., and Russia and other continental nations on the other. You know, my sort of summary is that Russia is a desirable partner. Russia is willing to do things with India on the defence side, for instance, which the U.S. and other partners are not. But the U.S. and the West is an essential partner if we are to transform India, whether in terms of technology, in terms of markets, in terms of, you know, other forms of assistance, and frankly, it's the West we work with. And our best years have been when we turned and transformed that relationship with the U.S. in the last two decades and a half. And those have really been the years when India has managed to eliminate the most poverty, to actually grow fastest and to transform ourselves. So the West is an essential partner, but I have to choose between them? In security terms, India is both a maritime power and continental power in Eurasia. And quite frankly, on land in Eurasia, our biggest security challenge, of course, is China with whom we have a very complicated and difficult relationship. But on land, in Eurasia, the U.S. is absent. So we work with who we can, who will we work with? We have to work with Russia, we have to work with Iran. Now, this might not be popular in the U.S. So when it comes to the Indo-Pacific, when it comes to maritime Asia, we do things with the U.S. which we've never done with any other power. We have interoperability to a degree between our armed forces, to a degree that we've never had before with anyone. And, frankly, we've transformed that relationship with U.S. And it's critical to us. So for us, when it's presented as a choice, we recoil because we have no other way of reconciling our various interests.

Richard  14:48
Though this neutrality, as India portrays it, has obviously come in for some criticism in Western capitals, disappointment that a U.S. partner – a country with which it has important relations – isn’t prepared to more explicitly condemn Russia’s invasion? 

Shankar  15:05
I think we need to distinguish between those who are actually tasked with running governments, who I think are quite realistic about this and always have been, have always understood that this is not a new phenomenon. This was true when the George W. Bush administration had sanctions on Iran, for instance. I've always found that those who face practical political problems of governance are normally quite understanding. That is not the case in public commentary, in the media. It's also not always the case among legislators, where as you said, emotion runs high, especially when it's a war, people are dying, you see refugees, seven million refugees, no small number. So, you know, in places like Congress, like the European Parliament, one expects a slightly different and less, let's say, realistic response. But I do want to underline one thing. In practice, everybody, no matter what the public rhetoric and positioning might be, whether it's India, whether it's China, we've all actually been respecting sanctions on Russia. Nothing we've done actually contradicts the sanctions, we're not the only ones buying oil from Russia. So is Europe. And probably by much more than we are, and that's because as I said, the West is an essential partner. And there's no way that we want to risk secondary sanctions. We have big interests at stake here. So I think people understand that we are following our interests, as we see them. They will try and persuade us of why we should be working more closely with them. And that's literally politics, we will try and persuade them of the way we see it. And then we find a way forward together. We're not allies, but we're partners, is the way I would describe it. 

Richard  17:02
You mentioned a couple of times India's relations with China. China's rise will sort of define Asian geopolitics in some way, global geopolitics over the foreseeable future. And India sort of has this, you know, as you said, there have been over the last few years these tensions mounting over the line of actual control of the border in the Himalayas, with deadly clashes over the past few years. At the same time, trade with China has never been higher. I mean, in 2020-2021, China is now India's top trading partner

Shankar  17:34
Was. The U.S. has overtaken them again. They’re neck and neck every other year for the last three years.

Richard  17:45
But still, this interesting dynamic which you know, in some ways defines some other countries' relationships as well, where you have enormous amounts of trade. And this shared interest of keeping that trade going. And yet politically, and in the case of China and India, you know, along the border in the Himalayas, these real tensions that have caused some real damage to the relationship over the past few years. How would you see that combination?

Shankar  18:11
I think you're absolutely right. I mean, drawing attention to both extremes, we now have a relationship, which actually spans a much larger part of that spectrum, between conflict and true peace and cooperation. It seems to me we have the same issue in our relationship with China that the U.S. has. China is the United States’ largest trading partner, but at the same time, we do have a series of strategic interests which seem to be in opposition. And in our case, we actually have a boundary dispute – the world’s largest boundary dispute – and we had deaths on the border in 2020. So political relations today are really in the deep freeze, but the economic relationship goes on and continues. And we have to see how we're going to try and manage this. I've been arguing for some time that we need a proper strategic dialogue with the Chinese where we look at our core interests – both sides and see where they actually can accommodate each other. Where they rub up against each other. And how do we manage those differences and find ways to do this, which we did quite successfully – managing, not settling it, but managing it for about 30 years, when we kept the peace. The border stayed roughly where it was, nothing much changed. And we developed a trading relationship that now surprises us with its numbers. So it's going to be this mix of cooperation and competition. And it is difficult. And I think it's been made more difficult by the very rapidly shifting balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, by the fact that domestic politics in India, in China got complicated by Covid, by an economic downturn and the global economic downturn, but also domestically. And where, frankly, the social contract is being renegotiated in both societies, in very fundamental ways. You can see it in our politics, you can see it in Chinese politics as well. They're heading towards the party congress, which is always a sensitive time. So there are so many moving parts now, which affect that relationship. And I think actually domestic politics has a much greater role in India-China relations today than maybe it did earlier, making it much more difficult, therefore, to manage this mixture of competition, cooperation, all at the same time. And with some pretty explosive disputes at a time where the sense of nationalism is running high and both societies. A boundary dispute,  these things become very, very sensitive and much harder to deal with. So, my own hope is that we show enough sense – the both of us – to sit across the table and see how we deal with it. And I wouldn't set, you know, very grand goals of settling everything or finding a way out. I would actually think that the best thing to do is to see how we manage it so that we can then move towards settling some of our differences. But I don't think either the international context or the domestic politics today supports very much more than that in both countries.

Richard  21:32
I'd like to come to relations with the U.S. and with the West in a moment. But perhaps, Shankar, before we do we could just talk very briefly about Pakistan, which is to some degree part of the relationship with China – with which Pakistan has close relations. So, on the one hand, there have been back channel talks over recent months with Pakistan, certainly a step forward and agreement to respect the 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control in Kashmir. At the same time, the situation in Kashmir itself has become sort of increasingly desperate to the BJP, the ruling party has taken really quite a hardline nationalist position and so stripped Jammu Kashmir of its special status, revoked other parts of its autonomy. I mean, I think the administered Kashmir is still under lockdown. For the past couple of years, internet phone service has been intermittently cut off and many people detained, including the political leaders who are nominally pro-India. So you've had this sort of rise in militancy, which New Delhi blames on Pakistan – for good reason, given the track record of Pakistan – but appears at the moment to be mostly homegrown to Kashmir. Given the situation in Kashmir, is there any hope that the back channel talks sort of lead to something that's more permanent between India and Pakistan?

Shankar  22:54
My own sense is that Pakistan itself is going through an internal crisis. So it has a political crisis, but more than that, it has a very serious economic crisis. It can't repay its debts. And you know, it's talking to the IMF. And the kind of steps that the IMF would expect, which make economic sense, don't make political sense, especially not to a government which faces an election–

Richard  23:19
A dilemma – economic reforms that are politically painful, potentially even destabilising, that quite a few countries are facing at the moment.

Shankar  23:27
Quite a few. And the strange thing is how many countries around India, we've seen five governments change around us in the last year: Myanmar through a coup, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives. And we've seen this incipient debt crisis. Sri Lanka's defaulted already, also is talking to the IMF. But if you look at the economic and political condition of our immediate neighbourhood, in the subcontinent, it's not good. And it's hard to see this kind of domestic politics – very divided – and economic crisis being conducive to anything grand like a big India-Pakistan settlement. But it does also induce some reason and it helps to concentrate the mind. After all, when we decided to resume and implement the ceasefire of 2003, it's held for the last year or so. And both sides have respected it because they have other more important burning fires to deal with. It's not the best reason. But at least, you know, for whatever motive you're doing the right thing. Militancy is an industry in Pakistan, and it's clear that that will go on. In fact, what happened in Afghanistan, the Taliban coming to power, actually strengthened militancy in Pakistan itself. In fact, the Pakistani Air Force actually was bombing TTP camps in Afghanistan last month, across the border. So you've seen a general uptick in militancy. My worry, though, is that there is a vested interest in the managed level of hostility between India and Pakistan, for their own political survival, to cater to their base, or in the case of the Pakistani army an institutional interest to justify their role in Pakistan's politics and economy and the control of these things. Not that it gets out of hand and not saying this is dangerous. No, but some managed level of hostility is useful for the Pakistani army to justify its hold in Pakistan. So you have the strange situation where it could be argued that you've reached a different equilibrium in the last year with Pakistan, where the ceasefire is respected, where you have back channel talks and links between various people who speak with authority on both sides. And they managed to keep the relationship within certain bounds. But it's still primarily a hostile relationship. But that seems to work for people domestically to consolidate the base and the power at home. 

Richard  26:22
And so that’s India’s relations with Russia, China, the troubled relations with Pakistan. Shankar, before going back to Ukraine, could we talk a little bit about another component of India’s Asia policy, Asia foreign relations, which is its participation in the Quad, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with Australia, Japan and the U.S.  

Shankar  26:47
Primarily, it started, of course, spontaneously as a response to the tsunami in 2004, in December, when these were the four navies who actually responded and were there. The Indian Navy was the first on the spot in Indonesia, and the others turned up as well. And starting from that, from that dialogue, we then started a formal dialogue between states in 2007, 2008, 2009. I think the Australians got a bit nervous. And when the Obama administration came, they also thought that they could maybe do more with the Chinese. So for whatever reason, it sort of petered out. But what we're seeing now is Quad 2. And primarily what it does is it tries to work with others to do three things. One is to provide some global public goods in the Indo-Pacific, in maritime Asia. Things like responding to the vaccine crisis and so on, or making supply chains resilient after Covid. But also to see what we can do to enhance maritime security, whether it's in terms of maritime domain awareness, or whether it's in terms of other things that we can do to ensure free, safe, secure navigation because these waters are critical to all our economies and to the world economy. Something like 38% of the world's cargo goes through the South China Sea. Over 70% of the world’s traded oil goes through the Indian Ocean. So that's I think the second part of it. The third part of it, I think, in more recent summits, I think their levels of ambition have grown also. But what I find interesting is that it's not just the Quad, it’s the Quad working with others in the region, because it's often hard for them to do everything on their own. And I think that part of it, for me, is the useful part because it’s working with the members of ASEAN, with Indonesia, with Vietnam, with South Korea, with the others, to see what we can do to improve the situation in the region.

Richard  29:12
Shankar, this was very diplomatically put, but isn't it mostly about managing China?

Shankar  29:17
No longer. I mean, that's, you know, that might have been the initial impetus. And the Chinese reaction is interesting. To begin with they said, oh, it's just froth on the ocean, or foam on the sea or words to that effect. You know, they dismissed it. Now, suddenly, they say, it's becoming an Asian NATO, it's really dangerous. And it couldn't have helped that the NATO summit this week in Madrid was attended for the first time by Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. And the fact is that, yes, the Asia-Pacific is a dangerous place, because there are so many security dilemmas across the region: between Japan and China, India and China. But it's also India and Pakistan. And there's also other other problems in the region. Quad has not stepped into those kinds of political waters yet. It has been very careful actually, in what it has said and done. In fact, the Quad would be useful if it did not set itself up as the anti-China group. In fact, it should actually be out there pushing for what it considers valuable things like, as I said, these are global public goods, maritime security or, you know, vaccines for Covid. And working on the new strains. Or resilient supply chains. These are not anti-China. In fact, frankly, I don't see how China can object to that.

Richard  30:44
Well, vaccine distribution – that you could understand as a global public good, it works in everybody's interest. But maritime security?

Shankar  31:52
Well, the difference between maritime and continental is that continental – land belongs to you or me, right? Continental security is zero-sum. As you see in Ukraine. Maritime security is positive-sum. So if the seas are safe, everybody gets to use them. Everybody gets to trade. If you trade, everybody benefits. It's not zero-sum. You can't look at the seas. And I think there's a fundamental difference there. If you're guaranteeing freedom of navigation and clearing the waters as we did off Malacca, for instance, when we cleared it of piracy in the 90s and early 00s, or when we did the same off the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Aden. And everybody benefited, not just those who went in and cleared it, or whose navies actually participated. So there is a distinction there.

Richard  31:50
And sorry, again to push on this. But one thing is ridding the Horn of Africa of pirates, but another is the South China Sea, for example, where you have these different sovereignty claims, ASEAN countries disagreeing with China on where the maritime borders lie?

Shankar  32:05
Well, you know, I think the problem there is because China has historically been a continental power, and for the first time in history is trying to make the shift to being a maritime power and is dependent on the sea today for her energy of food, trade etc. She looks at the South China Sea as territory in zero-sum terms. And that's part of the problem. And she's also trying to control it militarily from land, building islands, building land, trying to control it by placing missiles, fighter aircraft, artillery, and so on, on these new pieces of land. So, still looking at it as territorial land, in a territorial fashion, rather than as the high seas. And this is why she's not willing to accept what the tribunal says under the international law. When the Philippines took the case to the arbitration tribunal in 2016, the judgement was quite clear. Much of what China's saying or doing is illegal. But China has her own interpretation of the law which seems to suit her. But as I said, the core of the problem there is different. But that sea, the South China Sea, as I said, is important to all of us. It's important to Japan, it's important to Korea, it's important to us, to the U.S. and to all the other countries, as you said, all the ASEAN countries. Many of them have their own claims, their own views of where the boundaries are, and what laws should apply. And I don't think that the Quad is going to solve it. But the Quad, I think, offers an alternative view to the countries and then find a way of trying to settle it among ourselves, whether it's through the ARF, the ASEAN Regional Forum or, you know, whether ASEAN provides a place to do it, or whether we do it through the East Asia Summit, there are enough institutions where you could do this, if the states are willing to actually sit down and negotiate.

Richard  34:11
So I'd like to end by talking a little bit about Russia's war in Ukraine, and the potential geopolitical implications of it and, in particular, the implications for Western countries' relationship with other parts of the world. And you talked right at the beginning about the perceptions in parts of the world and how those contrasted with the perceptions in European capitals. It seems that Western leaders at the moment are sort of making a calculation with the sanctions, in particular in the efforts to isolate Russia, that the danger that Russia poses to European security, the danger that it sees successes in Ukraine as a launching pad for  gobbling up more territory, to put it very bluntly, whether that's in Georgia, whether it's more of Ukraine, whether it's elsewhere – the threat that Russia poses, that that has to be somehow contained, and they see sanctions as a way of of doing that. Of reducing Russia's ability to, to sort of wage more aggressive wars. And that the potential costs of the sanctions – these are worth risking, because of the imperative of containing Russia. That calculation is obviously viewed very differently in different parts of the world. So, I don't know whether you want to say a little bit about how, how sort of India or how you see the other capitals around the world viewing the sanctions in particular as this sort of central pillar of Western policy?

Shankar  35:27
I can only speak for myself and by judging by how countries have reacted in practice. I think most countries feel a certain disquiet about this. They're not sure this is right. Because the second order effects of the sanctions – yes, they will weaken Russia, and it will be a much diminished Russia which emerges from this no matter how it ends. There's no question about that. But the second order effects are really very strongly felt as well and much more strongly than the effects of a dysfunctional European order. Food crisis, energy crisis, fertiliser prices. I mean, these are being added on top of an ongoing crisis, economic crisis, in the developing countries. And this is serious. But there's another second order effect, which for me is as worrying. The nonproliferation regime is fraying. Whether we like it or not. The general impression is that all these promises, the Budapest Memorandum that was made to Ukraine when she gave up on nuclear weapons for scraps of paper, these were red lines drawn in the sand. Kim Jong-un is not going to give up his nuclear weapons after he's seen what happened in Libya, what happened in Ukraine and other places. And I think there's general recalculation. I mean, you look at the Middle East, everybody is hedging, whether it's Saudi, UAE, with very little prospect of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, and even if it were to come through, I don't think the hedging will stop. So north east Asia, west Asia, I mean, we, I think we have a real problem here, where the existing or the old nonproliferation regime is really fraying. So, for many of us the cost of sanctions is very, very high. And they're not likely to lead to any good result. I mean, a diminished, unhappy Russia is hardly going to be a factor of stability in the European order. So, I don't see how sanctions lead to a good outcome. And for me, the measure here has to be outcomes, not moral satisfaction. You need to look at clear outcomes. What do you do for European order? What do you do for the economic crisis, so that we have food, fertiliser etc? What do you do for the nonproliferation regime? Those are things we should be looking at. The debt crisis in developing countries, the climate crisis – these are the things we should be doing, not wasting our time on a sanctions regime which is driven by political considerations, not by economic, because after all Europe is paying a cost for these sanctions. And that's a big shift. If politics is in command, not markets, and security or violence, in other words, is in command rather than welfare or wellbeing, then you have a fundamental problem there. So, what I'm trying to say is that I don't see how sanctions are a very good tool. And I don't think the historical record shows that either. They actually strengthened the regimes they’re targeted at. And the people in those countries. We've seen that with Iran, in China in the 50s, 60s. We've seen it in India, in the past as well.

Richard  38:58
So, it's quite difficult to tease apart what has caused the hike in prices of food, fuel and fertilisers. As you say, it comes on top of a lot of supply chain crises, supply chain problems related to the pandemic, it comes on top of an already strained global market. And a lot of it is related to the way the market interprets things – the war, the potential impact of sanctions – and clearly, some of it is about market jitters. But clearly, it’s not just the sanctions, right? Well, first you could say that Russia invaded, having been warned that doing so would attract Western sanctions. But even beyond that, clearly part of the problem has been Russia's blockade of Black Sea ports, its refusal to allow Ukrainian grain out, it's bombed some of the Ukrainian grain storage, it’s stolen Ukrainian grain. Sure, Ukrainians have mined their ports but they’ve done that because they’ve been invaded and they fear a Russian offence on Odesa for example. And while sanctions have played a role – made it more difficult for people to purchase Russian grain and fertiliser, even if those commodities are not themselves sanctioned – it’s hard not to see Russia as primarily responsible or, even if not, as at the very least sharing much of the blame. So what would you say to the argument that if much of the world, especially a big influential country like India, is sitting it out – and in fact some countries often seem rhetorically to be blaming the West more than Russia, maybe somehow that’s easier – then isn’t that going to make it harder to get President Putin to compromise? And allow Black Sea ports to open, for example? You could make that case about the sanctions but you can make it more broadly too. If India supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity, its sovereignty, then why not condemn Russia for violating that? For biting off a piece of Ukraine, for trying to topple its elected government? In some ways, what does the West’s legacy in Iraq, or its track record over the past 30 years or even its colonial legacy – why bring all the understandable upset about the West’s legacy to a crisis that is mostly about Ukrainian suffering, Russian aggression? Of course, as you say, part of India’s response is about India’s interests, but in some ways Isn’t Russia getting a pass from much of the world on this, and unjustifiably so?

Shankar  41:20
Well, let me – two questions, then. Ineffective sanctions are even worse because they will convince Putin that he has the world on his side, that most of the world is going to sit this out. And that's what we're seeing. It's not going to change Russian behaviour. And what we're seeing today is actually ineffective sanctions. And the ruble is doing well, yes, under a really tight currency control regime. Popular support seems to be there, for whatever reason, because of what they've been fed propaganda, etc. But even effective sanctions, do we really think it's going to create good outcomes? But this is not a time when we're in crisis, this is not a time to fix responsibility for how much of the food shortage or food prices is because of what Russia has done. And there are enough people trying to fix that. I mean, the Turks were talking to the Russians, to President Putin. I think the Indonesian President,  who's now the head of the G20, is in Moscow today talking to him about the same thing, lifting the blockade and allowing Ukrainian grain and some Russian grain out. There are people trying to fix these individual problems. But that will then be seen as, oh, sanctions busted. So, what's the point of sanctions which are ineffective, which actually only strengthen Russia's inclination to continue along this course, and which create bad outcomes for everyone else? I mean, we're not here to prove a point, we're not here to fix responsibility, to fix the past. If we were, this world would be a complete mess. If we were settling historical scores here. Frankly, we need to look at outcomes and what we need at the end of this process, to improve people's lives. And when, as I said, it smacks in postcolonial societies of hypocrisy, then, you know, you won't get much support for the argument that, oh, this is all his fault, and therefore, we need to do something about it. It's a never-ending argument. And frankly, I think it's unproductive and actually dangerous, because it arouses the kinds of political emotions which you don't want. You want to deal rationally with the situation we have, and to bring peace.

Richard  43:48
And you talked earlier, Shankar, about the fact that we're between orders, that we're moving from, as you said, a sort of unipolar moment to something that's different. And it's not yet clear what that is going to look like. But it seems reasonable to say that it will be defined in large part by China's rise. Some of the things we talked about earlier – how the U.S. and Asian powers, the rest of the world respond to that. But it will also be shaped by the West's relations with countries across the rest of the world. How much do you see the West’s response to Ukraine as a sort of potentially defining moment, the West’s response to the war, to the commodities crisis, coming as it has after lots of complaints about the inequity of vaccine distributions, about climate funding, the amount given to countries that have to adapt that will feel the worst effects of climate change despite not having contributed to it. How consequential, in other words, is the current moment, is the Ukraine war, in terms of the way it's going to shape those relationships between Western capitals and capitals across the Global South?

Shankar  44:59
I think it really matters for the future. Because if the rest of the world thinks that the West is now entirely consumed by its own issues, and no longer looks at issues from a global point of view, then yes, it will have effects on the order that emerges or even if no new order emerges, and you go back into what historically we were in multiverses which, you know, in regional blocs which took care of themselves and traded with each other, but one part of each other's political security calculus. So, whichever way it goes, it does matter. And unfortunately, more and more people, I think, outside the West are drawing the conclusion that the West is less interested in the world. The global institutions that form the basis of the previous order today are all in crisis, whether it's the UN, whether it's multilateral agencies, whether it's the WTO. You know, it's hard to find any of these institutions. International law – I mean, it's, you know, yes there's lip service, but we don't see being practised. So if the sense is that the West has its own concerns and is not bothered with the rest anymore, which I think is going to spread and is spreading today, then I don't think we're in for a very good future, unfortunately. Because the issues we face are global issues, these are global challenges. Debt crisis, global economy – we are a globalised economy, whether we like it or not. And we can't just each build back our own economies and think we'll do it all in a self-reliant way. In today's world, it's just impossible. You can't cut people out either. So I am worried by what you suggested might be happening. But you know, humanity has a habit of surprising you on the upside. But of course, the histories only tell you all the crises and the wars and the terrible parts. But overall, more people are living longer, better, healthier lives today than ever before in history.

Richard  47:25
And this would normally be a very good place to end. But I actually want to end on one or one other question if it's okay. I mean, you know, we talked about India's foreign relations, which in some ways is this balancing act. There are the ties to Russia that we talked about. The strong economic relationship with China, but serious political disputes. All the while, the importance of relations with Western capitals, with the U.S. So you have India as a leading voice in a reinvigorated non-aligned group, but you also have it as part of the BRICS. It’s also part of the Quad, as we talked about, and it has these deepening relations with the U.S. and attending G7 meetings. All set in this sort of transition that you talked about away from a unipolar Western-led order toward something new. So, this balancing act, this dilemma. We’ve talked about it with other countries on the show before, Turkey in particular – though in some ways Erdoğan always seems to turn major power friction to his advantage rather than disadvantage – but generally it’s not an easy balance for countries to strike. So, maybe we could end with some of your reflections on how the war in Ukraine has upset or potentially impacts this balancing act that countries like India are performing between big powers. I mean, India itself is becoming a big power, but between existing big powers that are sort of increasingly at loggerheads.

Shankar  48:50
It's interesting because for me, the best analogy is the Korean War. When the Korean War broke out, in June 1950, we condemned the invasion. We actually sent troops as a medical mission with the UN forces. That time you saw the world respond through the institutions that had been set up. The international institutions, through the UN, weren’t uniting for peace. And India suggested a set of ideas for a solution for a way forward, and we were accused by both sides of being immoral, of being totally unrealistic. But in 1953, Stalin died. Eisenhower got elected, became president. And by the middle of that year, each of the things that India had suggested in August 1950 formed the basis of the Korean settlement armistice, return of the prisoners of war etc, etc. We're used to this. We're used to being in a difficult situation where both sides' emotions run high, and they will yell at us when we try to be objective, and try to suggest a way forward that works for both sides. Not just for one side, because that's what diplomacy is about. It's not about winning at the table. It's about making sure that your interlocutor, adversary, whoever also has enough when he leaves the table to have an interest in implementing those agreements. And so for me, that's something we have done consistently. And we're used to being yelled at by both sides. It's getting harder, there's no question, in today's world. And Ukraine doesn't make it any easier. But I don't think we will change what we do because I think it serves India's interest. Because our primary interest is in transforming India and for that we need a peaceful environment and we need an enabling environment outside. Things that Ukraine made that much more difficult.

Richard  51:03
Shankar, thank you so much for joining me today. It's really been a privilege to talk to you.

Shankar  51:08
Thank you, Richard. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it.

Richard  51:14
Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter, @CrisisGroup. We have transcripts for our shows. So if you want to reference, check up on anything you’ve heard, you can also find those on our website. Thanks to our producers, Sam Mednick, Kevin Murphy, Finn Johnson, Alex Figurski. And thanks of course to all of you, to all our listeners. Thanks so much for tuning in. You can get in touch directly, [email protected], or you can write to [email protected] if you have any suggestions or comments. If you like the show, please do leave us a positive rating or review. This week, sorry we’ve been a little late getting this one out. I was travelling last week. This is actually our penultimate show of the season, this has been our season two. So, later this week, I hope to bring you our last episode – a summer special. We will go back to the Ukraine war. But then I’ll also be chatting to Crisis Group’s President and CEO Comfort Ero, and we’ll be reflecting back a little bit on certainly the past six months and maybe the whole season. So I hope you’ll all tune in for that.


Executive Vice President
Shivshankar Menon
Former Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser

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