In the coming days, efforts to wean India away from its traditional friend Russia will intensify.
by Sanjay Kapoor
From the very outset, it was apparent that in a world deeply divided due to Ukraine-Russia conflict, for the host of G20 summit, India, it would be well-nigh impossible to get all the 20 ministers of this elite grouping to come together for even a group photo, let alone issue a joint statement. However, the managers tasked to get all the ducks in a row seemed to have grossly miscalculated the differences between US and its European allies on one side and Russia and China on the other. They had hoped that, as India has close ties with both US and Russia, it might be possible for them to get both sides to come together to pen a joint statement – a repetition of last year’s Bali summit. Embarrassingly, nothing like that happened.
At best, what the Indian government managed was the meeting of the members of the Quad nations – Australia, US and Japan who, much to the chagrin of Russia and China, gleefully stood alongside India and, later, issued a joint statement. Instead of buttressing India’s claims as a unifier, the Quad meeting, coming immediately after the acrimonious G20 meeting, may prove to be counterproductive as it was highly critical of China and Russia – two countries that are important for the smooth conduct of this summit. There are rumors in Delhi that this botch-up could have implications for some of those who promised a better outcome. What is worrying for the Indian leadership is that a similar fate or worse may play out when the leaders’ summit takes place later in September, 2023. If there is no statement like the one strenuously obtained by the hardworking Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Bali Summit in November 2022, it would show the Indian PM, Narendra Modi, in poor light, a few months before the 2024 elections. In other words, there is plenty that is weighing on the Indian team that is helping to put the summit together.
Russians have blamed US and the Western powers for India’s embarrassment. Its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in his combative speech at Raisina Dialogue organized by Observer Research foundation (ORF), blamed the West squarely for creating the crisis in Europe. It was here that he reiterated the fact that G20 had little to do with geopolitics and war, but about world economy. He wondered why the Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan had never been discussed in the past G20 meetings. He also suggested to his Indian hosts that Russia had worked hard to bring about peace between India and China. Was there a hint that its effort may diminish if India didn’t behave?
US stepped in to ensure that India did not buy this Russian narrative. It hastily organized a Quad meeting. A statement critical of China and Russia was issued, which has deepened the divide in some ways.
In the coming months, two members of the Quad are visiting Delhi – first the Australian Prime Minister and later the Japanese PM. US has also invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a state visit to Washington in July, 2 months prior to the leaders’ summit. It’s apparent that the West has been uncomfortable with New Delhi’s attempt at strategic autonomy, i.e. equidistance from both sides. The western bloc finds it difficult to explain to their people why they are investing so much diplomatically on India when it continues to support Russia and buys enormous quantities of oil from there. What they are not told is that the bulk of the oil that is purchased by Indians is re-sold as petroleum products like diesel and naphtha to US and UK. The Indian consumers do not benefit from low oil prices as bulk of the benefits go to the government and the private refiners.
Portents of a looming diplomatic disaster were there during the crucial meeting of the finance ministers in Bengaluru, which was to take cognizance of the economic slowdown, inflation and cost of living crisis that is staring the world in the face.
Though forgotten, the G20 was meant to provide collective action to prevent the horrors of the economic meltdown that took place in 2008-2009 and mostly stayed away from conflicts and regional disputes. Instead at the Bengaluru meeting, US and its Western allies put the blame of a stressed economy on Russia’s doorstep. Their argument was that the post-pandemic economic recovery faltered due to the Ukraine invasion by Russia. The French foreign minister, Catherine Collona, again blamed Russia for the consequences every country was facing in the world. The Dutch minister too was unsparing when it came to attacking Russia. The pianist Foreign minister of Japan, Yoshimasa Hayasi, went so far as to boycott the Delhi G20 ministerial meet and later showed up for the Quad summit. Australian media reports that their foreign minister, Penny Wong, had tried to help India to reach some common ground due to its growing warmth with China, but US and some European countries were not keen to relent. Later, at the behest of India, US Secretary of State, James Blinken, and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met for 10 minutes, but it had no bearing on the outcome of the meeting. Media reports were sketchy, but the US Secretary Blinken was concerned by the withdrawal of Russia from the momentous START treaty signed in 2010 during Obama’s presidency that worked towards reduction of strategic weapons. Though, Moscow had suggested it would return at a later date, but manifestly it had linked it to the conduct of the Western powers towards the Ukraine conflict. There were other issues too which both the sides had claimed to have been discussed during the 10-minute meeting that included US demand for the immediate withdrawal of the Russian troops from Ukraine.
Some spin doctors of the Indian government have tried to show that the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov was an endeavor of PM Modi.
In the coming days, such efforts to wean India away from its traditional friend Russia will intensify. New Delhi will be facing a plethora of difficult choices. What needs to be seen is whether it has enough diplomatic guile to ensure that it does not find itself in a difficult spot that haunts it far beyond its short G20 presidency.
A foreign policy analyst, Sanjay Kapoor is the founding editor of the New Delhi-based Hardnews magazine. He is a member of the Editors Guild of India having also served as its General Secretary.