Tharoor Line | India's moment to push for peace in Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar for talks in Moscow. Photo: AP/PTI

During his visit this week to Moscow, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar sent an interesting signal in his discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Addressing the Ukraine conflict directly, Jaishankar said India “strongly advocates a return to dialogue and diplomacy” and supports “peace, respect for international law and support for the UN Charter”. Observing that the global economy is too inter-dependent not to be impacted by the conflict and that the Global South is feeling “this pain very acutely”, especially after two years of the pandemic, Jaishankar reminded Russia of Prime Minister Modi’s words to President Putin in Samarkand in September, that “today’s era is not an era of war”.

This is a welcome development in India’s foreign policy. I have criticised in Parliament our refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion (or even to call it an invasion), but I am the first to acknowledge that our resultant goodwill in Moscow could make us a viable champion of peace. As the war in Ukraine rages on, an end to the destruction and suffering seems increasingly elusive, as neither side seems prepared to yield – not least because both seem to believe they can “win”. Yet continuing the war is to make a mockery of human suffering. It will destroy world trade, ravage poor countries that are suffering food shortages and high inflation, and set global economic growth back by years. India is right to remind Russia that the world’s developing countries need peace in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russia President Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of SCO Summit, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Friday. Photo: PTI.

But I have long been of the view that having undertaken such a high-risk enterprise as launching a military invasion, President Putin is unlikely to stop before his strategic objectives are realised. Russia is already paying a huge price, economically, geopolitically and diplomatically, for its Ukrainian adventure. The higher the price goes up, the greater will be Moscow’s unwillingness to end the conflict without some tangible gains that it can point to, in order to demonstrate to its own people that the price was worth paying. What might the key gains be that would fulfil Moscow’s war aims?

Ending any prospect of NATO troops and weapons on his doorstep is obviously a priority. Having assurances of Ukrainian neutrality in writing, enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution and guaranteed by other powers, would seem to be a sine qua non for Moscow to end its military campaign. Some suggest Kyiv would only accept formal neutrality provided there were assurances from powerful Western countries (especially the United States) to come to its aid if it were attacked in future. That, in turn, is unlikely to be acceptable to Moscow, which would see Western security guarantees as the thin end of a NATO wedge into its neighbourhood. And in any case, neutrality alone (which President Zelensky has reportedly indicated his willingness to concede) wouldn’t be enough. Moscow would also want restrictions on the kind of weapons Ukraine could station on its soil, their power and range, outlawing missiles that can strike Moscow, for instance. Agreement on this will not be easy.

'Stop playing' with Russia, end war: Ukraine's President Zelenskyy tells West
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a joint news conference with Poland's President Andrzej Duda, amid Russia's invasion, in Kyiv, Ukraine May 22, 2022. Reuters/Viacheslav Ratynskyi

A bigger challenge for any peace-maker looms. Russia’s revised strategic objectives include the capture of the rich industrial, manufacturing and agricultural area known as the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, extending its reach southwards to create a land link to Crimea, which it has already held since 2014 and for which Moscow would want formal international recognition. A comprehensive peace settlement would probably have to concede Donbas and Crimea to Russia. Ukraine, emboldened by generous Western aid and high-tech American weaponry, will not agree. On Tuesday, President Zelensky called on the international community to “force Russia into real peace talks” but listed conditions Moscow will never accept: the return of all of Ukraine's occupied lands, presumably including Donbas and Crimea, compensation for damage caused by the war and prosecution of war crimes.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar hold a joint press conference following their talks in Moscow on November 8, 2022. Photo: AP/PTI

Ukraine may also seek to trade a surrender on NATO membership for a path towards joining the European Union. Russia has so far said no to Ukrainian adhesion to the EU as well, but if peace is in the interests of both sides, this could be the one issue on which Moscow would have to concede. After all, Austria, Finland and Sweden have so far stayed neutral while serving as flourishing members of the EU. Russia is already paying a higher price than it expected to, suffering greater battlefield losses than it anticipated, and making much slower progress than most experts had predicted when the invasion began. It may soon realise that winning the war militarily will take too long and cost too much to be worthwhile. Perhaps Moscow could bargain for an end to sanctions that are currently crippling its economy and trade, in return for making this concession.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a joint news conference, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

In other words, the elements of a viable peace plan, and the challenges to an agreement, are clear. What is needed is for someone to step forward and pursue peace with urgency. The Russians and Ukrainians may not be interested in peace, but the rest of the world surely is. We cannot afford the indefinite continuation of this war. Western countries may begin to realise this – the prospect of a freezing winter without Russian oil and gas might help concentrate European minds. The developing world already knows that the situation is unbearable, and if the war continues, further disaster looms.

Someone must take the initiative and call for peace. No one else currently seems to be willing or able to do so. I hope that call will come from the land of Mahatma Gandhi. This could be India’s moment for some ground-breaking diplomacy. It’s Nobel season right now: if we pull it off, it would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Justice Chandrachud would have a tenure of two years as the CJI and is due to retire on November 10, 2024. Photo: Manorama Online.

'Dynasty' in SC!

In his farewell speech this week, outgoing Chief Justice U U Lalit graciously observed that his first appearance in the Supreme Court, as a young lawyer, had been before Chief Justice Y V Chandrachud, and he would now be passing the baton to the latter’s son, incoming Chief Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud. There’s a nice symmetry to that story -- and even more special, the Chandrachuds are the only instance ever of a father-son duo heading India’s highest court. As a cricket fan, I can point to a father-son duo captaining our country’s Test teams – the elder and younger Nawabs of Pataudi are the only such instance. We are all accustomed to attacks on “dynasty”, but sometimes exceptional talent and ability does, indeed, travel down the gene pool!

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