The National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s remark to the effect that Russia has “legitimate interests” in the Ukraine developments, as much as other interests are involved, is a statement of fact at its most obvious level.
Russia’s interests in a stable, friendly Ukraine are no less than what India would have with regard to, say, Nepal or Bhutan. Delhi simply cannot afford to have an unfriendly government in Kathmandu or Thimpu, and it is hard to overlook the gravity of Russian concerns that ultra-nationalists staged a violent coup in Kiev.
But Menon’s statement inevitably becomes a big statement, not only because he is a profoundly experienced and thoughtful scholar-diplomat but also given the high position he holds and his key role as an architect of India’s foreign policy in the recent years. Simply put, he is India’s voice on the world stage.
To be sure, what Menon said will reverberate far and wide and would have been the content of many coded cables relayed by the antennae atop the chancelleries in Chanakyapuri to the world capitals yesterday.
The point is, what Menon said is one of the most significant statements made by Delhi in a long while regarding the contemporary international situation. No doubt, the Ukraine is a defining moment in the post-cold era world politics and by reflecting on its templates, Menon voiced India’s concern over the dangerous drift in world politics.
Menon’s remark draws comparison with the stance taken by China over the Ukraine crisis. With its trademark pragmatism — despite its much-vaunted ‘strategic partnership of coordination’ with Russia — China underscores that the Ukraine is a complex issue where Beijing needs to coolly prioritize its self-interests. (See my earlier blog “China steers pragmatic course on Ukraine“)
What is going to be the impact of the Ukraine crisis on the US’ strategy of ‘pivot’ to Asia? This will be the question uppermost on the Chinese mind. The point is, the US cannot take on Russia and China at the same time. It simply lacks the capacity to do that.
In fact, China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi held a phone conversation on Thursday with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice where he “expounded China’s principled position” on the Ukraine situation (read sanctity of sovereignty and territorial integrity), called on all parties (including Moscow) to “exercise restraint and strive to settle the crisis through political and diplomatic means so as to prevent the situation from being aggravated.” (here).
Quite obviously, China estimates that the fire that has been lit in Ukraine cannot be easily doused and a protracted confrontation between the West and Russia would work to China’s advantage. Put differently, China is indulging in doublespeak.
Its propaganda apparatus queers the pitch for the West’s confrontation with Russia and, in fact, blatantly admits that Moscow is also fighting China’s cause by resisting western hegemony, while at the same time, Beijing’s diplomacy marks a careful distance from the Russian stance and takes to the high ground of ‘principles’.
Never once Beijing’s official statements came anywhere near taking note of Russia’s “legitimate interests”. The irony is that even Washington recognizes that Russia has interests in Ukraine and this was explicitly acknowledged by none other than President Barack Obama himself in yet another hour-long phone conversation with President Vladimir Putin yesterday. (White House readout). In fact, US-Russia consultations are under way and Putin has been constantly discussing Ukraine with his counterparts in ‘Old Europe’.
Be that as it may, can it be a coincidence that even as Obama was announcing limited US sanctions against Russia, Beijing got some brilliant news from the Americans?
It came in the way of a remark by the US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy who said publicly in Tokyo on Thursday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine a couple of months ago (which upset Beijing to no end) was not a “constructive” move, after all, “because we really need to keep looking forward.” (China Daily).
Pray what took Ambassador Kennedy so long to sing the pleasing tune — and, she did it on a day China announced yet another big hike in defence expenditure. It will be worthwhile to see how Washington reacts to the hike in China’s military budget, which used to be upfront. The initial remark by the US state department has been noticeably mild.
All things taken into account, therefore, Menon’s statement yesterday needs to be carefully understood and put in its full perspective. What stands out ultimately is that India and Russia continue to enjoy a special trust on core issues of concern. Does India enjoy this level of mutual trust with any other big power? To my mind, the answer is a resounding ‘No’.
Trust, when genuine and mature, need not be worn on the sleeve or bandied about in sugar-coated rhetoric and purple prose. The fact that Menon made a suo moto statement rather than a solicited one — and that he was not called upon to supplement a high-level phone conversation that the two leaderships at the highest level just had regarding Ukraine — would enhance its meaning all the more for the Kremlin.
– March 7, 2014