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The road ahead for India after abstention

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The world has now seen India abstain on United Nations (UN) Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions on Ukraine, putting themselves in a minority of countries unwilling to call out Russia for its invasion. The result of the most recent (March 24) General Assembly vote was: 140 yes, five no, and 38 abstentions.

Russia can count on four countries willing to join them in opposing each resolution. Those countries – Syria, North Korea, Belarus, and Eritrea – are rightly condemned for standing with the invaders.

India and China are the most prominent abstainers. Opponents of India’s vote, in the United States (US) and elsewhere, decry India’s abandonment of its democratic values. India’s diplomats argue that the UN should put its efforts toward ending the hostilities rather than condemning the Russians. India’s defenders make the pragmatic argument that the nation’s armed forces are now and will be, for the foreseeable future, dependent on Russia for arms systems and spare parts.

But India can and should do more than mere words to move the combatants toward an end to hostilities. And, its abstentions give it more standing with the Russians than other nations that oppose the invasion.

India is an aspirant for a permanent seat on the Security Council (where it now sits for two years as an elected member). It is a great power in Asia and the world. It is a member of organisations that crosscut the Second and Third Worlds; BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) is one such organisation.

Why is India not actively working towards an end to the violence? Statements at the UN are hardly enough. India has good relations with Russia and good relations with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), and the US. It’s even sending medical supplies to embattled Ukraine. The Russian and Chinese foreign ministers have come to Delhi to explain their positions and seek Delhi’s approval, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is due in Delhi this week. Why not play those advantages? Why not take an activist approach to the Ukraine crisis and play a role in finding a solution?

The US government’s default position when confronted with an international crisis is usually to try to mediate or at a minimum, work through other channels to restore peace. A few other countries — Norway, with its tiny foreign ministry, is one — throw their limited resources toward resolving international crises. When the war in Ukraine erupted, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travelled to Moscow and made an early stab at facilitating a solution.

So where are Prime Minister Narendra Modi and foreign minister S Jaishankar? International mediation has never been a staple of Indian foreign policy, and there is ingrained resistance to anything that might appear to be interference in other countries’ internal affairs. But India has a deep and strong foreign policy team and aspirations to play a much bigger international role. Delhi should be showcasing its capabilities to find a solution.

The efforts don’t have to be public but they could start with India telling foreign minister Lavrov this week that Delhi’s patience is not unlimited. As the war of attrition continues in Ukraine, India’s continued silence should not be taken for granted. If there is a need for active mediation, India should be prepared to use its good offices in Kyiv and add its voice to those seeking an end to the violence.

Donald Camp is a non-resident fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The views expressed are personal

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