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India bats for Russia interests

New Delhi, March 6: India has said Russia holds “legitimate interests” in Ukraine, becoming the first major nation appearing to publicly lean towards Moscow at a time it is largely isolated internationally over its military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula.

India’s first official response came on a day Crimean MPs voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, prompting the US to activate some sanctions. ( )

National security adviser Shivshankar Menon has said India wants the confrontation between the West and Moscow over Ukraine resolved peacefully. But he added that it also hoped that the interests of Russia and other stakeholders were taken into account.

“We hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully, and the broader issues of reconciling various interests involved, and there are legitimate Russian and other interests involved…. We hope those are discussed, negotiated and that there is a satisfactory resolution to them,” Menon said today.

Menon’s reference to Russia’s “legitimate interests” sparked a sharp diplomatic response from Kiev.

“We are not sure how Russia can be seen having legitimate interests in the territory of another country,” Roman Pyrih, the media secretary at the Ukrainian embassy in New Delhi, said. “In our view, and in the view of much of the international community, this is a direct act of aggression and we cannot accept any justification for it.”

The US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and Japan — the seven G8 nations other than Russia — have criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine’s southeastern Crimean Peninsula.

“There are principles of international law, and Russia violated these in entering the territory of another nation,” Pyrih said. “If there are any legitimate interests, those can be discussed diplomatically, not by sending in troops.”

The larger G20 grouping of the world’s 20 largest economies is not as united in its criticism of Russia, and includes several key allies of Moscow. But even South Africa and China, which have close economic ties with Russia, have so far only issued relatively anodyne public statements seeking a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis.

“China believes that Russia can coordinate with other parties to push for the political settlement of the issue so as to safeguard regional and world peace and stability,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement this week after Putin phoned Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Russia is India’s largest defence supplier — and an ally that stood by New Delhi in times when much of the rest of the world treated it as a pariah, like when India tested nuclear weapons in 1974 and 1998.

But Menon’s statement and New Delhi’s reluctance to criticise Putin stem also from a deeper concern.

India, officials said, is convinced that the West’s tacit support for a series of attempted coups against democratically elected governments — in Egypt, Thailand and now Ukraine — has only weakened democratic roots in these countries.

“We are watching what is happening in Ukraine with some concern,” Menon said.

The foreign ministry, later in the day, issued a statement adding that the presence of “more than 5,000 Indian nationals, including about 4,000 students, in different parts of Ukraine” had left India “concerned” at the “escalation of tensions”.

On Friday, when Russian troops were entering Crimea, the Ukrainian ambassador to India, Oleksandr Shevchenko, met external ministry affairs officials at South Block and sought New Delhi’s support. Shevchnko, Ukrainian officials said, left without any commitments.

Shevchenko has also asked for a meeting with Menon. But Menon has not yet given Shevchenko time, Pyrih said.