New Delhi, July 19: Thursday’s missile attack on a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine has triggered a race between America and Russia to lobby India ahead of a tense diplomatic calendar where New Delhi’s clout among developing nations could prove critical.
American and Russian diplomats have for the past two days been burning the phone lines with their Indian counterparts in New Delhi, Washington and Moscow, hunting for assurances of support for their nation or for hints of angst against the other.
Senior Indian, Russian and US officials have independently confirmed the conversations to The Telegraph amid a battle of accusations and counter-accusations between a West-backed Ukraine and Russia that continued for a third day today.
India, both American and Russian officials said, could play a critical role in determining whether Moscow stays in the G20, a grouping of the world’s 20 largest economies that is scheduled to meet in Brisbane, Australia, on November 15-16.
Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman is now in Melbourne for a meeting of G20 trade ministers where Washington and Canberra are expected to propose collective sanctions against Russia.
The West suspended Russia from the G8 in March but this has had only a limited impact on Moscow’s economy, and the on-the-ground repercussions of a suspension from the G20 remain unclear.
Before the November G20 summit, India could prove crucial to any United Nations attempt to censure Russia, the officials said, even though India is currently not a member of the UN Security Council.
“We’ve seen it before --- how India can keep a low profile yet manage to influence decisions at multilateral forums,” a Russian official said. “So it’s only to be expected that both sides of the divide over Ukraine will try and lobby India.”
India has so far decided to stay silent on a debate where it would rather not pick sides, though it will oppose any economic sanctions against Russia that are not authorised by the UN.
As on Friday, condolences remained the mainstay of India’s diplomatic response today to the downing of Flight MH-17, which killed all 298 people aboard.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has written to her Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Anifah Aman expressing condolences for the “tragic” crash, a senior Indian official said. T.S. Tirumurti, the Indian high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, delivered the message to Aman today.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had yesterday written to Dutch Prime Minister Marck Rutte. The Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight was carrying 192 Dutch nationals and 44 Malaysians. There was no Indian aboard.
But evidence from the crash in the coming weeks and months, a US official said, may make it hard for India not to at least distance itself from Russia.
“It could become uncomfortable for a nation aspiring to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council to be seen as tacitly condoning supporters of a major international crime,” the official said.
Australia has issued veiled threats that it may not invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the G20 meeting, and the US and Britain have indicated they too are keen to use the threat as a lever to pressure Moscow.
But despite the entire western world’s representation in the G20 standing on one side, India’s support had last year helped Russia block a proposed resolution from the grouping giving its nod to a military intervention in civil war-torn Syria. That G20 meeting was held in St Petersburg, Russia.
Earlier this year, when Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop proposed cancelling Putin’s invite to the G20 summit, India had rebuffed her, arguing that only the entire grouping of nations could take such a decision.
Sitharaman, officials said, had been told not to support any G20 sanctions against Russia at the ongoing trade conference.
“It’s fresh in everyone’s memory -– India’s influence,” the Russian official said. “All we’re hoping for is that India maintains that position.”
At the UN, Russia’s veto powers on the Security Council render that body --– the most powerful in the global organisation --– incapable of passing a resolution clearly critical of Moscow.
But the US and Ukraine, as they have in the past, are likely to seek a UN General Assembly censure for Russia, either through a resolution or at the internationally followed session of the assembly late in September in New York, which Modi too may attend.
A UN General Assembly resolution, unlike a Security Council resolution, is not binding on nations but the moral censure it represents is often critical in swaying world public opinion.
Support --- tacit or overt ---- from India, a leading member of most international groupings of developing nations, could prove critical in determining the outcome of any General Assembly resolution.