KC Singh | As Biden and Putin jostle, where does India stand?


Five months after the start of the war in Ukraine, its international ramifications continue to unfold. While Vladimir Putin’s Russia was unable to achieve its primary objective of quickly occupying Kyiv and overthrowing the Volodymyr Zelenskyy government, its revamped strategy of capturing large swathes of territory in the south and attacking the eastern region of Donbass seems to have worked. But Russia is currently unwilling to stop its “special military operation” which it launched on February 24.

By blockading Ukrainian ports, Russia has spawned a global food crisis as Ukrainian grain is stuck in silos, unavailable to a starving world, especially Africa. The double shock of high energy and food prices is causing inflation and economic distress, even in rich countries. The US strategy of strangling the Russian economy through sanctions failed as Russian oil and gas exports continued to fill their coffers. The European Union is nervous about Russian gas being cut off.

When Nord Stream I was shut down for its annual maintenance in mid-July, speculation arose whether Russia would simply not resume supply even when the pipeline was ready for operation. Germany and France must call for persistence with their current approach of weaning themselves off Russian energy by the end of the year or breaking the US-led consensus to punish Russia.

In this context, US President Joe Biden arrived in the Gulf and West Asia region for bilateral visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

On July 14, he attended a virtual summit in a new configuration called “I2U2” – leaders from India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Five days later Russian President Vladimir Putin, traveling abroad for only the second time after the war in Ukraine, landed in Iran for a bilateral visit as well as a three-way summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was a scramble for US and Russian strategic influence that echoed their antagonism over Ukraine. Where does that leave India?

First, Mr. Biden’s foray into the Middle East. High fuel costs in the United States ahead of midterm elections in November prompted Mr Biden to swallow his comments about isolating Saudi Arabia and treating their crown prince as a “outcast”. Meeting him outside King Salman’s palace instead of a cold handshake, both men had a fist bump. Observers have noted the paradox of the situation.

The confusion was heightened when Mr Biden was asked about the Saudi statement on the talks, which contradicted his claim that he had raised the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the meetings.

In response, he simply implied that the Saudis were lying. If restoring mutual trust was the goal, the visit failed. It should be noted that the Saudis have made no public commitment to increase oil production or to separate from Russia in the OPEC+ configuration.

The “I2U2” group, nicknamed the Western Quad, mirrors the Quad in the Indo-Pacific in which the United States and India join forces with Australia and Japan. But a significant difference is that while the original Quad has a clear goal of containing China, even if it is usually unspoken or even denied, the new group has three members other than India who treat Iran as a regional threat. Although the agenda is not security, Iran will see India through this prism. The UAE may have sent its ambassador back to Tehran or even opened a dialogue to normalize relations, the deep mistrust between them will remain. Iran considers the entire Shia crescent stretching from Shia-majority Iraq to Syria and Lebanon as its playground. The United Arab Emirates, under its new leader Mohammed bin Zayed, has inserted its countries in the power game in Yemen, Syria and even Libya. Iran sees the UAE as an upstart, lacking the population or history to support its imagined role as arbiter in regional disputes.

India is an immediate beneficiary of the I2U2 summit. The agenda covers six areas: energy, food security, health, space, transport and water. Basically, it deals with climate change, global public health, and technology cooperation. Emirati funds, Israeli technology and American support are expected to combine with Indian size and strength in some areas. The immediate result was two projects in India. The UAE will invest $2 billion to develop food parks in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The other proposal is to advance clean energy projects. The former reflects the BJP’s fixation on domestic political advantage as Gujarat heads to the polls at the end of the year. Why couldn’t the investment have been equally shared with Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. After all, there is a high-speed freight corridor that the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi envisioned that connects the north with western ports. This should be operational soon.

India’s strategic alignment with two US-led groups will only complicate the game with Iran in the Gulf and West Asia, as well as maintaining a balanced balance between India- Russians.

The effect of this may not be immediately visible. Iran and Russia are nations with a long history, past colonial supremacy and an equally long memory. Iran, in particular, hurts nurses and internalizes them for retaliation, even decades later.

The Nupur Sharma case has shown the impact that Islamophobia can have on India’s relations with the Islamic world. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wisely chose to stop in Abu Dhabi, under the pretext of offering his condolences on the death of the elder half-brother of current President Mohammed bin Zayed, to bury the question by Nupur Sharma. In the case of Iran, the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to India offered the same opportunity. But in the case of Iran, it would be a mistake to think that they will simply ignore “I2U2”, especially given the strong words used by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his meeting with President Putin against the United States and NATO.

There are two readings of the current state of the war in Ukraine. First, that the Russian economy may seem stable but it is emptying and defense reserves are running out.

The other, that the energy crisis in Europe and the determination of Mr. Putin could divide the Western alliance, with the consequences that flow from it for the government and even the nation of Ukraine.

The next few months, with the spread of Covid-19 and the emergence of the monkeypox threat, are risky globally. This is all the more true as the Chinese and American economies are slowing down and the war in Ukraine persists.

The fight against climate change and the economic and health security of all nations are at risk. Winter is fast approaching.


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