India is accepted as a benevolent and benign power: Anil Trigunayat

Story by  Tripti Nath | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 07-08-2023
Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished fellow, Vivekananda Foundation
Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished fellow, Vivekananda Foundation


Tripti Nath/New Delhi

Ambassador Anil Trigunayat is a Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a well-known think tank. He spent one-third of his career in Africa and one-third in the Middle East. In his career spanning over three decades, he has served in the Indian Missions in Cote d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, Mongolia, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Nigeria, Libya, and Jordan. In an exclusive conversation with Tripti Nath, Roving Editor, Awaz-the Voice, Ambassador Anil Trigunanyat decodes the just concluded peace talks on Ukraine in Jeddah. At a time when all eyes are on Jeddah, this veteran diplomat talks of how the success of the 40 nation dialogue will strengthen India’s position in the run-up to the G 20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi in September. Excerpts from the conversation:

India has taken on a very crucial role in global affairs and it is trying to mediate a settlement between Russia and Ukraine. How do you look at this? 

From day one, India has been trying that somehow these hostilities are stopped, the two sides revert to dialogue, and diplomacy and that peace prevails. At the same time, India has been saying that the UN Charter must be respected which means the territorial integrity and sovereignty. India has also been saying that Russia’s genuine concerns about security must be addressed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken a couple of times both to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Prime Minister even told Putin that this is not an era of war. 

How would you analyse India joining 39 nations in a Saudi Arabia-initiated global effort to end the war between Russia and Ukraine?  

During the Russia-Africa summit held in St. Petersburg in July, Putin said that while a campaign is going on against Russia, how do you go for a ceasefire? That has been the starting point of this Saudi initiative. Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a rather objective way. It has not taken any sides. At the same time, it has not imposed any sanctions against Russia. It has a strategic autonomy of a kind. That is what brings Saudi Arabia and India together to work in this domain. It is also a G 20 partner. Saudi Arabia also has a very close partnership with China. All the major actors know this. Saudi Arabia and UAE have also been instrumental in releasing American prisoners in Russia and Russian prisoners in the USA. 

Now, all these special envoys and security advisors of 40 countries including India who are present in Jeddah are trying to find out what can be a meeting ground for a peace summit. India has been saying that this is the way forward. India is supporting any country that is trying to achieve peace between the two sides. India is also hosting the G 20 summit next month. If de-escalation happens and the two sides even agree to talk, that will contribute to the smooth functioning of the G 20 summit. 

At the moment, it looks like the Russian position and the 10-point peace plan of the Ukrainians are at variance. It appears to me that there is some kind of war fatigue that is setting in the West as well and Russia is looking for some kind of face-saving as well.  

How do you look at the visit of the National Security Advisor, Mr Ajit Doval to Saudi Arabia, for the peace talks? 

The NSA has been engaged with the Middle East quite actively. He was there in May as well. Four NSAs - from India, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the USA were there. That group of NSAs is very active because the security situation is also involved. These NSAs keep meeting. This meeting is very important once again. India has been supportive of such initiatives but so far nothing has come of the initiatives. If this meeting can identify some of the points on which the two sides can sit down across the table, it will be very good. I think the majority of the world wants this conflict to end. India’s position is very clear. The message will be conveyed to Russians also that half the world is keen that this conflict should stop.  

Do you think that India will be able to make some concrete progress during the ongoing peace talks in Jeddah? 

India will hopefully have something to claim. India wants cessation of hostilities, stoppage of war, and some kind of dialogue. That is what India is expecting. It is in national and global interest. Our Secretary from the External Affairs Ministry was in Ukraine recently. We had foreign office consultations only a couple of weeks back. We have feedback both from the Russians and the Ukrainians. Those positions will also be compared during these discussions. The Ukrainian Minister of State was here. I am sure that Saudi Arabia understands the Russian and Ukrainian requirements and whether there is a meeting ground. It is like a glass half full rather than a glass half empty. 

Do you think that India will be able to use its goodwill with Kyiv and Moscow to find a settlement to this conflict that has been going on for two years? 

Zelensky has said many times that India is one country that can help with this. Putin also trusts Prime Minister Modi and India. And they know that they have been long-standing partners and strategic partners. India has said very clearly that it will be ready to play its part provided both sides are ready to talk. If they are ready to talk, I am quite sure that India will be ready to even host the talks. 

If the Jeddah peace talks succeed in some way to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, will it strengthen India’s position in the comity of nations? 

India’s position is already quite safe in that regard. India is accepted as a benevolent and benign power that has some principles. That is accepted in the global comity of nations. India’s position is that we are supporting any move that can achieve peace. It helps us in the run-up to the G 20 summit. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message to the Russian President at the SCO Summit in Samarkand that this is not an era of war, was also included in the G 20 Bali Leaders Declaration. That shows that it found resonance in the world. How would you interpret this? 

The Prime Minister said this to President Putin directly publicly. Prime Minister Modi has been saying this to both Putin and Zelensky for some time. The war is not only between Russia and Ukraine. This is a war between Russia and the West especially the U.S. Unless they are on board and they continue to maintain the same position, it is a very difficult starting point. 

Russia is not showing any sign of relenting. Is that the reason that Russia has been excluded from the peace talks? 

There was no point in inviting Russia because the Russian position is quite clear. It was important to know the Ukrainian standpoint before they go back to Russia. Besides, Russians have said that they will be watching the outcome of these peace talks. It takes two to clap. The others can only try to facilitate. Let us not forget that Russia has excellent relations with Saudi Arabia. Anything that happens now will have the implicit consent of President Putin. 

India has been emphasizing on dialogue and diplomacy as the way forward to bring the Russia-Ukraine conflict to an end. Is this idealism? 

This is not idealism. This is realism. Everybody wants the war to end. Everybody wants peace and peace can only be achieved through dialogue. Diplomacy entails reaching out through dialogue. We have problems with China but we continue to talk to China. Countries that do not agree with our position also respect our position. Everybody understands what we stand for. India enjoys credibility with everybody as it is saying, doing, and following the right things. What we represent is our belief in the international system. 

What was the format of the just-concluded meeting in Jeddah? 

The format of the meeting mainly is that Ukraine will be presenting its case, its 10-point formula once again. Now, what Ukraine is trying to do with countries that it has no interaction with, is explain its position. I have a feeling there will be some kind of a roadmap that will then be presented to the Russians. That might lead to a meeting or discussion or a summit of either the big delegations at the Foreign Minister level of the two countries or a higher level. But it will happen only if some concrete steps are agreeable to both sides. 

It is also being said that the presence of the Chinese Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs at the peace talks is some kind of diplomatic victory for Saudi Arabia and Ukraine. Do you agree? 

Well, the Chinese have to be part of it. They started it. They are just taking on this role now. Their Special Envoy visited both Russia and Ukraine. They came out with their 12-point peace plan. It seemed as if it was more in favour of Russia. Both Russia and Ukraine will have to give in somehow or the other. 

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By steering the peace talks, will Saudi Arabia succeed in strengthening the Kingdom’s role as a regional power? 

Yes, definitely. Saudi Arabia aims to become a major global and regional actor. In the region, it’s already a Supremo. They have played a role in getting the prisoners swapped and released between Russia and the United States and Russia and Ukraine. They are acceptable mediators. If any substantial progress is made in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia will be taken more seriously by the West.